What’s In a Name??

Title page of botany textbook by Mrs. Lincoln Phelps, 1845

As I have written about in the past, I currently work in an herbarium. For a very long time, I mounted botanical specimens. Now we are pretty caught up on that and I am delving into other tasks that surround collections. One of the things I work on fairly regularly is looking up current taxonomy. I used to not only desire to know about plants, but also know several of their names, both common and Latin. I have come to realize that this is a futile task.

First of all, common names are largely based on culture and geography. I learned this immediately when my friend and now coworker Stefanie was calling a tree a Tamarack and I was calling it a Larch. We were talking about the same tree. This is why people do use Latin names. However, after working in the herbarium I have come to realize two facts: (1) There are millions of plants and I will never know even a fraction of a fraction of their names and (2) Latin names also change, and much more often than you would think. This is why I have to check for taxonomy updates. Plants that have been collected even just a few years ago, may have a new Latin name assigned and can even be assigned to a new family. There can even be a new family! According to Jim, the botanist, there are two kinds of botanists: lumpers and splitters. Which is what brings me to the photographs in this post.

I came across this book on one of the herbarium shelves, and, being very attracted to the binding and typeface, picked it up immediately. The image at the top shows the title page Lectures on Botany, by Mrs. Lincoln (as written on the spine of the book). Mrs. Lincoln was the principal at the Patapsco Female Institute of Maryland and author of books on natural history. I decided to read the preface of the book where she discusses, among other things, what she choose to exclude from this text. I almost fell over laughing at the part I have underlined in red below where she writes :

While changes that occur in recent years do rely on DNA of plants to really tell if there is a new species or not, you cannot overlook the vanity of what drove people to make such ‘discoveries’ in the past. And possibly the fame of discovering something new still drives people, which is not necessarily a bad thing all in all.

But I cannot leave this post without sharing two other things. One is the beautifully written inscription inside the front of the book indicating to whom this particular volume belongs. The other is the entirety of Mrs. Lincoln’s Preface.

2 thoughts on “What’s In a Name??

  1. An example of a wonderful, exciting find! With much being digital today, I am concerned finds such as this will become rarer, if not at all, for future researchers. Perhaps I shouldn’t be concerned, but I am. The letters, diaries, newspapers, items left in old books, etc. how will digital fill those gaps?

    Liked by 1 person

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