See also, Rare Plants of New York

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By Chuck Daniels

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My love of plants, trees especially, traces back to my early childhood when my father gave me a small collection of tree leaves scotch-taped to the pages of a notebook. My father, an ardent plant enthusiast, kept an experimental apple orchard as an avocation, and was interested not only in botany and horticulture, but in all aspects of the natural world. When I was just nine years old he sadly lost his life to cancer while in the prime of his life, and I regret he was never to see his son, inspired by his small gift, grow to share his passion with the plant world. While my father provided the spark, my mother supplied the fuel for my appreciation of natural history, with her unflagging support and encouragement in all my endeavors, botany included.

Equipped with an assortment of field guides, I spent much of my youth stalking the trees and shrubs that grew in nearby woods, gardens, and yards in my native upstate New York. The number of woody plants hardy enough to survive the region's harsh winters are limited, so I soon broadened my scope to the entire cornucopia of organisms that compose the vast and eclectic plant kingdom. Every tree, shrub, forb, grass, fungi, fern, moss, sedge, rush, lichen, etc., was subject to my scrutiny. Much like genealogists search for the identity of their ancestors, I thumbed through botany floras and field guides searching for the identity of an inscrutable specimen until finally, aha!—Toxicodendron vernix—Poison Sumac!

Plant identification was often an exercise in mystery-solving with a minimum of clues. A flower bud, a leaf, an acorn, or perhaps the unique branching architecture of a tree against a wintry backdrop often would be information enough to identify a specimen. Other times it was necessary to wait until the plant came into flower before identification was possible. Dichotomous keys in floras and manuals were an indispensable tool. Once I ascertained the plant's common name, I would look up its Latin binomial scientific name, and add to my understanding of botanical nomenclature. Like people, plants have a first name—the species name, and a last name—the genus name. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus came up with the binomial system of naming plants in the mid-1700s, and though the system is centuries old, there are currently efforts among certain taxonomic specialists to modify the Linnaean system. Plant classification is never in stasis.

Discovering new plants and learning more about them was an interesting hobby inasmuch I learned to familiarize myself with the flora of my surroundings, but when I began to look deeper into how plants were related to one another and their environment—where exactly a plant lay in the grand scheme of things—matters grew more complicated, profoundly more complicated. Botanists and taxonomists pigeonhole plants into categories within a vast taxonomic hierarchy of progressively larger and more broadly defined groups: species, genera, families, orders, classes, divisions, and kingdoms. And each of these ranks can be broken down into sub-ranks, and sub-sub-ranks. Just how plants are ranked into hierarchal structures characterizes those who do the ranking as either "lumpers," or "splitters," and this can lead to much ambiguity. But as I plunged deeper into systematics, I found the knotty concept of hiercharchy of ranks was just one of an array of complications in plant systematics, and I would soon discover that my transition from basic plant Identification, to plant systematics, was becoming a foray into the arcane—perhaps even the sublime.

Defined as the study of biological diversity and the relationships among organisms, systematics (essentially synonymous with taxonomy) attempts to understand the evolutionary interrelationships of living things, and to interpret the way in which life has diversified and changed over time. It is central to biology. To explore the history of systematics is to revisit some of the great scientific and philosophical debates of history. Taxonomists in the past broadly modeled their classification schemes on the ideas of such great thinkers as Aristotle, Descartes, Linnaeus T. H. Huxley, Lamarck, and Darwin. As with most other scientific disciplines, taxonomy has had a long history of gradual progression through a steady accumulation of knowledge punctuated by paradigm shifts inspired by the revolutionary thinking of Descartes, Linnaeus, Lamarck, Bessey, and most notably, Darwin. In the wake of these upheavals, newly enlightened taxonomists have had to scramble to mend the older, outdated systems.

Twenty years ago I shifted my emphasis away from botany to science in general. At that time, the classification system used by most botanists was the Engler and Prantl system, a system still in use in many botany manuals and floras today. Having been in widespread use for decades, I viewed the system as a sort of a rigid, immutable status quo, inviolable to updating or revision. But when I returned to botanical taxonomy three years ago, my cozy familiarization with the age-old Engler and Prantl scheme was shattered. Another major paradigm shift in taxonomy was going on in my absence. Engler and Prantl was being up heaved and upended—by the new phylogenetic paradigm. While this phylogenetic classification system had been around for quite some time, only recently has it begun to play catch-up. In the past twenty years, taxonomy has been thoroughly transformed.

The lesson here is the science of taxonomy, and indeed, science in general, is no more resistant to change than the very subjects it attempts to classify—a three billion-year legacy of continuously changing organisms in a long line of descent from the progenitor of the single-celled bacteria—to the unfathomably complex creatures we call human beings. The passage of randomly varying genetic information from parent to offspring, each generation modified by non-random selective forces in nature—this, simply, is phylogenics—and it's pure Darwinian. We are all connected by a vast phylogenetic tree of life. A wondrous notion indeed.

Present-day taxonomy is as exciting and dynamic as ever. New molecular analyses of plant DNA, as well as traditional methods of establishing phylogenetic relationships, continue to fit the pieces into the great evolutionary puzzle. The works of Cronquist, Thorne, Takhtajan, Dahlgren, and Reveal, and a host of other systematists have made major contributions in plant phylogenetic taxonomy. Grouping organisms into logical, coherent ranks in accordance with their evolutionary lineages is a complex endeavor subject to much latitude in interpretation, thus giving rise to a wide range of divergent views by taxonomists. Nonetheless, they all share a common goal: to gather life's verdant hodge-podge of twigs and branches scattered about the planet Earth and carefully assemble them into a grand Tree of Life.

       Flower in the crannied wall
       I pluck you out of crannies
       I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
       Little flower—but if I could understand
       What you are, root and all, and all in all,
       I should know what God and man is.

       —Alfred Lord Tennyson, in
       "Flower in the crannied wall"

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