J Syst Evol ›› 1998, Vol. 36 ›› Issue (5): 470-480.

• Research Articles •

The Species Problem in Plant Taxonomy in China

HSU Ping-Sheng

• Published:1998-09-10

Abstract: Nooteboom (1992) and Peter Raven (pers. comm. ) have pointed out that Chinese taxonomists often hold a narrow species concept and that this may due to the small volum of collections, especially type specimens, available to them which led to the unadequate study on the variability of the species. Raven remarked that “this leads me to believe that the actual concept of species used in plant systematics in China tends to be fairly typological”. What they said are by no means unreasonable. Indeed, the taxonomical status of a considerable number of species in the Chinese flora is probably open to question. New species based on a single character or solely on vegetative characters are of frequent occurrence. Evidences from a very limited number of researches on the patterns of plant variation heretofore available in China have shown that some “species” are, in fact, ecological races ( Clinopodium ), geographical races (Cunninghamia & Indigofera ), or taxa with topoclinal variation (Lespedeza & Rhododendron ). Species based on plasticity of phenotype variation have been or still regarded as “good species” ( Rorippa ). Segregates of an interspecific hybrid with diverse leaf characters have been given different species names ( Ilex ). The originally complicated situation in taxonomy of an agamic complex becomes even more complicated after the publication of additional new species (Malus). A careful analysis of a species with rather complicated patterns of variation leads to the combination of 25 specific names, of which 10 were published in the 80’s by Chinese taxonomists ( Clematoclethra ). Examples of these kinds will greatly increase with the broadening of research work at the species level. Orthodox plant taxonomy is based largely or solely on morphological characters. The exomorphic characters have the practical advantage that they are relatively easy to observe and to record. The taxonomical species concept can meet the needs of general purpose classification. But the notion that the taxonomical species concept is a solely intuitive judgement or preference of an individual worker and one could hardly say what is right and what is wrong is quite problematical. The species category today is much more capable of objective interpretation than ever before. A correct species concept stems from a correct and thorough understanding of the nature of variation pattern of plants and its taxonomical value. Hence, as a herbarium taxonomist, the first thing is to study as many collections as possible. Secondly, the incorporation of evidence from other sources whenever possible is highly desirable. These evidences,if they are not very useful as taxonomical criteria, are frequently of great significanee in contributing to a better understanding or interpretation of the variation pattern of a given taxon. The taxonomist might find the discontinuities he seeks better expressed in either the phenotypic or the genetic variation. A logical application of these two sorts of criteri-a would lead to a more rational classification at the specific level in a great many genera.

Key words: Species problem, Plant taxonomy, China