Sunday, May 13, 2007


Botanical Nomenclature

Clintonia borealis (Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, photograph by Janice Stiefel)

Thoreau, Journal (June 12, 1852):
The Dracaena borealis (Bigelow) (Clintonia borealis (Gray)) amid the Solomon's-seals in Hubbard's Grove Swamp, a very neat and handsome liliaceous flower with three large, regular, spotless, green convallaria leaves, making a triangle from the root, and sometimes a fourth from the scape, linear, with four drooping, greenish-yellow, bell-shaped flowers. Not in sun. In low shady woods.

It is a handsome and perfect flower, though not high-colored. I prefer it to some more famous. But Gray should not name it from the Governor of New York. What is he to the lovers of flowers in Massachusetts? If named after a man, it must be a man of flowers. Rhode Island botanists may as well name the flowers after their governors as New York. Name your canals and railroads after Clinton, if you please, but his name is not associated with flowers.
Clinton is DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York 1817–1822 and 1825–1828. Throreau's reference to canals and railroads is apposite -- the governor was responsible for the creation of the Erie Canal, and he had a locomotive named after him, as well as a wildflower. If DeWitt Clinton wasn't a "man of flowers" in Thoreau's eyes, his son George William Clinton was -- the Clinton Herbarium in Buffalo, New York, is named after him.

It is not necessarily a mark of honor to have a plant named after you. See Ann-Mari Jönsson, The Reception of Linnæus's Works in Germany with Particular Reference to his Conflict with Siegesbeck:
Initially Linnæus and Siegesbeck had been on friendly terms. There are four very ingratiating letters from Siegesbeck to Linnæus between 1735-1737. But there seems to have been some irritation under the surface. In Hortus Cliffortianus, printed as early as in the summer of 1737, Linnæus had named a newly found plant Siegesbeckia! Now, what sort of a plant is this? It is a small, stinking European weed (Sw. Klibbfrö). Linnæus had probably been warned about Siegesbeck's attack and thus sought to castigate him. One of Linnæus's ideas in Critica botanica (1737, pp. 78-81) is that there should be a link between the plant and the botanist whom it was named after. For example, Magnolia, Linnæus says, has very handsome leaves and flowers, which recall the splendid botanist Magnol. But Dorstenia has insignificant flowers, faded and past their prime, like the works of Dorsten!

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