Finding the Wood through the Trees

I’ve inherited my love of gardening from very distant relatives. Assuming I am a ‘rational animal’ that is – because I have my doubts! 

As a child these ancestors might have enjoyed playing Snap with me and singing “One of These Things is Not Like the Other” (from Sesame Street) – except they lived far too many centuries ago to join me.

Grouping by similarities, and defining differences is something we are all taught as children, through play. It was Aristotle (384-322 BC) who first took the pursuit seriously and devised a hierarchical means of classifying us: animals with or without blood; animals living on land or sea etc. 

Binomial definition came from Aristotle too. Each creature being given two names for identification – a genus (root) and a point of difference. Thus humans were defined as a ‘rational animal’.

Aristotle’s student Theophrastus (372-287 BC), extended these ideas to plants. Currently my knowledge amounts to “do I like the look of the plant? Does it fit my situation?” Theophrastus, on the other hand, was meticulous in noticing and noting tiny details.

He is our ‘father of botany’ who set up the first botanical garden, on the grounds of Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens. From more than 500 species of plants in the Atlantic and Mediterranean region he classified plants into trees, shrubs, perennials and herbs. Theophrastus also studied which flowers had petals, which did not, plus the design and arrangement of said petals and he documented different ways of propagation. His work in Historia Plantarum, began the notion of plant taxonomy.

Over subsequent centuries, and in different parts of the world, new plants and animals were discovered. These scientists (who like the middle child almost always get forgotten) adjusted and modified the classification system.

Some even devised new ones, often according to the medicinal properties of plants. And so it was that similar plants ended up being called by different names depending on which scientist’s work they followed. 

It was Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who proposed, in Systema Naturae , a universal framework of organising all plants and animals – from the level of kingdoms through to species – and assigning them binomial nomenclature.

By using Latin descriptions, anyone the world over can know they are discussing the same plant or animal (species), even if it has different common names in their own languages. I’m finding it quite difficult to get my head around some of the classification concepts and my tongue around the Latin words but I’ll keep trying by applying some of this knowledge in my own backyard. It’ll get easier with practise, but I know my path to learning will look like a tangle instead of an orderly structure like the branches of a well pruned tree. 

There is one plant I’ve always been very familiar with though – both the common and the Latin name roll easily off my tongue. It’s been a part of my family, so to speak, for my lifetime.

When I walk past a bush, I cannot resist but to break a stem off; rub the oil from the leaves between my fingers; take in the aroma then pop it in my pocket to bridge a distance. Once a year, sprigs of it are handed out in churches for Mothering Sunday. And I have always believed that my mother is the best of all mothers because her name is Rosemary.

The Genus Rosmarinus are were evergreen shrubs with narrow, aromatic leaves and 2-lipped blue flowers in small clusters on the leaf axils. They belong to the Lamiaceae (mint) Family. There are were three species, Rosmarinus officinalis being the most familiar to us, and one of the plants actually classified by Carl Linnaeus, since it originates from the Mediterranean. Officinalis, refers to it being used by pharmacists for its medicinal properties. 

My mother would comfort me at bedtime and say ‘sweet dreams’, and sprigs of the plant tucked under beds in ancient times were said to protect from evil thoughts.

Rosemary is synonymous too with remembrance. To me it is the most important of plants. (But I don’t have a photo of it to put in this blog!)

Ironically while I was spending time in South Africa, discovering my ageing mum in a deeper way and documenting more of our family origins; botanists made a startling announcement. An examination of rosemary’s genetic make-up proved it is among the 1,000 or so plants that compose the salvia clan, no longer warranting its own genus. To me it’s like some family secret was revealed!

So in 2019 it was announced Rosmarinus officinalis will now be called Salvia rosmarinus.

According to John David, Head of Horticultural Taxonomy at the RHS “It is important that our naming system reflects the latest science otherwise it stands to lose its meaning”.

I’m loving the synergy between gardening and exploring my family history. It’s only human to ask ‘where (and how) do I belong?’ And when I add details to our family tree, I must refer to my dad’s official names, rather than the nickname he has lived by. It’s important to follow a consistent system of recording information to be passed on to future generations.

(Though a post on its own terms, this is also part of my new series ‘Parsley Sage Rosemary and Time’ as introduced in my previous blog.)

2 thoughts on “Finding the Wood through the Trees

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  1. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing this. It is a fascinating thought that humans don’t manage the same in our naming of ourselves – why would the father’s family name be continued, when in reality the new family is a combination of both mother and father, and take with it genes from both.


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