Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Mertensia: notes on confusion in nomenclature
For someone who really loves Virginia bluebells, I have very few of them. But I'm dividing and acquiring as I can, and someday I will have lots. They're blooming now, and looking splendid in part-shady spots with the bleeding hearts (which will eventually swallow them, so I'll probably have to move the bluebells. They are unassuming little dears, that take over by slow colonization rather than by getting enormous and overwhelming).
But this post isn't about the plant, really; it's about the genus name. There are a bunch of Mertensias, though virginica is the only one I know well. I've been taken with the name since I first learned it, and (this is the way of writers) decided that it would make a great girl's name, not for any real-life girls but for a fictional character, possibly the daughter of a botanist. I had a couple of vague potential characters in hypothetical novels whom the name might suit, both born in about the 1750s. So I looked it up to see if a botanist of the time would have known the name, and immediately plunged into confusion.
Just about any source you'll read (including Wikipedia) says this about Virginia bluebells: "The Latin name Mertensia was given to this plant by Carolus Linnaeus in honor of the German botanist Franz Mertens." Sounds good, right? Except that Linnaeus died in January 1778, and Mertens was born in April 1764. If I'm doing the math right, that means Mertens was 13 when Linnaeus died. He might have been a precocious botanical genius, perhaps... but on investigation it turns out that he studied theology at university, and only pursued botany in his spare time, though he did have some substantial achievements in the field. And no, his father was not a botanist.
I had to poke around a good deal more, into the International Plant Names Index and a scholarly article, to figure out that Linnaeus did indeed first (scientifically) name the Virginia bluebell, but he called it Pulmonaria virginica. It was later segregated from that genus and given the name Mertensia pulmonarioides by A.W. Roth in 1797, and the name was later stabilized as Mertensia virginica by J.H.F. Link in 1829 (with help from Persoon). Presumably Roth and Link were honoring Mertens, who was by then old enough to have achieved something in botany deserving the honor. Linnaeus probably never even heard of him.
So this is a lesson to you: a) do not read too much into those (L.) nomenclature notes without investigating (it says "Pers. ex. Link" too for a reason); and b) don't copy your information off Wikipedia. Really though, I probably would have accepted the "Linnaeus honors Mertens" thing if I hadn't been trying to figure out the date the bloody thing was named, so I could tell whether giving a character who was in her 20s in the 1770s the name of the genus was possible. Alas, it is not; I will have to reserve the name for someone in that Victorian novel I will never write. I did name the laptop on which I am typing this Mertensia. (All our computers have names, though this is the first one called after a plant.)