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Databases of names and synonyms

Many databases of plant names are available online, varying in scope and contents. Two are comprehensive and reliable lists of all, or nearly all, published names, IPNI and Tropicos. Many others merely copy data from elsewhere for advertising revenue. Some claim to represent ‘accepted’ or ‘recognised’ names, but often without scientific justification for acceptance or recognition. Some are meant to be entry points for a wide range of other information, which varies greatly in comprehensiveness and comparibility, and is severely limited by poor naming in the first place.  More...


International Plant Names Index
Missouri Botanical Garden's Tropicos Database of Names
Multilingual Multiscript Plant Names Database
Major comprehensive institutionalized plant name databases
  • Plant Names   Database of The International Plant Names Index (IPNI)   
  • W3TROPICOS   Database maintained by Missouri Botanical Garden
  • GrassBase      The Kew Grass Database
  • WCSP        World Checklist of Selected Plant Families  
Bamboo-specific databases

Other databases

  • Epithets by Chuck Griffith   A comprehensive list of botanical epithets with their meanings
  • Botanary on Dave’s Garden   A searchable database of botanical epithets with their meanings



More... The number of names and different combinations of plant names published by taxonomists over the centuries has become very large, and the journals or other publications in which names are printed number several thousand. Fortunately published names are all recorded and are now databased by dedicated teams of name-keepers. The major databases were until recently subscription only, but 2 are now online and free, the database of Plant Names from IPNI, which is the most comprehensive and most frequently updated, and W3TROPICOS from Missouri Botanical Garden, which links well to other information such as types and herbarium collections. These databases concentrate on scientific names. Cultivar names and local names are covered in more depth in the works mentioned below.

The main difference between these 2 major databases is in their coverage of synonyms. The IPNI database is very thorough in its comprehensive inclusion of practically all published names and nomenclatural synonyms, but does not include modern taxonomic synonyms, merely those that had been included, rightly or wrongly, in the old Index Kewensis, without any authority or citation, eg for Bambusa reticulata, ‘Notes: =Phyllostachys bambusoides’. The TROPICOS database includes many taxonomic synonyms, giving the actual authority and publication in which the synonymy has been suggested. Including all taxonomic synonymy is obviously a very large undertaking, and the selection of which synonymy to include is a difficult choice. As the full synonymy of bamboo names can be very complex and somewhat controversial, the 2 major on-line databases themselves, comprehensive as they currently are, are not sufficient. A database of grass synonyms is under development at Kew, but at time of writing this is not on-line, and involves downloading and running the problematic MS Access database independently. Moreover, Kew no longer has any bamboo taxonomists.

Fortunately names for bamboos have also been slowly and comprehensively organized according to the most widely accepted classification systems around the world, including the currently recognized genera and the modern synonymy accepted in the countries of origin. This considerable undertaking has been compiled into a remarkable book by Dieter Ohrnberger (1999), The Bamboos of the World. This wonderfully comprehensive and thorough book is of course essentially just the names, very fully documented, with brief information such as distribution from the original descriptions, and it has no detailed descriptions or illustrations of the bamboos, and it is not cheap.

The World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (WCSP) has also compiled the bamboo names according to recognized genera, mainly following the genera recognized at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Extracting information from this database of names is now possible, to produce checklists for families and genera as well as geographic areas, through the Kew WCSP website. This is an interesting exercise which can give an overview for planning purposes. The accuracy of a checklist will be dependent upon the state of taxonomic knowledge in the group of plants concerned. Checklists are fraught with difficulties, notably uncertain interpretation of names, complicated synonymy, and differences of opinion on generic separation and recognition. A checklist lacks scientific rigour because it generally does not justify decisions or cite sources of information. It attempts to combine information from different sources, which often vary greatly in reliability. It is an approximate snapshot of knowledge at one point in time. A checklist should always be considered the start of taxonomic investigations, and not the final result. Comparing a checklist derived from database names with accounts in revisions and floras will usually reveal substantial discrepancies in a group of plants such as bamboos, where the species taxonomy is still under development, revisions make major changes and different authorities may have substantially different opinions.

Unfortunately, as with GrassBase, the Kew Grass Database, the bamboos in WCSP cannot be separated from the grasses easily. Filtering by tribe in addition to family and genus would make the database much more useful for bamboos. Nevertheless the ability to extract free downloadable current checklists of bamboo names online is a major step in the right direction. Any such checklist should be treated with a degree of caution, as it may not prove to be complete or consistent with all treatments elsewhere, and it will inevitably change with time.

A very much simpler but quite useful outline list of bamboo synonyms is available from Wim Masman, although it has not been updated since 1995. This does not give an indication of where the synonymy was found, or which synonyms are currently accepted however. A very interesting alternative is the Multi-lingual Multi-script Plant Names bamboo database maintained by Michel Porcher in Australia. This database is the only one to concentrate on local names. Scientific names are also being steadily incorporated in more depth.

These online databases, when used together and cross-checked, can provide a reasonably functional solution, but Ohrnberger’s 1999 book should still be referred to for any serious study of scientific names in the bamboos. IPNI and Tropicos are the most thorough sources of names, and genera should be recognised using the Bamboo Phylogeny Group’s latest recommendations (currently BPG 2012) and The Families and Genera of Vascular Plants, Volume 13 (Kellogg 2015).



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