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Sedum burrito and the whole taxonomy enchilada

by Timber Press on February 25, 2010

in Gardening

Would a sedum by any other name be so cute? Timber Press includes tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of plant names in our books every year. Plant names are constantly changing, being challenged, and being debunked; yet there is no real final authority on plant names like a Supreme Court. Plant names either survive or fade based on how convincing the argument of their sponsor when a plant is published (as for botanical names) or chosen by the breeder or selector (as for horticultural names). There are codes to govern how the names are published and promulgated but this only cuts down on the confusion a little bit. (I won’t even get into patent or trademark names, which would make you completely nuts.) If you’re convinced that California fuchsias are really from genus Zauschneria, you really can’t be called incorrect even though most people now accept inclusion in the genus Epilobium. As long as your name was published validly once, even if that were 100 years ago, you can’t really be wrong, although you can certainly look a little foolish and old fashioned.

This is all a way of saying that perfection is impossible, but we try our best. Our readers might enjoy one rabbit hole we chased down concerning the correct name of Sedum burrito, which is mentioned in Debra Lee Baldwin’s wonderful Succulent Container Gardens. Debra appealed to succulents-expert Fred Dortort, who also happens to be the author of an upcoming encyclopedia. If you’re not a plant geek, you can stop reading here, but if you’re like us, you’ll find his account gripping and edge-of-the-seat reading:

In regard to Sedum burrito, it’s a complex issue, but here’s probably more than you need to know about it. The plant was described formally in 1977 as Sedum burrito, a distinct species, by Reid Moran who was a noted authority on New World Crassulaceae. However, the description was based on plants that had been bought several years earlier, one at a nursery in Guadalajara, another in a little town near the purported habitat, so it’s true that no wild collection data exists.  It’s worth mentioning that Sedum morganianum the other ‘Donkey Tail’ sedum, was also described (in the 1930s) from cultivated material in the same town, wasn’t seen in the wild even anecdotally until the 1970s, and only found definitively in 2006 I believe. Lately some people have begun calling burrito a hybrid, but the big question is with what — one parent would have to be Sedum morganianum, but no satisfactory suggestions about the other parent as far as I know.  I’ve vacillated between calling it a variety of morganianum and a form, but variety without habitat data isn’t any more valid than species lacking data. It could be called cv. ‘Burrito’  but cultivars are supposed to refer to material selected out in cultivation, which is not the case either. Burrito, however, isn’t a horticultural name, it was published validly as such, just a sort of quirky name. If I were writing about it (I mention it briefly in passing), I would say it’s a plant of currently imprecisely determined taxonomic status, and go on calling it either Sedum burrito or Sedum morganianum cv. ‘Burrito’ and leave it at that. It’s surprising how many species floating around have never had their localities discovered; some have been in cultivation for so long that the info is just lost, others were described say 150 years ago and have never been rediscovered. Keeps things interesting.

So, feel free to throw the occasional egg at us when we flub a name, but have some pity. There were probably 1000 other plant names in the same book, and each certainly has its own story, too.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Matti February 26, 2010 at 9:53 am

You have nailed the the photos that are rich in color and texture. We have a Donkey Tail in a hanging pot, that loves our west facing window. Matti

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