Botanist pens dictionary of plant names

Author Hugh Clarke with his wife Fenja Clarke and Nathan (Natie) Finkelstein of Constantia.

If you’ve ever wondered how Ludorugbya or Juglans got their names then your sleepless nights are over. All has been revealed in The Illustrated Dictionary of Southern African Plant Names.

And if the idea of reading a dictionary holds little appeal don’t despair, Hugh Clarke gives new meaning to plants with Latin tongue twister names. He also provides fascinating insight into the botanists of long ago, the conditions they lived under and their lifestyle, as well as some of South Africa’s plant illustrators and botanists.

The book has taken six years and thousands of hours of painstaking research to complete. When the Newlands human resource manager retired in 2003, he needed a project to fill his time. After 18 months of dedicated hiking, photography and research, the result was Common Wild Flowers of Table Mountain.

Published in 2007 by Struik and co-authored by Bruce Mackenzie, it is still used by flower-lovers, hikers and tourists. What next? In 2009 he spoke of updating Professor WPU (Peter) Jackson’s 1990 guide describing the origins of about
2 800 plant genera names. Genera are the major sub-division of a family or sub family in the classification of organisms.

The original guide was a small booklet, 20 years out of date and out of print, updating it should only have taken a few months. Time flew by until earlier this month when Professor Eugene Moll sent invites to the launch and one week later I received a copy in my letterbox. Opening the hefty package, the 483 page book left me speechless. The journey of making the book was revealed on Thursday December 8 outside the Botanical Society bookshop at Kirstenbosch. The launch was attended by family, friends and the who’s who of Cape Town’s botany world.

Hugh said he wanted to work on a guide to the trees of Table Mountain. His publisher told him Eugene was already writing a book on the trees of the Cape Peninsula. Undeterred, he contacted the Kirstenhof professor to check if this was true. Eugene said yes but he had another project in mind and asked Hugh to meet him for coffee at Kirstenbosch.

Hugh admitted that when he agreed to take on the project, he hadn’t realised how it would impact his life for the next six years. His first step was to approach the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for their database.

He expected a list of about 2 000 plant genera names. Instead the revised database contained 4 766. These included lichens, which at that time, he did not realise are not plants.

Having been privileged to walk with Prof Jackson, I got into botany by accident. Walking on his heels one day, he turned around, pointed to a plant, and asked its name.

I was totally ignorant and he ordered me to buy (Mary) Maytham Kidd’s guide to the wild flowers of the peninsula and learn the names. He was dogmatic about us learning the proper names, Latin tongue twisters. People such as the late Claremont amateur botanist Ann Steele, provided a “hook” for learning the name, the meaning of it.

For Hugh, finding the meaning of the names was not easy.

He had to become a botanical detective and contacted over 100 people from overseas who ended up contributing to this book.

Two years into working on it, he came across Michael Chalmers who lived in California and has a passion for southern African plants. They soon collaborated on the information. Over the past year Eugene got involved in the editing of the book, supplying some of the 600 photographs and other information.

As for Ludorugbya and Juglans, the former refers to a bryophyte in the mosses and liverwort section. The species was named springbokorum because it was discovered in 2007 when the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup.

Juglans comes from the nuts of Jupiter.

When asked if she has read the book, Hugh’s wife Fenja – the book is dedicated to her and co-author Michael Charter’s wife Miriam – laughed saying “you dip into it but lots of it was told and read to me.”

And I agree, start reading it and it will become your bedside companion. This dictionary is richly illustrated with about 5 000 genera, some with pictures illustrating their meanings. It’s astonishing that about 1 000 of them are named after people from 36 countries, about half of them German, many never having set foot on African soil.

Many were either great botanists and or plant collectors while others funded botanical expeditions or were great friends or respected colleagues of those who named the genera.

There are 900 short biographies and 500 portraits of the people for whom the plants are named.

Each letter of the alphabet introduces local botanists and botanical artists.

The book is divided into three sections, the main is vascular plants, bryophytes and lichens.