How It All Began

“As well as a flourishing library, the school by 1909 had a wood collection containing specimens of nearly all of Pennsylvania’s native trees and large shrubs. For each species, cross sections and radial and tangential sections had been prepared to show the gross appearance of the wood. The next step was the preservation of samples in alcohol and glycerin so that sections suitable for microscopic examination could be cut. These latter sections were to be especially useful in the study of timber physics (wood technology)." E.H. Thomas, “A History of the Pennsylvania State Forestry School, 1903 – 1929.” p. 67

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Reconciling Scientific Names

You have a list of several thousand scientific names, and you want to check each against a reliable authority to determine the correct accepted name.

  1. You decide on a primary authority, such as
  2. You type or paste each genus name, one by one, into the search bar of the authority, and it lists all the species under that genus.
  3. If your name is the accepted name, you're done.
  4. If your name is a synonym, you click on that name and find the accepted name for that species.
  5. If your name is unresolved, you accept that name and check back periodically to see if there has been a resolution.
  6. Don't forget to check the Family of your accepted name...sometimes they change.
But what if your genus name is not found? Then it gets a little trickier, but you can usually still find your species by using secondary references.

My first response is to consider if there are any logical variants of that genus name. For instance, names ending in -a are often really -um, and vice versa. Do you have others similar names in your list that differ by a letter or two? Check those under the alternate spellings.

I also use a great reference that every serious wood collector should have...The Book of Wood Names, published in 1936 by Dr. Hans Meyer. If I can't find a probable genus name on The Plant List, I use the common name given for the species and go to Meyer. It is amazing that Dr. Meyer and his team could assemble such a staggering list of wood names, much less give the scientific names of all of them back in the days of very slow typewriters. But 98 times out of 100, I find the common name, and the genus...and very often, an alternative scientific name.

If that fails, then I go to Wikipedia and see what results I get there on the unfound scientific name. Sometimes that works. If it doesn't, I go to TAXA (, click on "Woody Genera" and see what is listed there. 

I just used this process to resolve the names of twelve specimens that were labeled with the genus name "Anona" within the family Anonanceae. On The Plant List, no Anona, and no Anonaceae. Meyer gave me "Anona" and "Anonaceae" on all the different common names I searched. Finally, on TAXA, I found the genera "Annona", and when plugging that name into The Plant List, discovered that the correct spelling of the family name is "Annonaceae". Problem solved.

That was clearly a case of a spelling that changed over time, but actual mispellings happen more often that you can imagine. I had four specimens of genus Pistacia, two of which were "Pistacia cera" and "Pistacia "vira". Neither were listed on The Plant List. But I saw that there is a "Pistacia vera", so that was logically the correct spelling of "vira". And that made me think, could "cera" supposed to have been "vera". I went back and pulled the two specimens, and what do you know? They're the same! In fact, checking the original notes, the "cera" specimen was noted as a "root" specimen...and comparing the two, it is easy to see that the two are a root and stem specimen from the same plant.

Pistacia vera, of the Anacardiaceae family. (Penn State Xylarium). The one on the right was originally labeled "Pistacia cera" with one accession number, and the one on the left was labeled "Pistacia vira" with a different accession number, both by the original collector (Joseph L. Stearns) and Dr. Norton in the 1960's. From close analysis in the lab, not much question these were from the same specimen. One was noted as a "root" specimen, so the two specimens were collected separately by the original collector (prior to Stearns) and then the mispellings created confusion and the individual accession numbers.

So that's what I'm doing today!

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