Coral Naming: A Rant and a Plea

Chris MaupinBy Chris Maupin 6 years ago
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I am a third generation orchid enthusiast. My great grandfather established one of the earliest commercial orchid greenhouses in the United States. At that time, large blooming Cattleya species formed the basis of corsages for decades in the early twentieth century. My grandfather moved to Florida with my grandmother in the 1950’s, bringing several of his father’s orchids with him. At 92 years old, he is still growing many of these plants in his back yard. It skipped a generation in my parents, and I continue the tradition, growing many extremely rare species from Papua New Guinea and exceptional cultivars from South America. Where am I going with this? Well, orchids were a hobby for the Victorian wealthy, to make a broad generalization of it. The Royal Horticultural Society of England judged wild collected orchids, which were given names to identify them and trace their lineage. Such names traditionally have been in memoriam, or in honor of someone living. Or they are formed to be distinguished and regal. Many orchids from the 19th century recognized by the Royal Horticultural Society still exist and are grown today. How, you ask? Here’s where the parallel to corals comes into play. Orchids can be asexually propagated in a manner that is functionally identical to the propagation of corals. A functional unit of an orchid (analogous to a polyp of a coral): leaf, bulb, rhizome, roots and eye, will readily grow into a new plant genetically identical to the parent colony. EXACTLY like corals. Naming plants is the same as naming colonies, it allows the lineage, history and provenance of the organism to be known. Here’s the catch. Getting back into the coral hobby I noticed that coral colonies had begun to receive names in a similar fashion to orchids. There was a stomach turning difference, however, that quickly became apparent: such naming is treated callously or even as a joke. It is disrespected, it is abused for profitability. The coral names I see in place sound like they were coined by a 12 year old who drank too much Mountain Dew.  This is a stark contrast to orchid naming, where a strict gentleman or gentlewoman honor system exists, because the orchid hobby represents a crossroads of the history of modern society and horticultural science. The coral naming game is so ridiculous that it is a self-perpetuating source for internal ridicule. Some of the greatest contributors to advancement in our hobby are damn near forced to make fun of the ridiculous names given some high priced specimens. Which is unfortunate. Much like orchid naming, a dedicated and reverent group could have the capacity to trace the lineage and document the history of corals in the hobby unambiguously, especially given the potential threats our hobby faces. Perhaps the best example of this in the coral hobby is the so-called Stuber Acropora. This name is considered reef hobby canon by anyone you ask. It is reverential, respectful, appropriate, and meaningful, and most importantly, it refers to a singular coral. The bottom line of my rant is that the current ridiculousness of naming corals in the hobby insults our intelligence as participants in a hobby that requires significant self-motivation to learn and the subsequent execution of that education. My plea to the hobbyist is to respect the fact that these corals may not be available forever to hobbyists at their whim, so please please please take naming seriously. Not for the purposes of a fad, for money, for laughs, but to robustly document what we have, as hobbyists, in our possession, in terms of preservation of genetic and biological diversity.

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Chris Maupin
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 Chris Maupin

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Chris Maupin is a research scientist at Texas A&M University, whose primary research interests consist of using the geochemistry of coral skeletons, microfossils and cave deposits to reconstruct climate variability and investigate climate change in the coral-rich regions of World Ocean. His day job ranges from from turning wrenches on mass spectrometers to culturing corals, with fieldwork in incredible places in between.

8 Comments

  • WDLV says:

    I think it has less to do with our hobby and more to do with how we think and interact in this more modern Western civilization. In the 1900s language and more specifically “proper” Queen’s English was used as a means of distinguishing the social class of those you were speaking with. You could dress them up but you couldn’t take them out as it were. This is a far more casual society we live in now. Most people don’t even show up to work in shirt and tie. Today, people who speak formally would be seen as talking down to others. Slang is prominent. I don’t think any of this is going to change any time soon. I personally agree with and see a need to start tracing out specimens whether they be corals or captive bred fish etc. I’m speaking more from the fish side. I would like to see proper labeling and lineage tracing throughout the industry as was done with bottany and dog/cat breeds. I want to know that my ocellaris clownfish came from a pure Philippine line or from a pure Darwin source and wasn’t crossed with other regional variants or other species. If I want to get a rescue for a minimal price, that’s also my perogative but I think it’s important that we start segregating our species and lines now while we still have a reasonable opportunity to do so. More and more collection is being banned every day. Today’s yellow tang may be tomorrow’s Florida Elkhorn coral.

  • Jared Goldenberg says:

    *APPLAUSE*

  • Ashlar says:

    When an especially colorful specimen, labelled by an exporter as ‘Acro, pink|blue|green’ gets preferentially held back and sold to a few individuals by wholesalers, why should they get to ‘name’ it? It’s not like those individuals mounted an expedition to the wilds of PNG to collect it.

    Reverence is earned. Having an ‘in’ with an importer/wholesaler is nothing to revere.

    Corals already have names. Genus and species. Why go any further into pretentiousness?

    • Quite simply, because not every Seriatpora hystrix looks, grows, or is the same thing.

      • Ashlar says:

        And not every “Wild Heart Yellow Rose of Texas Supah-Dupah LE ULTRA” s.hystrix will look the same in every tank it grows in due to flow, lighting intensity, lighting color, etc. Chances are, they’ll look like a bog-standard s.hystrix in many folks’ tanks.

        It’s not like we’re cross-breeding species variants a la dogs, or selectively breeding to enhance or downplay certain characteristics a la cattle.

        No, it’s just a racket to jack up the price, or give someone e-peen bragging rights on the internet.

  • Chris, as a fellow orchid enthusiast and former Orchid Breeder myself, you’re overlooking a few subtle points.

    1. The RHS does maintain a registry of names, but it is for hybrids. We’re not to the point of breeding our corals yet. However, in the fish breeding world, I often find myself referring to the rules set out by the RHS as a broad baseline for how we ought to treat the naming of hybrid fish. In this respect, to this day, the RHS does request 3 possible names when registering a new hybrid, and it reserves the right to reject any or all of those names. There are rules about what the names can and cannot be, the length of said names, and the fact that you can’t even name something until you’ve grown it up and bloomed it (as you know, the bloom is really where the individuality of an orchid largely lies). There are even rules about the use of someone’s name (i.e. Mem Larry Heuer)….you can’t just go use it because you look up to the guy. And you can’t name someone else’s creation unless you get their permission first. All of that said, there was an effort to create a coral naming registry, but it seems to have failed. We must remember, the only reason the RHS has the authority to do what it does, is because the community at large recognizes and supports that authority.

    2. When it comes to Orchids with CULTIVAR names, there are admittedly two trains of thoughts, and this is where things apply more directly to corals. Afterall, we are not talking about genetically similar specimens, but asexually propagated, genetically identical clones. So in truth, the rules for the naming of orchid cultivars are really the more appropriate rules to be thinking about.

    A. Now, these rules are a bit more lax / vague / open to interpretation. In the strictest sense, a particular genetic specimen is only supposed to be given a name when it has been judged and awarded. There are very strict rules about the syntax of these names, and these names always include a recognition of the award received (FCC for example). We don’t have coral shows going on, with judges who evaluate a coral for its color, growth form, size etc. But we *could*. Part of the rules is to prevent every last coral (er orchid) from getting a name. Only the most special are considered “worthy” of distinction. No doubt, this helps fuel the fire of breeding and causes plants deemed inferior to be relegated to the past tense. Of course, these rules are most often followed and adhered to when dealing with orchids that can be cloned in the lab and thus propagated by the thousands in the very first generation – it means that when you were the one to breed and show Oncidium Sharry Baby “Sweet Fragrance”, you stood to have a big financial gain when that chocolate scented beauty would go under the knife. And you can even side-step orchids for 15 seconds to look at Hostas, where the most desirable plants are pantented, and require a licensing fee to be paid to the patent holder for each plant propagated (and yes, big penalties if you’re illegally growing these patented plants). Can’s say I’ve seen that in Orchids…yet…but I’ve not been paying that close of attention these days 🙂

    B. However, there is the second, more informal version of cultivar naming that occurs, and I’ve found it to be more commonplace when dealing with orchids that CANNOT be cloned (i.e. the Paphiopedilums and Phragmipediums). In this case, and I am guilty of this myself, just about every plant can carry a cultivar name in addition to its genus and species/hybrid name (for example, Paph. niveum “Widespread Panic”). As a breeder, I named my plants to keep track of individual stud plants (i.e. “Widespread Panic”, I felt, had particularly nice broad wide-spread petals…and the band name was easy enough to remember). If I ever divided this plant, I would want the recipient to know what plant this came from. And many of my cultivars I DID in fact divide and breed with. In other words, this cultivar name served a purpose..it served to help me track lineages and more importantly, individual genetic specimens. Certainly there are “rules” about the types of names, but in the end, it was up to me to apply whatever name or ID I wanted to apply at the cultivar level. What I couldn’t do, of course, was reallocate an existing name, nor should I ever apply a new name if a name has already been given. Many breeders keep it simple and use identifying numbers…of course, that also assumes that they’re not dividing, and selling off, parts of their broodstock.

    So as that turns back to corals now, the unwritten rules do seem a bit simple to follow if we really think them through. I’m not so sure the rant should be about the name of a coral itself, but about how we apply and then respect that name, however foolish it may be, with an understanding of why it should carry any name in the first place.

  • Chris Maupin Chris Maupin says:

    Matt, I am taken aback by your audacity in stating that over a century of accumulated orchid knowledge is overlooking a “few subtle points.” I have worked with some of the most successful (with respect to quality awards) breeders on the planet.

    Lets go through this in detail:

    “The RHS does maintain a registry of names, but it is for hybrids. ”

    The RHS maintains a hybrid registry. BUT, any awarded cultivar of a pure species orchid is registered with a unique cultivar name.

    “When it comes to Orchids with CULTIVAR names, there are admittedly two trains of thoughts”

    And what two trains of thoughts are these?

    “Afterall, we are not talking about genetically similar specimens, but asexually propagated, genetically identical clones. So in truth, the rules for the naming of orchid cultivars are really the more appropriate rules to be thinking about.”

    This is EXACTLY the point I was making. I was not talking about hybrids in my blog post, but the cultivar names assigned to SPECIES orchids, especially field collected varieties.

    “. In the strictest sense, a particular genetic specimen is only supposed to be given a name when it has been judged and awarded.”

    This is completely wrong and not even remotely close to true. A genetically unique individual can be given a cultivar name by its owner. And that is the bottom line, period, end of discussion. A plant does not have to be shown, judged or awarded to have a proper, respected cultivar name.

    “There are very strict rules about the syntax of these names,”

    Also not true at all. I could name a cultivar C. violacea “Porn Star Facial” and it would be perfectly acceptable by RHS/AOS naming standards. If it received an FCC, it would be C. violate “Porn Star Facial” FCC/AOS or FCC/RHS.

    Which comes to the crux of your misunderstanding of my argument. Awarded or not, species orchids get certain cultivars which have names associated with them. It does’t matter whether they are awarded by the AOS or RHS or any other judging body, that name stays with that cultivar and all its divisions and tracks/represents its heritage and cultivar. The same thing can apply to corals, which is the whole point of the post.

    “However, there is the second, more informal version of cultivar naming that occurs, and I’ve found it to be more commonplace when dealing with orchids that CANNOT be cloned”

    That you think it’s more commonplace with orchids that cannot be cloned is incorrect.

    “Certainly there are “rules” about the types of names, but in the end, it was up to me to apply whatever name or ID I wanted to apply at the cultivar level.”

    Again, another one of the whole points of MY post. Your cultivar name would be carried with any division of that plant throughout its transfer to any grower.

    “’m not so sure the rant should be about the name of a coral itself, but about how we apply and then respect that name, however foolish it may be, with an understanding of why it should carry any name in the first place.”

    This is, for the most part, the whole point. Naming a coral frag or colony is identical to naming a cultivar of an orchid species.

  • Chris, your comments earlier today in another venue did get me researching you just a bit (I like to know who I’m arguing with) and I stumbled upon this old discussion. I’d never noticed your response.

    Not going to go into great detail here, but I thought it worthwhile to point out that, among other things, you probably could not name your orchid “Porn Star Facial”…http://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/RHS-Publications/Journals/The-Orchid-Review/2011-issues/September/Sense-and-Insensitivity – “The 2009 edition of the IcncP opened a door to changing hybrid names. In response to problems encountered by the hemerocallis Registrar who encountered some sexually offensive epithets from one grower, Alan Leslie and Piers Trehane, two of the great thinkers behind the codes of plant nomenclature, successfully proposed the concept of offensive names. Article 21K.1 recommends that a cultivar (or grex) name should not be published if its epithet might cause offence. Further to this, should such an epithet be published, Article 31.8 makes the following provision, ‘If it is thought that a cultivar, Group, or grex epithet might cause undue offence, an application may be made to the IUBS (International Union of Biological Sciences) International commission for the nomenclature of cultivated Plants to rule on whether that epithet is to be rejected.’ Detailed reasons and documents must be provided along with the application.”

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