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By any other name.

Anna Pavord The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants. Bloomsbury, 384 pages, $45

reviewed by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers

Browsing through plant encyclopedias and garden catalogs or visiting botanical gardens and nurseries, one can see many varieties of offerings, each carrying a binomial, or two-name, Latin label comprising a particular plant's genus, which is capitalized, and following it in lower-case, an epithet, or characterizing secondary name denoting its species. This epithet may refer to the plant's original habitat: for instance, Pinus virginiana for the pitch pine native to eastern North America; to the plant collector who discovered it in the wild, perhaps fortunei if, as in the case of the rhododendron, it was first brought into cultivation by Robert Fortune (1812-1880); or to some other distinguishing characteristic such as white-flowered, in which case it might be called albiflorens.

At the moment I am looking at The Random House Book of Perennials, which both describes and illustrates with color photographs 1,250 plants. If I want to plant the lovely bell-shaped campanula, I can choose and probably buy one or more of several members of the family Campanulaceae. If I have a rock garden, I may want Campanula carpatica, which, as its name suggests, was discovered in the Carpathian mountains of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and western Russia. Or, I might want instead Campanula persicifolia, so named because its leaves resemble those of a peach tree. Its natural habitat, unlike that of the alpine Campanula carpatica, consists of meadows, open woods, and forest edges across most of Europe from Belgium and Holland eastward through central and southern Russia and northwestern Turkey. Should I wish to have a particular white cultivar--that is, a hybrid variety--I might pick Campanula persicifolia "Hampstead White." (A plant's Latin binomial is always italicized, while varieties of that species, whether natural or cultivated, are indicated in Roman type.)

You don't have to be a gardener to find botanical Latin useful. Field guides provide helpful information accompanied by illustrations-often colored line drawings or photographs--for the naturalist or curious hiker. In Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America, I find that the pretty violet-blue harebell I have seen in meadows and on rocky alpine slopes is called Campanula rotundifolia. Even though the small roundish basal leaves that give it its name wither early and are not usually apparent, I can identify it by its wiry, hairlike stems and linear leaves, which match those described and depicted in the Peterson guide.

The precise and systematic nomenclature that groups all plants into commonly held categories, employing Latin, the enduring language of Western society since antiquity, is generally credited to the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Whether Japanese, French, or Brazilian, botanists and plant specialists around the world today communicate using binomial Latin and know that they are signifying the same plant. Binomial Latin remains the system of naming plants newly discovered in the wild, and with classical studies departments on the decline, it may be fair to say that the survival of Latin as a living language is due in no small part to botanists. But this system--and even the word "botany" which did not gain currency until the eighteenth century--rests upon the struggle since ancient Greek times to classify plants in a meaningful way.

Herbals, handbooks for doctors and apothecaries, were the first written texts on plants. The primary role of herbals was in describing plants as materia medica (apothecary recipes are included in many old herbals). Initially written on parchment and later on papyrus (the discovery of this important practical use of an Egyptian sedge changed the form of books from scrolls to bound volumes), herbals were transmitted as manuscripts with, as one may imagine, multiplying errors until the invention of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century. Then books created on paper (a second-century A.D. Chinese invention that was not adopted in Europe until the printing press made its use inevitable) became textually and pictorially uniform.

Until the sixth century A.D. herbals were without illustrations. In a magnificent parchment manuscript simply called Juliana's book after its patron, the Eastern Roman empress Juliana Anicia, the first plant portraits are found. Like many other herbals from antiquity through the Renaissance, Juliana's book is based on De materia medica, a treatise written around 77 A.D. by the Greek doctor Pedanios Dioscorides.

The quest for a proper classification system by Dioscorides and other pre-Linnaean botanists and, along with this, the evolution of the botanical illustration from a formulaic image to a naturalistic and scientifically observed one is the story Anna Pavord has chosen to tell in The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants. Doing justice to the images in the rare books that are its subject, Pavord's book is handsomely produced and contains 159 full-page illustrations, the bulk of which are of plants in herbals dating from the time of Juliana's book until the end of the seventeenth century. Crammed with facts and based on an astonishing amount of research, her text strives for drama, with Pavord herself as protagonist. She tells us of remote regions she has trekked in search of the rarities described in ancient treatises, the graves and memorials of eminent and obscure persons she has visited, and, of course, the numerous libraries where she has pored over precious volumes, deciphering their meaning and the accuracy of their illustrations.

In employing this spirited, first-person narrative, however, Pavord adopts an often irritatingly opinionated stance. With a large degree of journalistic license, she plays favorites, extravagantly praising one person and denigrating another. Readers may wince at some of her chapter titles: "Pliny the Plagiarist" deals with the great natural historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), and "The Long-Nosed Nit-Picker" refers to Pier Andrea Mattioli (1501--1577) who "just continued to hoover up new plants for further, ever-expanding editions" of his 1565 herbal, Commentarii in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbi. Pavord accuses Mattioli of appropriating without acknowledgment the work of one of her heroes, Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), the Italian plantsman who served as curator of the botanic garden at Pisa.

Scholars may also cringe at her breezy style. Worse, they will be dismayed at the confusion she betrays in the course of her voluminous, though sometimes over-hasty, research as when she attributes the famous letter of Pliny the Younger (62-c. 115 A.D.), in which he describes his garden at Laurentum, to his uncle, her anti-hero Pliny the Elder, whom she calls "a Roman Grad-grind" ("Facts, facts, facts were what he consumed and regurgitated in vast quantities"). Compounding error, Pavord conflates the younger Pliny's description of his Laurentine garden with the picture he draws in a separate letter of an entirely different villa garden he owned in Tuscany. About this garden the younger Pliny writes of an open riding ground surrounded by ivy-clad plane trees linked together by vines, a shady outer ring of laurels, and grass lawns separated by "box shrubs clipped into innumerable shapes, some being letters which spell the gardener's name or his master's." From this Pavord leaps to the conclusion that Pliny's garden of box topiary, grass lawns, and ivy-clad plane trees is ancestral to "a garden style re-created over and over again through the centuries that followed [down to the present day in which] the vine-covered pergola has become the hallmark of the kind of property, most likely to find its way on to the glossy pages of House and Garden magazine." With unintentional irony in light of the above, she maintains that the encyclopedic elder Pliny was merely a "credulous compiler [and] not even a serious researcher."

Her prose is overwrought and often redundant. The same ideas and sometimes virtually the same sentences pop up in several places. She does, however, make all important point: first-hand field observation and scientific investigation of plants were slow in coming. Such was the reverence of later herbal writers for Theophrastus (c. 372-287 B.C.) and his successor Dioscorides, that even in the Renaissance--also the Age of Discovery--as hitherto unknown plants were being sent back to Europe from the Americas and China, humanist scholars were chiefly writing glosses on ancient texts. Thus, knowledge was passed on mainly as received information.

Pavord's principal hero is Theophrastus, and he figures prominently throughout her book. This early naturalist taught at the Lyceum, which his teacher Aristotle founded in 335 B.C. He was, by her reckoning, "the first in the long list of men who fought to find the order they believed must exist in the dizzying variety of the natural world." From our post-Darwinian scientific perspective, it is difficult to realize how hard Theophrastus and other men of great minds once had to strain to make sense of the natural world. Eventually, it was necessary to transcend the Aristotelian system that posited a stable universe in which all things are knowable. Nonetheless, even for contemporary open-ended natural science, a system of classification such as the one Aristotle and his pupils pioneered remains necessary. For Theophrastus and those who came after him, the first order of business was simply to figure out a method of differentiating one class of plants from another and then universalizing this identification system by means of a language that transcended parochial tongues. Should plants be categorized according to leaf structure, seed and fruit character, growth habit, or some other common indicator that would logically divide them into families and species? The basic differentiation between trees, shrubs, and herbs (long called simples) was the primary and obvious first cut, but without understanding, as Linnaeus did, the sexual means of plant reproduction--knowledge he used to differentiate one species from another--many attempts reached dead ends.

Only much later would it be possible to banish hearsay and superstition from humanity's relationship to plants, thus avoiding their erroneous medical applications and liberating doctors and apothecaries from the wiles of herb women who gathered their supply of roots and tubers. By tracing the two-thousand-year effort to find a universal system of classification and the application of a scientific method to their study, Pavord makes us aware of the great adventure in the naming of plants. Her story is one that is fraught with the attrition of knowledge though book burnings, war, and other kinds of loss. Breaking with the slavish reliance on the received wisdom of ancient authorities, artists-notably Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer--and seventeenth-century scientists such as John Ray set plant knowledge on its present course by adopting close personal observation and independent scientific analysis.

For making us aware of the necessity for a universally recognized system of plant classification and the arduous process by which knowledge is acquired and transmitted through the centuries, we may want to overlook some of the flaws in Pavord's galloping and sometimes confusing narrative. Her story, is in the end a fascinating one.
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Title Annotation:The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants
Author:Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Words:1817
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