Sandy’s Garden ... what’s in a name?

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At one time, plant collectors had something close to a right to expect that significant new plants would be assigned botanical names commemorating their finders.

Thus – and these names are chosen entirely at random from a book entitled ‘An A-Z of Plant Names’ – Crocus kotschyanus was named after Theodor Kotschy, an Austrian botanist; Malus coronaria Charlottae was named in honour of Mrs Charlotte de Wolf, who found the plant; Paeonia potaninii commemorates the Russian plant collector Nicolaevich Potanin; the genus Mahonia is named for the American horticulturist Bernard McMahon; and Nicotiana gets its name from Jean Nicot, who introduced the tobacco plant to France in the 16th century. (Would we, I wonder, be so enthusiastic about naming a plant that has turned out to be as harmful as tobacco after the botanist who brought it to Europe?)

Be that as it may, it is a largely academic question, for this custom of naming plants after people closely connected with them fell in desuetude as its value was questioned.

However, I read that a recent addition to the plant encyclopaedia has been named after an Edinburgh botanist with a particular interest in it.

This is Taraxacum pankhurstianum, which has received the name pankhurstianum after a now-retired - but still active - botanist for long associated with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Richard Pankhurst.

Taraxacum is, as we all know, the botanical name for the dandelion, and this new species of dandelion has been discovered growing on one of the remotest islands in the Outer Hebrides.

Quoting from the RBGE website: “The plant is only known from the Isle of Hirta, in the archipelago of St Kilda, where it may be endemic and may be among the rarest plants in Scotland’s flora.

‘‘It is thought that the plant could have been brought to St Kilda by birds or Vikings, and Iceland is thought to be the most likely source.”

“Seeds from four plants were collected two years ago by Jim McIntosh” – who works for the Botanical Society of the British Isles as coordinator for Scotland – “when he joined a group of botanists from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh on a sailing trip to the island of Hirta to carry out a survey of higher plants and bryophytes.” Natacha Frachon propagated the seeds in RBGE, where the plant was named in honour of Richard Pankhurst by Professor James Richards, of Hexham, Northumberland, who saw the species and recognised that it was new.

Richard is well-known in the botanical world, having been interested in the taxonomy, distribution and the computer-assisted identification of Taraxacum for more than thirty years. He was also involved in the culture of this new variety.

Again quoting the RBGE’s own words: “ Richard said it is an honour to have the dandelion named after him,” adding, “St Kilda is known to have two endemic species of mice and a wren, and now we know it has a dandelion too.’’

There remains some doubt as to the reason for the plant being rare on St Kilda, for dandelions generally have a habit of spreading both widely and quickly.

It is certainly possible that the plant is not quite as rare as is supposed, for dandelions have a short flowering season in May on these uninhabited and remote islands and professional botanists are seldom there at that time. But it is equally possible that the plant is a valuable food source for sheep and, perhaps, some bird, on an island where food is in short supply and where resident animals will have a nibble at anything to discover if it can be eaten.