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Edelweiss – the nomenclatural smoking gun?

Last updated on 2011/02/02

I was just putting my talk together for TDWG2010 and I needed a well known European species with restricted range to make a point about distribution maps. I chose Edelweiss as the name alway makes me want to break into song – plus it as a limited distribution but is in more than one country. I’ll post my full talk next week but in researching the distribution of Edelweiss I came across this quote (Werner Greuter Willdenowia 33 – 2003 page 244)

Leontopodium nivale subsp. alpinum (Cass.) Greuter, comb. & stat. novi ≡ Gnaphalium leonto- podium L., Sp. Pl.: 855. 1753 ≡ Leontopodium alpinum Cass. in Cuvier, Dict. Sci. Nat. 25: 474. 1822. – Note: As the monographer Handel-Mazzetti (in Beih. Bot. Centralbl. 44(2): 140. 1927) noted, his choice to maintain Leontopodium nivale (Ten.) Hand.-Mazz. as a separate species was heavily influenced by his reluctance to change the name of the edelweiss for reasons of priority. Whether Tutin had a similar motive when he proposed the incorrect combination L. alpinum subsp. nivale (Ten.) Tutin (in Bot. J. Linn. Soc. 67: 283. 1973) I do not know, but he was certainly right in treating the widespread genuine edelweiss and the aberrant populations of the Central Apennines and Central Balkans as subspecies of a single species. I have considered proposing conservation of the name Leontopodium alpinum against Gnaphalium nivale Ten. (Fl. Napol. 1: xlviii. 1811), but abandoned the idea for two main reasons: first, granting that the species is important and widely known, its familiar designation in many languages, the vernacular edelweiss, is much more popular than its scientific binomial (you will find a 40 : 1 ratio in favour of the former when searching the Web); and second, I like the epithet nivale, which characterises admirably well both the plant and its habitat, and hesitate to suggest its being rejected in favour of the rather trivial appellation alpinum.

Now I could paraphrase this as saying: “I thought about keeping the scientific name stable but no one uses it so we (taxonomists) can do what we want. Everyone in the real world (Google) uses Edelweiss.”  You may disagree with me.  The fact remains that there are thousands of resources out there tagged with Leontopodium alpinum that are now “wrong” and there will be thousands of resources going forward that will be tagged with Leontopodium nivale subsp. alpinium and we must build big complex systems in order to try and keep track of these nomenclatural changes and not keep track of the biodiversity – which seems to have disappeared between the cracks.

I presume (not being an expert in this group) that the plants in the whole range (Alps, Apennines and Balkans) have been considered one species by many people and called L. alpinium or Edelweiss for a long time. If we could ignore the ICBN and just make up names that match a view that the Apennine and Balkan species should be considered a separate subspecies then one would ideally keep  L. alpinium and create two entirely new names for the two different taxa we recognise within it. This would maintain data integrity in that things tagged as L. alpinium would still be correct but the separate subspecies could be recognised where necessary going forward – as specimens are re-determined. Unfortunately the rules of priority prevent this and just make a muddled mess of recycled old names.

One Comment

  1. Lee Belbin Lee Belbin

    Went to Australia’s National Taxonomy Forum, read your blog, bring on barcoding.

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