One of the steadiest jokes in the plant world — for rather nerdly definitions of the word “joke” — is the degree to which a person must constantly relearn the proper Latin names of plants. Just as soon as you get used to calling something a Zauschneria, it becomes an Epilobium. When I first started paying attention to such things, older works of reference still referred to Mahonia species as Berberis; now there are some advocating that Mahonia be stripped of its rank and re-subsumed into Berberis.
The general impression seems to be that the scientists change the names because they have nothing better to do, that they spend hours in academic symposia arguing whether a cholla is an Opuntia or a Cylindropuntia or an Austrocylindropuntia, for no more reason than that their academic reputations are staked on the outcome: a counting coup on the giant shaggy beast of taxonomy. Or maybe it’s the influence of the multinational nursery plant label printing cartel, who respond to sluggish third-quarter earnings by pushing for a whole slew of renamings so that sales will rise as nurseries relabel their stock.
Photo of Centennial Flat, CA by the author
There are a lot of dramatic and prominent plants in the California deserts -- towering Joshua trees, fierce bristling chollas, even saguaros along the Colorado River -- but one of the most amazing plants in the desert is one it could take you years to notice, hiding some jaw-dropping science behind a singularly unimpressive appearance.
Despite being part of the same botanical family as showier plants like roses, flowering plums and cherries, there is really nothing about blackbrush -- Coleogyne ramississima -- that commands your attention. Even in the rare very wet desert springs when it comes into full bloom, its flowers are pallid yellow, pretty close up but unremarkable from even a short distance, and generally hidden behind a haze of grayish branches when other shrubs are bright spots of glorious color.