What’s Your Name?   Specifically

by Norman Todd - December 2001


In 1778, Gilbert White[1] wrote: “the standing objection to botany has always been, that it is a pursuit that amuses the fancy and exercises the memory without improving the mind or advancing any real knowledge; and where science is carried no further than a mere systematic classification, the charge is but too true.”  He then goes on to say that these aspersions can be mitigated, recommending that the ‘botanist’ “should examine the powers and virtues of efficacious herbs, should promote their cultivation, and graft the gardener, the planter, and the husbandman, on to the phytologist.”  Ouch.


The word ‘phytologist’ does not seem to be in use any more.  It literally means ‘one who studies plants’ which to us would be a ‘botanist’.  White, however, is clearly talking about those who are concerned with the classification of plants – ‘taxonomists’.  He is recommending that we gardeners be grafted – sounds quite surgical – onto those who dream up (and then keep changing) these complicated Latin names for the plants we grow


About twenty years ago I sat in on the Fourth International Rhododendron Species Symposium.  There were about 300 people in attendance and most of them were academics.  That is an amazing number when one reflects that most of these were what White calls phytologists and that most attendees were being supported by the public purse in some fashion.  Twenty years ago many of the significant technological advances that have been made in the study of plants at the cellular level and particularly in genetics were yet to come.  Still, the avant garde were deliriously excited about the chemistry of plants and were advocating its use for deciding what constitutes a ‘good’ species.  The old timers vigorously maintained that the morphology – the appearance and structure of a plant - was the primary determinant.  The arguments grew heated and there was an anxious, almost belligerent, tension in the crowd; the debate was getting out of control.  If I remember correctly, the Chairman was Britt Smith and he thumped his gavel and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is indeed a serious subject – but not important”. Order was restored.


One can’t have science without classification and people with tidy logical minds are driven crazy when they can’t make what is observed in nature fit a system of their own devising.  They make good arguments that this plant is different from this other plant because of this factor and that factor but more often they say that the examined characteristics do not justify a separate moniker and lump together two plants that to most gardeners look completely different.  Gardeners are then driven crazy when a name that has taken half a lifetime to learn is now to be known as something else and when they do the arithmetic and realize they have only two half life times, they rebel.  I’m all for spouses retaining the name they were given at birth; I still stumble over my daughter’s married name. Rhododendron yakushimanum will never be called degronianum ssp. yakushimanum by me – except, maybe, in very polite company. Nor will concatenans be cursed with the undignified burden of r. cinnabarinum ssp. xanthocodon, Concatenans Group.  No wonder the flowers of concatenans droop.  Further, one would think that modern day phytologists could coin a better word than ‘Group’ for a distinctive entity like concatenans.  Even recognizing it as a sub-sub species would be better.  It seems to me ironic that those – the old fashioned phytologists – who are imposing the systematics (I almost wrote systemics) on plants and generally lumping names together - have not applied the same strictures to their own genre.  The biology discipline has been split into all sorts of specialties like taxonomy, genetics, ecology, and mycology without having to conform to a methodology that insists that they be ranked as species or sub species or variety, or God forbid for those affected, Group. Imagine trying to get tenure if you were classified as meriting merely the Group designation.


Let’s look at a couple of well known native trees – the Arbutus and the Douglas Fir - to see how well White’s strictures have been followed


My favourite native tree is the arbutus.  In these parts the common name is the same as the Latin name arbutus (arbutus menziesii) - which is good.  Strangely, it has not been changed2 since it was christened.  It took thirty years for that christening to take place (another long but interesting story) from the time of Archibald Menzies’ discovery and description of the arbutus in 1792. Menzies was the doctor and botanist with Captain George Vancouver on his famous voyage of discovery. However, Menzies was not the first European to record having become acquainted with the Pacific arbutus.  In 1769, a Spanish priest, Father Juan Crespi, trekking up the coast from San Diego wrote that he encountered “many madronos, though with smaller fruit than the Spanish.”  If the Spanish had not been so fearful of letting others know of the new riches they had found and published their discoveries openly, our arbutus would most likely be called arbutus crespii.  The name arbutus evidently was given to the Strawberry tree of the Mediterranean (arbutus unedo).  This is Crespi’s madrono and incidentally is the tree that figures in the coat of arms of Madrid.  Arbutus was the name the Romans gave the Strawberry tree and it is appropriate that Linnaeus chose it for the genus in his Species plantarum in 1753.  For an informative account of Menzies’ meeting with the arbutus for the first time, have a read of Clive Justice’s book “Mr. Menzies’ Garden Legacy”.  A copy is in our library.  For a captivating, whimsical and provoking read of Menzies’ stormy relationship with his captain, George Vancouver, and the latter’s torrid but diplomatically successful relationship with Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, see George Bowering’s “Burning Water”.


Many people are surprised that arbutus is first cousin of rhododendron.  Both belong to the Heather family - the ericacaea.  The tallest rhododendron has been reported as being 30 metres in height.  Allen J. Coombes in ‘Trees” gives the maximum height of arbutus menziesii as 40 metres.  The largest I have seen was in Christchurch, New Zealand.  The arbutus can justifiably lay claim to being the tallest of the heathers.  I suggest it can also lay claim to having a good name and sticking to it.

The rules for giving scientific names to plants are contained in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.  I like the arbutus menziesii name because the first name has been around for a very long time and the second one is commemorative.  The Code says, however, that such commemorative coinages ‘…notwithstanding their undeniable importance, are relatively accessory…’  One has to wonder, therefore, about the scientific name for our Douglas Fir – pseudotsuga menzesii.  How come David Douglas loses out to Archibald Menzies when the name goes from English (really Scottish, as both of them spoke with a brogue) to Latin?  Complaining about changes to the names of some of our favourite rhododendrons pales when compared to the nomenclatular gymnastics that have befallen our most important commercial tree.  Arthur Kruckeberg says it would take a botanical lawyer to trace the intricate history of its nominal peregrinations.  At various times it has been a pine, a spruce, a hemlock and a fir.  It is now a false(pseudo) hemlock(tsugu is Japanese for hemlock).  This name was given to it only 50 years ago so the story may not yet be over. Here is a case where Gilbert White’s early concerns have been substantiated.


Initial encounters with Latin names are usually pretty stressful and when these often elocutionary challenging names change, we tend to blame those responsible for making the changes. We think of the perpetrators of the changes as not leading particularly stressful lives and secretly accuse them of gleefully making them up to give their academic monotony a little zip.  To be fair the Botanical Code makes sense.  Its first purpose is to avoid confusion and to make sure that everyone is talking about the same plant. I suppose we have to take the long view and hope young gardeners will grow up with the new names at their fingertips.  We must remember that


The proper skill in expertise

Is to arrange the premises

So that the most foregone conclusion

Can fit therein without confusion.


Pity it did not happen with the Douglas Fir.


But to be fair, common names also suffer arbitrary changes. A comely member of the sunflower family was suddenly about-faced from ‘Venus Paint Brush’ to ‘Devil’s Paint Brush’ when it turned out to be a thuggish weed.


[1] White was a clergyman and naturalist who was the curate at Selborne, Hampshire, England.  Evidently he lived uneventfully there keeping a journal on his garden –The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’- which I believe is still in print.


2 Bailey in the “Clyclopedia of American Horticulture” 4th Edition, 1906 notes it having been named as arbutus procera, Dougl. in the Botanical Register  but that appears not to have been legitimate.