Yet another question about common names

This is a general question about common names, illustrated with one example.

I recently encountered a number of observations that had been identified to the wrong variety, most likely because of the English name assigned to the variety.

The taxon in this case is Penstemon rydbergii ( Inat’s taxonomy lists two subordinate varieties plus the nominate variety:

Penstemon rydbergii (Rydberg Penstemon)
Penstemon rydbergii var. aggregatus (Meadow Penstemon)
Penstemon rydbergii var. oreocharis (Tall Beardtongue)
Penstemon rydbergii var. rydbergii

I did a quick check online and in a few books I have on hand, and found the “common names” Meadow Penstemon, Rydberg’s Penstemon, and Rydberg’s Meadow Penstemon all applied to the parent species (or to whichever variety occurred in the area of coverage). Assigning the most commonly used name Meadow Penstemon to one of the varieties appeared to lead a number of people astray in their identifications. (I added IDs to these observations so they now all are at species level).

It seems like there are a few ways to handle this sort of situation:

a) Assign any commonly used vernacular names to the parent species, and leave the subordinate taxa without a vernacular name.
b) Add duplicate vernacular names, so that the parent and all subordinate taxa have the same set of names.
c) Assign unique vernacular names to the subordinate taxa. The advantage would be in providing precise names, the disadvantage would be that those common names might not be found anywhere outside Inat. In this case you might have something like

Penstemon rydbergii (Meadow Penstemon, Rydberg Penstemon)
Penstemon rydbergii var. aggregatus (Interior Meadow Penstemon)
Penstemon rydbergii var. oreocharis (Western Meadow Penstemon)

Any thoughts on the best way to deal with this? I like option C, but I understand the policy in general is not to create names that are not in use elsewhere. My understanding is also that names can be added (and removed?) by anybody, but would this sort of thing be best handled by flagging for curation?

Completely tangential side question - I have never actually heard anybody refer to a Penstemon as a Beardtongue. Is this a regional thing, or just my own limited circle of people who know what a penstemon is?

I don’t really have an opinion on your main question (I suspect it’s more of an issue with plants than birds.) But I can tell you that beardtongue is commonly used for some Penstemons, at least in some regions. Swink & Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, for instance, uses the following:

P. calycosus – Smooth Beard Tongue
P. cobaea – Showy Beard Tongue
P. digitalis – Foxglove Beard Tongue
P. gracilis – Slender Beard Tongue
P. grandiflorus – Large-flowered Beard Tongue
P. hirsutus – Hairy Beard Tongue
P. pallidus – Pale Beard Tongue
P. tubaeflorus – Western Beard Tongue

I do think the common names can be misleading. I have seen a few species for which I think the final choice of name is made by thinking, “This is Common Whatever so it must be the one I see.” Or, “It’s in a meadow so this must be Meadow Whatever.” I’m not sure what, if anything, to do about it.

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Get rid of the common names and the issue goes away! Almost like the binomial naming system was designed to address this issue :)

Can’t see that there will ever be a way to make common names accurate.


I could agree with that – for myself. However, many, many users of iNaturalist know (and want to know) only common names. We can’t get rid of them, much though we might like to.


It depends on the taxonomic group and where the taxa occur. For amphibians and reptiles in North America, there are standardized English names for subspecies that are distinct from the species names. Granted, not everyone consistently uses them but they are available and I believe iNat follows them. For most other taxa I’m familiar with (such as mammals), the subspecies common name may be variable or non-existent and the species and nominotypical (nominate) form can often share the same common name, which leads to confusion.

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The Curator’s Guide has some guidelines for subspecies (relevant section quoted below). I’m not sure of the best solution in this case, but option © (creating new common names that aren’t in usage elsewhere) is out

From Curator Guidelines:

"If a species has no common name in usage, please don’t make one up.

Please do not add common names for infraspecies that are identical to the common name of the parent species, e.g. if the species is Cola coke and it has the subspecies Cola coke ssp. classic and Cola coke ssp. zero, don’t add the common name “Coke” for the subspecies. That will just confuse people who are trying to add an ID for the species Cola coke and make it harder for people who actually want to choose the subspecies. Instead, try to choose unique common names like “Coke Classic” and “Coke Zero.”

This also applies to regionalized common names (i.e. common names associated with places). If the only kind of cola available in Ireland is Coke Zero, don’t add the common name “Coke” to Cola coke ssp. zero and associate it with Ireland. That name is still visible to everyone viewing English names, so someone in South Africa searching for “coke” and hoping to find the species Cola coke will see Cola coke ssp. zero even though that’s not what they want. The people of Ireland will still be choosing the right species when they search for “coke.” The people in Ireland who want to take it to subspecies can just learn to use the subspecific name (or better yet the scientific name).

Note that there are a few uncommon situations where duplicate common names are ok, e.g. in situations where a species or subspecies really has a synonymous common name somewhere else."

I have never heard a live person say it, although I have read it. There’s nothing too hard about the pronoucation of Penstemon so I think most people go with that.

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Commonly called this in Canada.


It sounds like my option A might fit this best. Apply a common name at the species level, and remove any common names from the varieties. Those people who are knowledgable enough to determine the ID at a finer level than species probably won’t be put off by the use of a scientific name.

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I might be mis-reading this, but I don’t think the binomial naming system was created to address the issue of vernacular name confusion! I think it was created to reflect groupings of species based on shared characters.

Actually, a major goal for Linnaeus was a provide one clear name for plants, a name used by all the European botanists. In his time, every language had multiple name for known plants and thousands of unknown (to Europeans) plants were being introduced. Therefore, learning about species A was difficult – different herbals used different names, and the same old Latin names were applied to multiple plants. Linnaeus kind of stumbled into the binomial nomenclature bit, but kept with it when it proved popular. Classification was, of course, the other big goal, but clearing the name confusion was an important goal.


oh wow, apologies all, I completely had the wrong idea about that!


But in some ways he added to it. There are genera whose etymology is “Classical name for some plant” – not necessarily the same one.

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True. However, once his system became authoritative – and he had to ego plus broad experience to make that true – it became a moot point.

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