Names by Mistake

by M.J. Harvey  December 2004


John Stuart, Earl of Bute (1713-92) not only served as British Prime Minister 1762-3 but also was a gifted amateur botanist.  He was one of the advisors to Augusta, Princess Dowager of Wales when she founded the Botanic Gardens 1759 at the royal family’s summer retreat by the Thames at Kew.


In his honour Linnaeus kindly named a genus related to the Camellias as “Stewartia” – getting the spelling wrong.  It is not recorded whether John Stuart was pleased at the honour or angry at the typo but in 1785 L’Heretier amended the name to Stuartia starting a controversy that has gone on ever since.  There is an allowance for correcting orthographic errors (spelling mistakes to you) in the Botanical code but some opinion is that L’Heretier made a later re-definition of the genus, not merely correcting a spelling mistake, and this is a no-no.  So some books use Stewartia, some Stuartia.  Your choice.


An amusing handwriting mistake came out of Japan.  Some famous explorer – I think it was Forrest – found an absolutely spectacular (latin spectabilis) herb in the woodlands so he wrote back to Europe about it.  This was the period when explorers went away for two or more years at a time.  He wrote, and I like to think he was on horseback at the time, “this plant I want to call Dicentra spectabilis”.


Well, back in Europe they puzzled over this scrawled cursive handwriting; the ‘Di’ was clear, as was the ‘tra’ but the ‘c’ had a bit of a loop on it and the ‘e’ wandered up a bit, with the ‘n’ having a leg below the line.  Ah, they said, he wants to found a new genus Dielytra.  We will publish this so that when he gets back it will be in the literature.  And they did.  Because Dicentra spectabilis is bigger than the average and really is lovely the name Dielytra persisted for years but is no longer used.