Tag Archives: botanical Latin

Art Book of the Month, November 2016

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - title page

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection
Corporate Author: Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History)
Edited: PJP Whitehead and PI Edwards
London: BMNH, 1974. Limited Edition 41/400

John Reeves (1774 – 1856) was an English tea inspector for the British East India Company who spent several years in and around Canton.  His impressions of China were not very favourable (‘…and we have been disputing for months past with the villainous Government of this vile country…’ he wrote to his sister in 1814); but this mood did not last and he soon developed an obvious enthusiasm for collecting Chinese animals and plants, though specimens from all over Asia appear in his collection.

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Pineapple Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Slow Loris

An early 19th century Sir David Attenborough, Reeves was a keen naturalist.  He took to documenting animals and plants and commissioned Chinese artists to paint them in the Western scientific tradition.

He sent living specimens of beautiful Chinese flowering plants back to England, and was responsible for the introduction of many attractive garden plants to the West, including chrysanthemums, azaleas and wisteria. His name, reevesii, was applied to nearly 30 species of animals, and a plant genus.   .

Reeves’s son, John Russell Reeves, shared his father’s enthusiasm for natural history and eventually became a well-known naturalist in China for scientists in England. On John Russell’s death in 1877, his widow presented the drawings he had inherited from his father to the British Museum’s natural history department.

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Scarlet Macaw

Twenty stunning selected drawings from the Reeves Chinese Collection, divided equally between animals and plants, made mostly on large sheets of cartridge paper, are reproduced in high quality in this beautiful volume.  John Reeves lived to see the birth of photography – which made possible the collotype reproduction used here – but it is doubtful that his artists knew about cameras.  Many of these pictures were not drawn from the subject and in some of the most delightful examples too much artistic licence has been taken.  It must have been tricky to capture a realistic likeness while the animals moved about.  In some cases the drawing is a composite of leaf, flower and fruit from three different plants grafted on to the same stem!  Similarly, the insect drawings contain an amazing amount of detail and observation, but the insects are often purely imaginary.  But it is perhaps for these reasons that these beautiful drawings both show what the actual animal looks like and provoke a response in humans.

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Pineapple and Butterflies and a Dragonfly around Morning Glory

The drawings are pleasing aesthetically and still important scientifically; almost two centuries later, they represent a real tribute to the energy of John Reeves of Canton and the skill of his artists.

[Rossella]

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Why bother with botanical Latin?

The Marylebone Gardener ponders…

Like many gardeners I am frequently irritated and bamboozled by plants’ botanical Latin names. Often difficult to pronounce and a nightmare for those of us with poor spelling skills, eg: Zygopyllum prismatothecum… Why are we stuck with botanical Latin? The simple answer is that the Latin botanical name is universally recognised and identifiable. Sticking to common names can cause confusion. Recently a library colleague asked me what a certain purple flowering plant was in the staff garden. On replying, “It’s a (hardy) geranium”, they said, “I thought they had red flowers” – referring to the pelargonium family.

Geranium pratense (Meadow Cranesbill) at Camley Street Natural Park, Kings Cross

Geranium pratense (Meadow Cranesbill) at Camley Street Natural Park, Kings Cross

Pig amongst the Pelargoniums (Marylebone Library staff garden)

Pig amongst the Pelargoniums (Marylebone Library staff garden)

Likewise there is common confusion over the name bluebell. Referred to in the Scottish folk song:

“Oh where, tell me where
Did your Highland laddie dwell?
He dwelt in bonnie Scotland,
Where blooms the sweet blue bell”

This refers to Campanula rotundifolia, commonly known as the harebell, rather than the ‘English’ bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta.

Flora Britannica, by Richard MabeyHere the plant’s common name is restricted to two, but other plants within Britain have many more local names. Sixteen names have been recorded for the dandelion, including lion’s-tooth, puffball, fairy clock and pissabed! When you consider that many plants can be found growing across continents, the use of local names just doesn’t work for identification purposes. It’s fascinating from a cultural / historical viewpoint though, and Richard Mabey’s extraordinary Flora Britannica is a mine of curious information.

Latin names are often long due to the fact that they are frequently portmanteau words made up of descriptive elements within it. So returning to the hare bell the Latin name Campanula = bell-like (flower) and rotundifolia = round foliage. These descriptive elements occur in many botanical names and so are useful clues to the plant’s appearance such as colour, leaf shape or growing habit.

You may be aware of the name Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) the Swedish botanist who brought order to previous attempts to classify plants by dividing 7,700 species into 109 genera each one having an unique botanical name. In spite of being born and dying in Sweden, Linnaeus spent a significant part of his active life in England so warrants an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His entry can be consulted either online using the Westminster Libraries 24/7 electronic resources or in the printed version held within the Marylebone Information Service or Westminster Reference Library collections.

An entertaining history of Linnaeus and his predecessors attempts to bring order to the plant world can be read in Anna Pavord’s book The Naming of Names.  Westminster Libraries also stock several lending and reference guides to botanical Latin to aid the puzzled gardener:

The Naming of Names, by Anna Pavord   The Names of Plants, by D Gledhill   RHS Latin for Gardeners

We also stock Geoffrey Grigson’s Dictionary of English Plant Names, and Some Products of Plants. Please note that this reference book is currently held in a library store so it must be ordered in advance from Marylebone Information Service – but we’d be very pleased to bring it out into the light of day!

[Francis]