News Column

A Rose Is a Rose Is a Strawberry

Jan. 27, 2012

Lisa M. Krieger


A rose by any other name still smells as sweet.

Which is reassuring, because even Shakespeare would be startled by what's become of the beloved rose family, Rosaceae.

Some of its members have left the herby Pontentilla genus for the Fragaria clan of strawberries.

That's greater precision for scientists who will use the newly revised Jepson Manual of California plant diversity and identification but no small matter for people who spend decades memorizing plant names.

Based on new fieldwork and genetic analyses, UC Berkeley's Jepson Herbarium has overhauled its bible of the state's plants -- grafting, pruning, growing and splitting the taxonomic tree.

But the eight-year project has some feeling a little rootless.

Many still mourn the loss of Zauschneria californica, the original name for California fuchsia. (Hello, Epilobium canum.) And that was almost two decades ago.

The more accurate classifications are good, but now there's an aster with a seven-syllable word behind it, said Don Mahoney, a curator at Golden Gate Park's prestigious Strybing Arboretum.

Propagators like Matt Teel of Woodside's Yerba Buena Nursery say they'll help customers ease into the changes, keeping old names on tags -- in parentheses.

Plant geeks who have devoted decades to memorizing taxonomy -- a hobby with the drama of stamp collecting and simplicity of Russian novels -- can find the changes a challenge.

"It is a busy, busy world, with a lot of competing demands. It takes a lot to keep up with name changes," said esteemed San Francisco habitat conservationist Jake Sigg.

More accurate groupings are worthwhile, but there's a lot to learn, said one enthusiast.

"It's the ultimate brain teaser, and just when you feel like you have it all figured out, the game changes again," said Los Gatos-based Kevin Bryant of the California Native Plant Society-Santa Clara Valley.

In the $100 revised manual, some plant families simply disappear, gobbled up by relatives.

Others narrowed, with an errant genus being shifted into a family of its own.

An estimated 57 percent of the plant families in the 1993 Jepson required substantial revision.

Our native hackberry, once with the elegant elm family, now is kin to marijuana and hops.

The rare and threatened Livermore Tarplant, with only five known occurrences around Livermore, was a northern outlier of Hemizonia increscens. Now, meet Deinandra bacigalupii.

Why the changes? Big things have been happening while most of us were simply admiring the daisies.

The beloved 1993 Jepson's was "a people's flora," because it bridged the gap between techies and hobbyists.

But no sooner had the ink dried than lab and field discoveries outdated it.

There's lot more to a plant than its petals and pistils.

Although similar appearances may suggest relationships, they can also be adaptations of different plants to identical environments.

Genetics are far more revealing. Plants sharing similar gene sequences likely share ancestry -- no matter how different they seem.

With DNA sequencing "we can look at different regions of the genome, to try to understand the relationship between species," said Jepson's lead editor, Bruce Baldwin, curator of the Jepson Herbarium and professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley.

In some cases, the genes contradicted the appearance, said a UC Davis professor who oversaw some of the rose family split.

"Genetics opened up this huge wealth of data," said Dan Potter, director of the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity.

But here's the rub: More data arrives daily, and this manual may soon age.

"What we hear from people is: We're not going to bother to learn the new changes quite yet, because they could be changed back," said Mahoney at Strybing Arboretum.

Stick to household names, he advises. "No matter what they call it, Southern bay is still Southern bay," he said.

Don't be so sure, Baldwin cautions.

Over time, "even common names may change."

The JEPSON MANUAL The book is available for purchase from UC Press at

To read the digital version, go to:

Source: (c) 2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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