A major difficulty in plant research is the sheer abundance of names.
Most databases contain multiple or archaic names for many species, which makes sharing information confusing. Alternatively, a database may not have been updated with the copious amounts of new taxonomic data discovered with modern genomics.
Plant lovers will, therefore, be forever indebted to Martin Freiberg, the curator of the Botanical Garden of Leipzig University, and colleagues from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv).
They trawled through more than a million names for vascular plants – almost four times the actual number of species – to create a single compendium called The Leipzig Catalogue of Vascular Plants (LCVP).
“In my daily work at the Botanical Garden, I regularly come across species names that are not clear, where existing reference lists have gaps,” Freiberg says.
“This always means additional research, which keeps you from doing your actual work and above all limits the reliability of research findings. I wanted to eliminate this obstacle as well as possible.”
This is an important step forward because messy language can be a great inhibitor of scientific progress. Using different names of single plants is confusing and it wastes huge amounts of time and resources.
“Almost every field in plant research depends on reliably naming species,” says Marten Winter of iDiv. “Modern science often means combining data sets from different sources. We need to know exactly which species people refer to, so as not to compare apples and oranges or to erroneously lump different species.”
“The catalogue will help considerably in ensuring that researchers all over the world refer to the same species when they use a name,” adds Freiberg.
Remarkably, this database became accessible almost by chance. Freiberg originally began compiling the list alone for internal use in Leipzig but made it available to others by popular demand. “[M}any colleagues from other botanical gardens in Germany urged me to make the work available to everyone,” he says.
Vascular plants are characterised by how they transport water and food inside them. They comprise a huge chuck of the plant kingdom; the few plants that aren’t vascular are mosses and worts.
The researchers used 4500 other studies to consolidate 351,180 species within 13,460 genera, 564 families and 85 orders of the plant kingdom. They then added 70,000 new species and subspecies to create the LCVP.
Plants that have multiple names exist as a single entry with the extra name details, so can easily be referred to instead of accidentally being classed as two separate plants based on a mistake of language.
The project is described in a paper in the journal Scientific Data
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.