Thanks to the convergence of powerful computers, molecular phylogenetics and statistical techniques, a tsunami of change is being experienced in the field of plant systematics. The understanding of the evolutionary relationships between different plants continues to advance, and as that occurs, the conventions scientists use to communicate about the plants must change. Since the names of plant taxa (a grouping of related plants, e.g., similar species or similar families) are one of those conventions, used to symbolically represent relationships between different groups, advancing knowledge often means scientific name changes.
This plant is an excellent example of name changes during relatively recent times. Fifteen years ago, I would have likely learned this beautiful plant as Smilacina oleracea in the plant family Liliaceae. To this day, if you would like to purchase this plant from a nursery, that’s the name you’ll need to use in your communications. Perhaps five years ago, I would have learned the plant as Smilacina oleracea in the family Convallariaceae, or maybe as Maianthemum oleraceum in the same family. Within the past two years, thanks to intensive study of many of the plants in the traditional Liliaceae, the current understanding of this species is that it is a member of the family Ruscaceae, and it is properly named Maianthemum oleraceum. Will it change again? Perhaps.
I’m comfortable with the notion that the names of plant species can change. I think that it not only communicates a rich scientific history, but that it also represents the dynamism of science: the to-ing and fro-ing of ideas and arguments on how to best reflect reality and truth. Yes, it’s messy. It’s certainly uncertain. But, life is like that.