About Me

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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Some Classic Names; plants

In the heyday of taxonomy - from the late 18th to well into the 19th centuries, when there were scarcely enough working taxonomists to cope with the flood tide of plant and animal specimens pouring in to Europe from all over the world - classical allusions were rife. Perhaps the fact that the descriptions had to be in Latin (as indeed they still did for plants until very recently) helped inspired this, but most such authors would have had a classical education anyway. 

There were of course many gods to choose from, and an obvious one was Venus, the very popular Roman goddess whose portfolios included love, sex, fertility and beauty. Oddly, I can't readily find any plant named directly for her - though there is a northern hemisphere moth genus named Venusia - but I'd be surprised if it didn't exist somewhere. However, like any respectable Roman god (or is that an oxymoron?) she had aliases. One of these was Acmena (though I have also read that Acmena was a sort of house-nymph to Venus).
Acmena smithii Family Myrtaceae, 'Lilly Pilly', Nowra, New South Wales.
An attractive rainforest tree, with edible fruits (I make jam from them).
(Some taxonomists would now incorporate Acmena into Syzygium.)
Another manifestation of Venus was as Verticordia, 'the heart turner'; a magnificent genus of Western Australian Myrtaceous shrubs has been accorded this name - and quite rightly too, in my opinion!
Verticordia grandis, Gathercole Nature Reserve in the Wheatbelt east of Perth.
Diana, Roman Goddess of hunting, the moon and forests was another available option, including in the diminutive form, Dianella.
Dianella caerulea, Family Phormiaceae, Canberra.
Diana's Greek counterpart Artemis appears in the familiar daisy genus Artemisia, which included wormwood and tarragon.

Not all the divinities were so marketable however - though that didn't stop classically-educated taxonomists from having a go. In a farming society like the Roman it was quite reasonable to have a god of organic fertiliser - which sounds better than a god of manure... His name was Sterculius (or Sterquilinus) and a genus of tree was deemed appropriate to the implications of his trade.
Sterculia foetida, Family Sterculiaceae (which some would include in Malvaceae), planted in Port Douglas, Queensland.
(Some references extend its wide natural range, from east Africa through southern Asia, into northern Australia,
but this doesn't seem to be the case.)
This tree has seriously - well, foetid-smellling - flowers or the leaf stems.
Nymphs were a whole series of minor goddesses who seemed to enjoy themselves more than their seniors mostly did (other than when the grown-up gods were tormenting humans of course). Many nymphs were associated with water.
Nymphaea violacea Family Nymphaeceae, Fogg Dam near Darwin.
Then there were plenty of non-god classical denizens to call upon too. Pandora (from Greek 'all gifts') was the first mortal woman, showered with gifts by the gods as they created her. Being gods though, there was nothing nice about all this - in fact, bizarrely, it was an act of punishment on humankind for Prometheus' theft of fire. (And yes, this implies that humanity hitherto comprised only males - don't ask me, I'm just passing it on!) Being human she was curious about the contents of a jar (not a box as we'd now say in the familiar phrase) and peeped in, releasing all the ills of humankind. And what could have inspired someone to name a plant for her, you may well ask?
Pandorea doratoxylon, Spearwood, Family Bignoniaceae, Kata Tjuta, Northern Territory.
It is claimed that the time of collection of the type specimen on Norfolk Island
corresponded with a plague of unspecified insects...
One of the silliest names is Corybas, and one steeped in scientific villainy. Corybas was founder of the cheerfully orgiastic dancing priests of Phrygia; what he could possibly have had in common with the demure little helmet orchid genus of Australia is beyond imagination (mine anyway). The application of the name was apparently a piece of blatant robbery too. The great Robert Brown had already proposed the appropriate name Corysanthes, meaning ‘helmet flower’, but it was waiting in a long queue while he worked through publishing the huge Australian collections. Meantime Robert Salisbury saw an illustration from Ferdinand Bauer, published an inaccurate description from memory and gazumped Brown!
Corybas hispida, Canberra.
There has been a move recently to break up Corybas and return some species (including this one)
to Brown's genus Corysanthes, but as usual that has been staunchly resisted
by the Australian botanical establishment.
Caius Mucius Scaevola was a hero of ancient Rome. When the city of Rome was besieged by Lars Porsena and the Etruscans, and after Horatius had held the bridge*, Mucius sought to break the siege by sneaking out to kill Lars Porsena. Caius accidentally stabbed Lars Porsena’s secretary instead, was caught and threatened with torture. He responded by putting his own right hand into the altar fire; impressed (clearly none of them were too worried about mere secretaries'!) they let him go, and the Romans called him Scaevola, ie 'Left-handed'  or 'Lefty'!. Oh yes, the flower of the genus named for it is hand-shaped.

*If that allusion passed you by, then you probably went to school long after I did, so here's the poem if you're interested. If you don't have an afternoon to spare you might like to skip to verse XXVII, and skim thereafter...
Scaevola parvibarbata Family Goodeniaceae, Nyngan, New South Wales.
And more general classical allusions also abound. Nepenthes was a plant described in the ancient Greek literature which was said to assuage grief and even induce euphoria. Linnaeus himself seems to have missed the point of the wonderful pitcher plants when he assigned them this name based on their supposed medicinal qualities.
Nepenthes sp., National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
The story of these wonderful carnivorous plants will doubtless appear in this blog at some point.
St John's Wort, Hypericum perforatum Family Clusiaceae, is a common and serious southern Australian weed, though we have some native species too. Hypericum means 'above the image (or icon)'; in ancient Europe flowers were placed above the doorway on mid-Summer's eve to ward off evil. This festival was later usurped by the newer religion was St John's Feast, hence the common name
Hypericum gramineum, Morton National Park, New South Wales.
I could doubtless find more such classics, but that's enough to go on with now. Next week I'll conclude this mini-series with some classically-derived animal names.



Susan said...

Nothing named after Aphrodite? I'm surprised.

Flabmeister said...

I am surprised that any genus in a family named (in Greek I believe) after testicles can be referred to as demure!


Ian Fraser said...

Susan, I'm quite sure you're right and there must be, but not in Australia I'm pretty sure, and I don't know it.

Martin, we're not responsible for our wild relatives; I'm sure that Errol Flinn had demure relations...

Flabmeister said...

Ian, Susan
Ian's response is a challenge. I couldn't find anything in the Google responses to Aphrodite (who seems to have put Mr Flynn to shame).

So I searched for "Aphrodite" and similar terms in the index to Clements "Birds of the World: A Checklist". Zip, nil, nothing.

Back to Google and a search for [Aphrodite butterfly] delivered http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite_Fritillary. Decidedly not Australian.

I then searched the Encyclopedia of Life and got about half a dozen hits in strange corners of taxonomy including an alternative name for the very demure Dusky Butterfish http://eol.org/pages/212624/overview

Of course, the Goddess shouldn't feel unrecognised since, reflecting on her absence of demureness, she does also have a whole class of drugs named after her: aphrodisiacs.


Please sir, may get back on with my life?

Flabmeister said...

I've just realised that none of the samples are of plants which is what the post was about. Sorry for confusion I have probably added.