Plant Taxonomy

Are you good at identifying plants? Can you tell one tree from the next? Could you see a stem and know what flower will bloom? Identifying plants is a challenging task, but some botanists, called plant taxonomists, make a career of it.

Plant taxonomists identify and classify plants using an organized scientific method.

Plant taxonomy is a branch of botany that is closely related to systematic. It focuses on how plants diversify and relate to each other over time. It’s goal is to accurately catalog 350,000+ species of plants. New plants are discovered regularly and this science is always ready for them.

Plant taxonomy has been around since Linnaeus proposed the idea of Kingdoms in the mid-1700’s. The field is incredibly important because it helps us understand biodiversity. By classifying plants we know exactly how many species and offshoots of that species exist. Classification is helpful from an international perspective because all botanists are familiar with it.

Whenever a new plant is discovered it must be classified before it can be researched. This is both a creative and scientific process that uses scientific classification to divide plants into taxonomic ranks. The ranking system starts with 6 broad Kingdoms that funnel down to very specific species classifications. It goes Kingdom, Phylum or Division, Class, Order, Family,
Genus, and Species, but suborders and categories are added all the time.

Plant taxonomy works with the Kingdom Plantae. Every one of the 350,000 plant organisms can then be classified using this complicated system. To most people a daisy is just a daisy, but to a taxonomist there are 10 species of daisies with 21 scientific names. In the eyes of a taxonomist a daisy may be…

  • Kingdom – Plantae
  • Subkingdom – Tracheobionta
  • Superdivision – Spermatophyta
  • Division – Magnoliophyta
  • Class – Magnoliopsida
  • Subclass – Asteridae
  • Order – Asterales
  • Family – Asteraceae
  • Genus – Tetraneuris Greene
  • Species – Tetraneuris acaulis (Pursh) Greene

All that to record a stemless four nerve daisy. Providing scientific or botanical names helps to differentiate between plants and their very close relatives. It takes lots of work. Every plant can only have one name. There can be no duplicates. This system is respected and used internationally. It is used for living plants, but also for fossilized plants in a science called paleobotany. Cultivars and genetically engineered plants have their own classification system.

Plant taxonomists are very detailed when describing plants. They need to know if an Evergreen tree is broadleaf or needleleaf, dicot or monocot. Then they need to explain it so other botanists will know the difference. Plant taxonomists also record the climate and geography where the plant can be found. Finally the plant taxonomist must preserve the plant at a herbarium – a place where huge collections of plant specimens are kept.

At this point plant taxonomists have completed their job, but systematic botanists keep going. They continue to study the plant to learn about its evolutionary history. They are interested in any adaptations and changes that the plant has gone through to become the way that it is today. They want to know how plants diversify and how that affects the world.

Many botanists make plant taxonomy and systematics a career. It’s exciting to be the first person to be hands-on with a plant. Most plant taxonomists have a degree in botany, systematics, or taxonomy. They must have a trained eye and be familiar with a huge variety of plants in order to compare and identify them correctly.

The majority of plant taxonomists work in research universities, botanical gardens, bioinformatics firms, forensics, sytematics, or herbaria. Most make $45,000 to $65,000 per year, although some report making over $90,000 per year.

If you have a knack for noticing minute details and you love plants, then consider a career in plant taxonomy or systematics. It’s science at its finest.

Quick Facts About Plant Taxonomy

Job Title: Plant Taxonomist, Systematic Botanist
Description: Identify, classify, and study the Kingdom of Plantae
Employers: Universities, herbaria, botanical gardens
Pay: $45,000 to $65,000 per year

American Society of Plant Taxonomists
International Association for Plant Taxonomy
Society of Systematic Biologists

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