Issue 133, page 1
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We're rather proud of our begonias. Two years of careful coaxing has been rewarded with huge, colorful blooms. Naturally, we were curious to learn the origin of begonia. The dictionary says simply that it derives from the name of one Michel Bégon. We first assumed this to mean that M. Bégon was the discoverer of this plant but a little further reading proved us wrong. He was, in fact, a French colonial official and patron of a monk called Charles Plumier. In return, Plumier named a new American plant begonia. In 1703, Plumier published Nova Plantarum Americanarum which described lobelia and fuchsia for the first time. Both of these were named after self-opinionated botanists who were admired by Plumier. One was Leonhard Fuchs of Tübingen who wrote De Historia Stirpium in order to correct "illiterate" botanists. The other was Matthias de l'Obel who corrected Gerard's celebrated "Herbal" while simultaneously accusing Gerard of plagiarism. Could M. de l'Obel have been inspired to botanical endeavors by his family name? De l'Obel, is French for "of the white poplar" and his family coat of arms was a poplar leaf.
Keen gardeners may be familiar with a species called Lobelia siphilitica. Don't let the funny spelling fool you - this deep blue border plant was once thought to cure syphillis. (It doesn't.)
[To go off on a tangent for a moment, we think fuchsia and desiccate are the two most difficult words to spell in the English language.]
In 1704 Plumier planned a trip to Peru to find the cinchona tree, source of "Peruvian bark", which gave us quinine and a treatment for malaria (literally "bad air", Latin malus "bad" + aria "air"). But poor old Plumier died while waiting for a ship Cinchona itself is another plant eponym - it commemorates the occasion in 1638 when the Countess of Chinchon was cured of malaria by use of Peruvian bark. So, why isn't it called chinchona? Apparently, Carl Linnaeus, father of the scientific classification of plants, made a spelling error. This is yet another example of an ancient typo which has become too ingrained to change, like wisteria. This was supposed to be named in honor of Dr. Caspar Wistar (note the -ar), a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and friend of Thomas Jefferson. We can't help but wonder how much honor is conveyed by a misspelled name.
Perhaps these are not as strange as the bird known scientifically as Puffinus puffinus, though. Any guesses at the common name of this bird? All of you who think it's the puffin can put your hands down... it's the Manx shearwater. Why? A simple mix up with some eggs and chicks. Oh well, it's too late to change now.
The naming of the gardenia was something of a struggle. A prosperous English merchant named John Ellis leaned on Linnaeus to name the "Cape jasmine" after his friend, Dr. Alexander Garden of Charleston, in the Carolinas. Linnaeus brought up the minor objection that he had already used gardenia for the "Carolina allspice", a plant which had actually been discovered by Garden. Also, the "Cape jasmine" was from South Africa, a territory unknown to Garden. Ellis trumped Linnaeus by declaring that he had already told Garden that the plant had been named in his honor. Worn down, Linnaeus admitted defeat and renamed the plants. Incidentally, Dr. Garden, a prominent Tory, had to flee Charleston during the Revolutionary War and was never again to see his granddaughter, Gardenia.
A recent news report tells of a new genus of fossil dinosaur found in Madagascar. The paleontologists called it knopflerii because they were listening to a "Dire Straits" tape while excavating the fossils. If only the plants we now know as hosta could revert to their original name: funkia (in honor of Heinrich Christian Funck, a German moss expert).
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