Glossaries and Jargon
There are numerous dictionaries and glossaries of botanical terms on the web, (e.g. see eco-pros for a broad range, including simpler ones; and more technical ones, e.g. from Missouri Botanic Garden, The Garden Web and others listed here. The aim of the VFH glossary is to supply terms that may be of use in various types of field guide and to demonstrate terms by linking them to images.
The typical dictionary of botanical terms – from Abaxial to Zygomophic - represents the basics of the scientific tradition of botany, but is far from ideal as your only source of characters for field guides. It is the language describing the characters used by taxonomists, anatomists, morphologists and other indoor botanists: characters we call “classical” here to contrast with the field characters on which field guide writers have to concentrate.
Classical botanical terms can often be avoided, and are off-putting to non-botanical users, even if you do explain them. Furthermore, the structures and patterns they describe are often ambiguous, not adequately precise, or not the type of characters suitable for field guides anyway.
Most plant names are defined with respect to classical characters of pressed, dried herbarium specimens, usually seasonal details of flower and fruit, and this bias diffuses into floras and other botanical literature, but field guide writers should not follow the trend uncritically. There is considerable overlap between field and classical characters and no possibility of dividing them into two exclusive sets. Some characters, for example leaf type and arrangement, are useful in all circumstances. However the emphasis with respect to how these ever-useful characters are described depends on where they are to be used.
For instance, it is reasonable to provide greater detail on leaf venation in a field guide than in a Flora, because for fieldwork it is more likely that a sterile plant will have to be identified. Flower details in a field guide might focus more on the superficial characters like colour and size of the whole flower, whereas the Flora might concentrate on numbers of stamens or ovules and other obscure characters with a more fundamental and global significance.
Even forty years ago, you could have filled a small library with literature whose sole purpose was to define words for biologists. The Systematics Association made in 1960 a list of about 350 ‘authoritative’ publications of this type. The choice is bewildering, but the situation is particularly difficult for field characters of tropical plants, which tend to have been dealt with less meticulously than classical characters.
A major problem is that glossaries of botanical terms frequently contradict each other or exclude some vital, modern standards of botanical description, even where the standards do exist. For example. an attempt has been made to make words used by botanists for outline shapes (e.g. leaf or petal shape) more precise, by defining ratios of length/breadth for each term (Systematics Association, 1962); but these are missing from widely used glossaries by Harris & Harris (2000), Bell (1991) and several others published or re-edited since the standards were set, and many writers use the terms with their older, imprecise meanings.