Vic Hamilton Attwell had us all fascinated at our October talk with his wide knowledge of the history of plant names. Perhaps we had all thought that until Linnaeus sat down with his quill pen and his hand lens, plants came a long way behind the animals in their interest to humanity. Not at all! Away back in 7000 BCE the Hindu Rig Veda scripts describe many plants with reference to their therapeutic medical properties.
Very many years later, in 70 CE, the Greek scholar Dioscorides’ probably compiled his authorative book, De Materia Medica, on sources such as these Rig Veda scripts. Linnaeus was a great admirer of his work and considered him the “Father of Botany”.
Linnaeus was very conscious of the immense amount of study which preceded his own work, de Systema Natura to be published in 1753. Throughout the 1700 years following the publication of Dioscorides’ text, Arab philosophers, generally based in Andalusia, continued to search for the underlying system which they felt must underpin the variety they saw in plant life.
Linnaeus sought to reduce the long descriptive names currently in use and acknowledged that the Swiss scientist, Caspar Bauhin had probably got it right in 1596 by adopting a binomial system. Linnaeus refined his ideas, added rules and standards on using the generic epithet followed by the specific epithet. And thus was born the system we use today.
Vic’s unpacking of many of the familiar names we hear all the time gave us insight into the historical characters honoured in this way. And of course a cursory knowledge of botanical Latin or Greek does help enormously in remembering the characteristics of a particular plant. You will keep well away from an asparagus plant when you realise that “a” means “very much”, and “sparagmos” describes a “tearing” action!
Vic acknowledged that his talk was inspired by Geoff Andrew’s book on Plant Names. Published privately it is available from Geoff or from the Hermanus Botanical Society. He has recently developed an app which can be accessed from a smart phone. Please contact Geoff Andrew for further information, firstname.lastname@example.org