Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Bottles Boxes Baskets bags nets &c &c &c"

Jim Endersby, author of the excellent A Guinea Pig's History of Biology, has a nice piece in the TLS on the new edition of the correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks:
In his letter, Roxburgh [an East India Company surgeon and botanist] described some new plants he was sending, and emphasized “the astringent qualities of the Terminalia Myrobalana (Myrobal. Citrin.)”. The genus Terminalia had received its name from Linnaeus himself in 1767 (in the thirteenth edition of the Systema Naturae), but assigning the plant to the correct species was more difficult, as Roxburgh’s parenthesis shows. In 1774 the tree had received the name Myrobalanifera citrina from Petrus Houttuyn, professor of botany at Leiden, and it is now called Terminalia catappa. Yet it still goes by many different common names, including Indian almond, Bengal almond, Malabar almond, Sea bean tree and Umbrella tree; it has several Hindi names, including Baadaam, Deshi badam and Jangli badam; in Malay it’s Ketapang; and in Nepalese Kaathe badaam. And the University of Melbourne’s multilingual, multi-script plant names database (www.plantnames.unimelb.edu.au) lists dozens of others.

Putting an end to this botanical Babel had been a key motive for Linnaeus’s reforms, and while much clearly remained to be done in Banks’s time, the situation was greatly improved compared to that of a generation earlier, when each country’s botanists tended to use their own language and system of names. Roxburgh’s letter also makes it clear why accurate, unambiguous names mattered so much: “I think \[Terminalia Myrobalana\] will prove the strongest vegetable Astringent known”, he wrote, telling Banks that he used it to make ink and that it was also used by the Chinese in dyes and paints: “without it their colours would run like Ink on Blotting Paper”. He was therefore convinced that “it would prove a great acquisition to a Commercial Nation”. But only if the right plant, and the best variety of that plant, could be obtained and grown.

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