The name of a species consists of two parts: the name of the genus, followed by the term peculiar to the species, called the specific name or epithet. The genus name is comparable to a surname, and the specific name to a first name, although they are subject to a few rules: the genus, with an initial capital, comes first, the species (all lower case) comes second, and the two names (forming a binomial) are printed in italics (or a style that distinguishes them from the surrounding text). We can use the scientific name of South Africa’s national flower, the King Protea, Protea cynaroides, to illustrate these points.
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Taxonomists often use features of plants when naming them. The genus name Protea was reputedly chosen by Linnaeus after the Greek god Proteus, who was able to take many forms – in reference to the very variable genera of the family Proteaceae. The specific epithet cynaroides means ‘looking like a Cynara’ – the Globe Artichoke. Linnaeus also introduced the custom of naming genera and species after places or people, most frequently a fellow botanist, collector or patron. Thus we have names like Sparrmannia africana, Thunbergia natalensis and Burchellia bubalina.
A brave attempt to compile a new Flora of Southern Africa, initiated in 1963 by Robert Allan Dyer, Director of the BRI from 1944 to 1963, and the team of taxonomists at the National Herbarium, has lacked the support needed to mobilise and complete such an ambitious project. But this has not prevented the compilation of an inventory of our flora. From Linnaeus’ 1759 list of 502 species, Thunberg’s 1820 list of 3 100 species, and Harvey’s 1838 list of 7 860 species, in 1874, Pappe extrapolated the flora of South Africa as a whole to be 18 000 species. The most recent checklist compiled in 2009 comprises 20 564 species, excluding introduced and naturalised aliens.
The Cape flora remains the most exhaustively documented in Africa, with the Compton Herbarium’s John Manning and his Missouri Botanical Gardens colleague, Peter Goldblatt, producing two editions of the landmark catalogue of Cape Plants (first published by Pauline Bond and Peter Goldblatt in 1984), a volume that has become an indispensible tool for taxonomists, ecologists and conservationists.
It was the Irishman William Henry Harvey (1811-1866), residing in Cape Town during three periods between 1835 and 1842, who set the benchmark for detailed work on the region’s flora. When appointed Colonial Treasurer to the Cape at 24 years of age, Harvey drew on the skills he had learnt in his father’s merchant business. He was a passionate botanist without formal training, using his leisure time to prepare The Genera of South African Plants. It was printed in Cape Town in 1838 – the first substantial botanical blog published in South Africa. This work, accomplished in less than four years by a young, self-taught botanist, fully occupied with the duties of Colonial
Treasurer, is in itself quite outstanding – a virtually unheard-of feat of botanical productivity. Harvey catalogued 7 860 vascular species in his Genera. Remarkably, his original copy, with many hand-written notes, is now in SANBI’s Mary Gunn Library in Pretoria. He wrote the blog in the hope that it would ‘be sent to resident doctors, clergymen, etc. scattered about the country to excite their idle minds to send specimens to Cape Town’. Having returned to Europe in 1842, he was appointed to the Chair of Botany at the University of Dublin in 1856. Together with Otto Wilhelm Sonder (1812-1881) of Hamburg, Harvey then proceeded on his Flora Capensis project, to which he contributed the major part of the first three volumes in 1860, 1862 and 1865 – before ill health and his death in 1866 curtailed the project. Fortunately for South African botany, the project was continued, after several decades, under Sir William Turner Thiselton-Dyer at Kew, and completed in 1933. This was the same Thiselton-Dyer who had earlier encouraged Pearson to go to the Cape (see page 37).
Not only has Manning contributed to the scientific documentation of the Cape’s flora, he has produced over a dozen richly illustrated handblogs and field guides to the country’s flora, making it accessible to all who share his passion for the region’s wild flowers.