The Naming Of Plants

3D cover of Icones Plantarum Vol. 2 by William Jackson HookerAn interesting article by Lia Leendertz in the September issue of the RHS journal, The Garden, about the importance, simplicity and universality of Latin nomenclature for plants: she and her Flemish hosts were able to converse (up to a point and with added gestures) about Buxus and Taxus via the same medium as medieval monks.

However, we should remember that the naming of plants in Latin began precisely because Latin was the learned language of the whole of Europe, and before Linnaeus there were often as many different Latin names for a single plant as vernacular ones: indeed, the Latin ‘name’ was often an unwieldy full definition of the plant. I have been looking at various editions of Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary  (the 1771 abridgement will be with you once we have worked out what the missing word is at the bottom of the page which deals with the fifteen varieties of dock…) and noticed that even after he partially adopted the Linnaean system in 1754 (having preferred Ray‘s taxonomy before that, but now facing the inevitable), he was still using the term Lapathum for dock; it became Rumex in (I think) the 1768 edition.

In another context, Sir Joseph Banks (whose memorial in Lincoln cathedral,

Sir Joseph Banks

as well as the conservatory named for him, I visited last weekend) recounts in his journal the enthusiastic abandon with which he gives Linnaean names to new (to him) species of fish, birds and plants during the 1768–71 voyage – on the spot, with no consensus from the learned world. And it is very common in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts by natural historians to find several alternative Latin names (tagged ‘Hook.’, ‘Linn.’, ‘Buffon‘, etc.) given for the specimens which they came across.

So even if we as gardeners do have occasional Crocosmia/Montbretia issues, we must be thankful that generations of taxonomists have struggled to bring order to what was potentially a Latin Tower of Babel as muddling as any vernacular one could be.

Caroline

This entry was posted in Biography, Evolution, Gardening, Life Science, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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