Reviews

Plants named for the great, the good, and the bad..?

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but where do these names come from? Nigel Chaffey reviews a book that explores the stories of some of the people behind the plant names.

In the Name of Plants: From Attenborough to Washington, the people behind plant names, Sandra Knapp, 2022. The University of Chicago Press.

The cover of In the Name of Plants, a botanical illustration of a white flower.

Most plants have two names, at least one common name (Robert Pavlis) by which they are known informally amongst people, and a formal, scientific name (also known as their botanical name – Robert Pavlis). However, because two – or sometimes more – quite different plant species may have the same common name (e.g. alder buckthorn here), or the same species may have different common names amongst different groups of people (e.g. the plethora of names for Arum maculatum (David Marsden), it is hard to be sure which species is being referred to when such non-scientific names are used. A scientific name comprises two words: the first represents the genus, the second word – the specific epithet – specifies the species, and together they are the plant’s officially-recognised binomial name (Nadia Haider, Jour Pl Sci Res 34(2): 275-290, 2018). In marked contrast to a common name, a scientific name – which is unique – should unambiguously identify the species.

Scientific names also convey other information about the particular species. Unfortunately, having to present the binomial in accordance with the rules of grammar (Anita Finkle) for ‘botanical Latin‘ (Margaret Roach), and recognising the fact that botanical Latin “isn’t “real” Latin at all, but a cocktail of Latin, Ancient Greek and a plethora of other languages from Russian to Mandarin that have been absorbed into it for good measure” (James Wong), means that the plant’s scientific name may provide little extra meaning for most of us as it stands. However, once translated into the reader’s own language, generic and/or specific epithets that refer to a particular aspect of the plant’s colour, shape, habitat, etc. are usually understandable and useful, if rather functional*. But, when those who give names to plants go ‘off-piste’ (Lynne Murphy) as it were and honour a person within the scientific name, that can introduce us to a whole new level of meaning, and tell us a lot more about the plant and its relationship with people. And that, in a nutshell, is what Sandra Knapp’s In the Name of Plants [which book is here appraised] is all about.

Overview

In this relatively compact book [of approx. 180 profusely-illustrated pages of main text], Knapp presents a collection of essays that deal with the generic names** of plants that are named after people, so-called eponymous plant names (Whit Gibbons). Arranged alphabetically, and ranging from Adansonia (after 18th century French botanist Michel Adanson) to Wuacanthus (named for Wu Zhengyi, a renowned Chinese botanist of the 20th century (Zhekun Zhou & Hang Sun, Plant Divers. 38(6): 259–261, 2016; doi: 10.1016/j.pld.2016.12.002), In the Name of Plants examines 30 genera. Those genera are principally of flowering plants (and primarily dicots), although one example each of gymnosperms (Sequoiadendron), mosses (Hookeria), and ferns (Gaga) is also included. Nowhere could I find mention of why this particular 30 genera were selected, but the people so-honoured represent an interesting assemblage of the great, the good, and the somewhat questionable – or even downright ‘bad’*** – of the past few hundred years. Each entry – which is probably best described as a short essay – is 5 or 6 pages long and begins in the same generic way: Genus name, name of person being honoured, the plant’s family,***** number of species in the genus, and the plant’s natural distribution.

Rather than produce a potentially dry work that just provides biographical details of the person after whom such-and-such a plant genus was named, Knapp has produced a collection of much-more-useful items, each of which uses the plant-naming opportunity to give important biological – and usually specifically botanical – information. In that way those essays cover topics such as: the biochemistry of betalain-producing vs anthocyanin-producing plants, conservation concerns, people as one of the biggest threats to plants, promoting the role of women in botany (as exemplified by included genera Agnesia, Eastwoodia, Esterhuysenia, Meriania, Soejatmia, Strelitzia, and Vickia), plant adaptations, biodiversity hotspots (e.g. Madagascar (Alexandre Antonelli et al., Science 378(6623), 2022; doi: 10.1126/science.abf0869; Hélène Ralimanana et al., Science 378(6623): 2022; doi: 10.1126/science.adf1466)), continental drift and phytogeography, fern life cycle, respect for indigenous people and their knowledge, climate change, buzz pollination, habitat destruction, evolution of land flora, use of DNA in plant taxonomy, religious intolerance in 17th century France, and horizontal gene transfer. Without appearing to be too much like a textbook, we have been given many useful plant biological ‘lessons‘, and Knapp is an appropriately-knowledgeable****** and agreeable guide to the plant diversity covered in the book.

A statement about sources

There are no references in-text to indicate where the numerous facts stated have come from. However, there is a section entitled Plant Phylogeny and Bibliography that lists sources for each of the 30 genera, and for more general ‘background’. At 5 pages of 3-columned text, this listing is quite substantial. Presumably this collection gives the sources to support statements made in-text against the specific genera, but without checking one can’t know this – and there is no indication by way of guidance from the author that this is in fact the case. Plus, where do the general, non-generic sources fit into the text, or are they to be interpreted as ‘bibliography’? Indeed, are the sources separately listed for the 30 named genera also merely ‘bibliography’? Trying to pin down a specific fact or statement to a named source is an unenviable task for the reader interested in knowing that, or finding out more about a particular piece of information. So, if one wants to give sources for statements made in the book that one might like to cite in one’s own work, one is probably compelled to go down the route of citing Knapp (2022). Whilst this satisfies the criterion of stating a source, it is always a poor substitute for citing the actual author.

Indicative content

In the Name of Plants has 3 pages of 6-columned Index. Firmly believing that the scope of a book is indicated by its Index entries, I hope this selection will give information that is useful to potential readers: American War of Independence; biodiversity hotspots; butterflies; climate change; cladistics; DNA sequences; Dutch East India Company; essential oils; extinction; fynbos; gametophytes; Gondwana; haustoria; HMS Endeavour; indigenous peoples; invasive plants; Jefferson, Thomas; Kew, Royal Botanic Gardens; Komarov Botanical Institute; Lapland; Linnaean naming system; Meriwether, Lewis,******* monophyletic group; moths; natural selection; naming plants; petals; pollination; quinine; roots; shared derived characteristics; Suriname; traditional medicine; type species; US Department of Agriculture; Vavilov, Nikolai; wind pollination; Yosemite National Park; and Zoological Society of London.

Am I allowed to have favourite genera?

As you should expect (otherwise why are they included?), all of the taxa have interesting tales to tell, but the most curious genera in the book – for me – are Gaga (pp. 62-67), Megacorax (pp. 103-107), and Sirdavidia (pp. 132-137). Why? Because the fern genus Gaga manmages to combine the ultra-high-tech DNA base sequence ‘GAGA’ with the fern-gametophyte-like performance costume of its multi-talented eponymous celebrity Lady Gaga; Megacorax is a rather satisfying Latin play on words – which is always welcome in a plant’s so-called Latin name (Ken Thompson) – on Peter Raven (M Socorro González Elizondo et al., Novon 12(3): 360-365, 2002; https://doi.org/10.2307/3393079, which reference is include in the book), the noted botanist and conservationist that the name celebrates; and Sirdavidia honours the world-renowned, natural history broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

Writing style

Although the writing can be quite challengingly technical in parts, e.g. “But the argument really rests on the acceptance or non-acceptance of paraphyly in classifications” (p. 26), generally such jargon is explained in-text. In the Name of Plants is also written with some humour and some honest personal insights – e.g. Knapp’s admission regarding Agnesia (a herbaceous bamboo), which she has mistaken for ferns (p. 22). She does like her long sentences, e.g. ones of 84 words (p. 24), 79 words (pp. 25/6), and 63 words (p. 14) stood out. And there’s another noticeable quality of Knapp’s writing style.

Although there may be some doubt as to whether God has “an inordinate fondness for beetles” [a view, if only apocryphal, widely attributed to the famous biologist JBS Haldane (KN Ganeshaiah, Current Science 74(8): 656-660, 1998; Garson O’Toole; Faye Flam), it seems undeniable that Knapp has a particular penchant for exclamation marks (Jennifer Gunner). I found 63 examples of these punctuation marks – although 9 were in text quoted from the pens of others – liberally scattered throughout the text. Such exclamatory writing I interpret as an illustration of the passion with which Knapp writes about her subject – and there’s nothing wrong with that, an enthusiastic writer is to be welcomed(!)

On balance In the Name of Plants is well-written, with some nicely-executed phrases (e.g. pages 191, 102, 116, 122, 138, 176, and 192) which contrast with other less-elegantly expressed passages on pages 118, 131, 150, and 162. And Knapp is not afraid to share her own opinions, such as the barely-veiled suggestion on p. 143 that women – rather than men, presumably – are more likely to display the patience and dedication necessary to study grasses. But, and above all, her passion and enthusiasm for her subject matter shine through on almost every page: Knapp is therefore a great ambassador for botany and the scientific study of plants.

Errors, ambiguities, and an opportunity to add value

For all its very good points, In the Name of Plants contains a few matters that need to be highlighted for the benefit of readers.

First, the year of publication of Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species by means of natural selection is stated as 1858 on p. 41; I believe the actual publication date is 1859 (RB Freeman). However, 1858 is nevertheless important in this context because it is the year in which the theory of evolution by natural selection was officially proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in their jointly-authored scientific paper presented at a meeting of The Linnean Society of London. One is therefore left to wonder whether the ‘mistaken’ mention of 1858 is a covert attempt by Knapp – President of The Linnean Society from 2018-2022 – to give a much-needed boost to Wallace, whose important role in developing the theory of evolution by natural selection is often forgotten (David Lloyd et al., Journal of Biosciences 35(3): 339-349, 2010; doi: 10.1007/s12038-010-0039-x; Anthony Kuhn),

Second, on p. 54, Knapp describes the vacuoles of plant cells as “hollow spaces in cells”. When I see the adjective ‘hollow’ – especially when here describing a ‘space’ – it brings to mind an empty, vacant, unfilled void (as in this dictionary definition). But, the plant vacuole is anything but, as dramatically proclaimed by Charlotte Carroll’s attention-grabbing blog item entitled “The vacuole: not just an empty hole!“. And this view is supported by such articles as this, this, and Regina Bailey’s. Interestingly – and highly-relevant in view of the importance of Latin in the book – the word vacuole is derived from the Latin word vacuus meaning ’empty’. So, is this an error by Knapp, or just an ambiguously-phrased statement? Either way the book’s text is probably best altered to remove any doubts as to whether the vacuole is filled or empty.

Third, Arthur Wellesley (Elizabeth Pakenham), also known as the 1st Duke of Wellington, and the Iron Duke, was many things. Notably he was twice a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom [https://www.gov.uk/government/history/past-prime-ministers/arthur-wellesley-1st-duke-of-wellington]. He was also a land-based military man – a soldier – of some acclaim (think Battle of Waterloo). But, as far as I’m aware, one of the things he wasn’t was a “British naval hero” as Knapp states on p. 126.

Fourth, on p. 154 Knapp invites the reader to imagine “the pressure this hydraulic column [the xylem] must be under”. Technically, the plant’s water column is under negative pressure, or tension (Melissa Ha et al.; Andrew McElrone et al. (2013), Nature Education Knowledge 4(5): 6). Positive pressure does occur in the xylem, but under particular circumstances (e.g. H Jochen Schenk et al., New Phytologist 230: 27-45, 2021; https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.17085).

Fifth, the dates for birth and death of Nikolai Vavilov (Sam Kean) are shown as 1887-1913 in the figure legend on p. 155. Yet, on p. 158 Knapp says: “By 1939, when Vavilov was in the Caucasus…”. Such a visit is only possible if the venerable Russian agronomist lived well beyond 1913, the year stated for his demise. Clearly, there is an inconsistency in-text here; my researches suggest that Vavilov died in 1943 (Marci Baranski).

Finally, the “three kingdoms of nature” are mentioned several times in-text – on pages 93, 94 and 96 – in connection with Linnaeus and his classification system, but nowhere could I see it stated what those three are. For completeness, that kingdomatic trio are Animals, Plants, and Minerals (Sandra Knapp, Nature 415: 479, 2002; https://doi.org/10.1038/415479a; Isabelle Charmantier).

Conclusion

An advertising inducement beloved of florists is to “say it with flowers”. And some blooms are well-known to convey hidden meanings – the so-called ‘language of flowers’ – between the sender and the recipient of the floral gift (regardless of whether that is known or understood by either party). An equally covert – but less subjective and more rational – message can be found in the scientific names (Melissa Will) given to flowering plants (and other members of the plant kingdom). And in In the Name of Plants Knapp has shown us how thoughtful botanists have said it with flowers (and gymnosperms, ferns, and mosses). Not so much plants and people as people in plants, this charming book embodies the essence of plants-and-people and is a welcome addition to that important botanical literary genre.********

Summary

Having cast a critical eye over In the Name of Plants by Sandra Knapp, I am happy to recommend it to all who have any interest in plants and/or people. And, given the timing of this appraisal, I’d go as far as to say that the book would make a suitable Christmas gift for any plant-appreciative person (or one who doesn’t yet have that appreciation and whose botanical literacy therefore needs to be increased).

I’m also happy to leave you with the words of author Knapp herself: “Botanical taxonomists, those people who provide names for plants, are often portrayed as dull folk, huddled away in corners, surrounded with dusty Latin tomes and piles of dried plants on bits of paper. Lack of a sense of humour or any connection with popular culture seem to be prerequisites. Well, nothing could be further from the truth – naming plants can give people hours of fun and sometimes it allows them to demonstrate just how connected science and culture really are” (p. 62).


* Arguably, one of the most interesting parts of the scientific literature in which a new scientific plant name is published is the section that deals with its etymology (or eponomy as in Orlando Ortiz et al., Phytotaxa 452 (3): 191–199, 2020; https://www.mapress.com/j/pt/) (e.g. Eberhard Fischer et al., Plant Ecology and Evolution 155(3): 333-342, 2022; https://doi.org/10.5091/plecevo.93804; Hernawati et al., REINWARDTIA 21(1): 19‒23, 2022; doi: 10.55981/reinwardtia.v21i1.4306; Xiao-Chen Li et al., PhytoKeys 196: 63–89, 2022; doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.196.83176; Brita Stedje et al., Phytotaxa 575(2): 166–172, 2022; doi: 10.11646/phytotaxa.575.2.6).

** Why generic names? Knapp has chosen to examine the people behind the names of genera, rather than the specific epithets, “because naming a genus is perceived as a bigger step than naming a species, perhaps necessitating more thought or consideration” (p. 9).

*** Something that’s only hinted at in Knapp’s book – although good to see it acknowledged there – is the contentious nature of some of the people who are potentially immortalised in the names of plant genera. Re-examination of such names has been prompted by current concerns about the de-colonisation of natural history collections in general (Sabrine Imbler), and of taxonomy in particular (e.g. Sandra Knapp et al., Taxon 69: 1409-1410, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12411). [And see here for Nature’s “Decolonizing science toolkit”, a collection of resources that provides examples of how institutions and scientific departments are recasting curricula and addressing racism’s influence]. Although a book appraisal isn’t really the place to delve into that darker side of plant nomenclature, interested readers are directed to the exchanges on this important topic published in the journal Taxon: Timothy Hammer & Kevin Thiele, Taxon 70(6): 1392-1394, 2021; https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12620; Gideon Smith & Estrela Figueiredo, Taxon 71(1): 1-5, 2022; https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12598; Sergei Mosyakin, Taxon 71(2): 249-255, 2022; https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12659; Gideon Smith et al., Taxon 71(5): 933-935, 2022; https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12742; Kevin Thiele et al., Taxon https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12821; and Sergei Mosyakin, Taxon https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12820, some of which articles specifically mention Banksia, Darwinia****, and Victoria, genera that are included in Knapp’s book.

**** Noteworthily, in their article, Kevin Thiele et al. (Taxon https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12821), strongly imply that the Darwin honoured in Darwinia is Charles Darwin, Victorian naturalist of some acclaim (Kerry Lotzof). However, in In the Name of Plants, Knapp is explicit that the Darwin of Darwinia name fame is in fact Erasmus Darwin (JMS Pearce): “Edward Rudge dedicated the plant to “the late Erasmus Darwin, M.D., of Litchfield, Author of The Botanic Garden, Zoonomia [sic.], and a translation of the Systema Vegetabilium of Linnaeus”” (p. 41) [which quote I found on p. 300 in Edward Rudge’s article “A description of several new species of plants from New Holland” (Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 11: 296-305, 1816)], grandfather of Charles (pp. 41, 45). Indeed, to emphasise this connection, and distinction, Knapp starts her essay on Darwinia thus: “You might be forgiven for thinking that any plant named for a Darwin was to honour Charles Robert Darwin” (p. 41). It therefore appears that Kevin Theale et al. may – however inadvertently – be in error in ascribing Darwinia to Charles Darwin, and therefore their comments about whether the name should be changed because “Darwin … held some views that we disagree with today” (p. 2 in their article) may not be appropriate. Whether the various comings-and-goings of Erasmus’ eventful life may be sufficient to promote similar concerns over the acceptability of Darwinia in the 21st century are another matter. That little aside underlines the need to take great care in concluding who is actually being honoured in eponymous plant names. Quite how tricky it can be to pinpoint the eponymous honoree is indicated in the article by Estrela Figueiredo & Gideon Smith (Bradleya 29: 121-124, 2011; https://doi.org/10.25223/brad.n29.2011.a14). As a further aside, it is worth adding that, as an eponymous plant name, Quassia [which genus is showcased in Knapp’s book] may be as questionable as Victoria and Banksia, in view of the slave-hunting activities of its namesake, Kwasi, in Suriname in the 18th century (p. 114). As Knapp explains, although Kwasi was a “man of African descent who had been enslaved” (p. 114), he nevertheless “worked as a scout for plantation owners, seeking out ‘Maroons’ – enslaved people who had escaped the plantations (p. 114). Indeed, Knapp tells us that members of the Maroon community in Suriname still view Kwasi as “a spy and a traitor” (p. 114).

***** Although ‘a name of long usage’, I was surprised to note that Knapp not only uses the ‘old-fashioned’ – or ‘traditional’ – family name of Compositae (Ann McNeil & Richard Brummitt, Taxon 52: 853-856, 2003; https://doi.org/10.2307/3647360) on p. 46 at the start of the essay on Eastwoodia, but also makes no mention of the more-up-to-date name Asteraceae (Ann McNeil & Richard Brummitt, Taxon 52: 853-856, 2003; https://doi.org/10.2307/3647360) there. Only somewhat belatedly, on the final page of the Eastwoodia article, are we told: “Compositae, also known as the Asteraceae” (p. 50). Asteraceae is mentioned as a ‘synonym’ for Compositae in reference to Vickia at the head of that genus’ essay (p. 161) – which is a bit of inconsistency that could be corrected in future version of the book. Interestingly, and also inconsistently, Asteraceae is not listed in the Index, whereas Compositae gets 3 mentions.

****** As is demonstrated by her election in 2022 to Fellowship of the UK’s Royal Society for, amongst other achievements, her “major contributions to our understanding of plant evolution and tropical biodiversity” … and for her “leadership role promoting novel initiatives for documenting tropical plant biodiversity”, and being “a ceaseless public advocate for its conservation and appreciation”. And the Solanaceae – the flowering plant family that includes such important plants as potato, tomato, pepper, and aubergine, and which has been such an important focus for Knapp’s researches over many decades [see here, and here] – is represented in the book by Juanulloa.

******* Somewhat surprisingly the eponymous plant genus Clarkia (Jeff Cox; Liz Baumann) wasn’t mentioned in the essay for Lewisia (Karen Andrews). Why should it be? William Clark was the co-leader, with Meriwether Lewis (after whom Lewisia is named), of the USA’s Corps of Discovery expedition of the early 19th century. Indeed, this epic, ground-breaking trans-continental odyssey is usually known as the Lewis and Clark expedition (Jay Buckley). Whilst recognising the right of the author to decide which genera are highlighted in her book, one would at least have expected a passing mention of Clarkia along with Lewisia.

********  In the Name of Plants contains a mere 30 people-plant names. There are many more out there (e.g. here, Michael Charters, and here). Might there therefore be another collection in the offing? One can only hope so.

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