So, taxonomy… That’s where you stuff dead animals, right?

I have a confession to make. If you ask me these sorts of questions:

Should I plant my beans when the Moon is waning?

Why are my Fuchsias going mouldy?

Why are snails attacking my prize cabbages like tiny, hungry, Genghis Khans?

I’m afraid I would have NOT A CLUE how to answer you. Because my shameful secret is that I know very, very little about actually keeping plants alive. I mean, maybe a tiny little bit more than your average person on the street, as if you hang around avid gardeners like my Nan or botanic gardens you tend to pick stuff up, but generally speaking I won’t even begin to know how to give you an answer.

However, if you ask me about, say, photosynthesis, evolution, family names or morphology, I would probably at least be able to summon some sort of response. This is because although I work with plants, I am not a gardener. Asking me about gardening is only a little bit less weird than asking your GP about how to look after your pet cat because, hey, cats and humans are both mammals, so your GP must know all about cats!

So anyway, to clear this up, I thought I’d do a brief run-down of some of the sorts of people who work with plants, what they do and why.

A short, non-exhaustive-by-any-means list:


Plant scientists/geneticists/biochemists etc




Tree surgeons

Plant breeders

Taxonomists (note: different from taxidermists)

So what do all these people do? Well, let’s take one plant.

Photograph by Adele Julier

Here’s a plant. It is called Rothmannia longiflora, if anyone was interested. It’s in the Rubiaceae. For the sake of argument, it could be the plant we’re talking about here but really it’s just a pretty picture to go along with this post because PLANTS ARE PRETTY. LOOK, A PRETTY FLOWER.

A botanist might ask what the plant’s name is, what is the arrangement of its leaves, which family is it in? A taxonomist might be more concerned with who named it, which species it is most closely related to and whether it can really be considered a separate species from this other plant (although botanists and plant taxonomists tend to overlap quite a lot in their interests). A horticulturalist might be concerned with how to optimise the conditions for germination of the plant’s seeds. A plant breeder might be interested in novel characteristics of the plant’s flowers so they could cross it with other species to produce marketable varieties. A plant scientist might wonder which genes control its floral morphology or whether or not it exhibits CAM photosynthesis. An ecologist might try to figure out how that plant lives in its environment and why, maybe how endangered it is too.

Basically, we’re a bunch of people who work on different aspects of a hugely diverse Kingdom of organisms and who specialise in different areas and aspects of that Kingdom. The result of this is that, even though they’re both ‘plant people’, if you asked a plant geneticist why your apple trees were looking peaky, you’d likely get about as much sense as if you asked a tree surgeon about the role of COP10 in determining stomatal distribution in Arabidopsis thaliana. Not to say that there aren’t tree surgeons who know about genetics or geneticists who have secret green fingers, but purely by dint of their jobs, they’d have no reason to know those things.

Obviously there are many more ways people work with plants, and a lot of overlap in what we do, but I hope this maybe helps clarify some differences between your various plant-loving professionals.


About adelecmj

I'm a PhD student at the Open University, where I study pollen-vegetation relationships in Ghana. I like plants, rocks, and science in general.
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3 Responses to So, taxonomy… That’s where you stuff dead animals, right?

  1. Daniel Borg says:

    Great post Adele! There was the need of someone to explain this!! Haha…happens to me regularly whenever I blurt out that I am studying botany…

  2. Similarly, this is why asking a computer scientist/programmer why your computer is going wrong, how to get rid of viruses or use Microsoft Office to do XYZ is generally a fruitless exercise 😛 Or for that matter, asking an electronic engineer how to wire your house, fix your iPod, etc.

    Essentially, the world is full of complex specialist job areas in all fields and everyone outside of them is highly skilled in unintentionally blending the responsibilities to suit their situation 😛 Amusing albeit inconvenient at times!

  3. uribg says:

    Hi Adele,
    This is great! I know all about how to grow plants, but I never remember what a C4 plant is…
    I guess I’m a horticulturalist!
    Thanks for the “like” on my post “Featured Plant: Venus Fly Traps” on



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