of plant biographies
Maintained Background Information
The entries are supported by extensive background documentation which is continually updated and maintained. This documentation includes :
i) Definitions of Botanical Names for both genera and species (enabling some level of consistency in the main text) is complemented by one containing a list of those names for which definitions have as yet to be discovered during research.
ii) Lists of Cross-Referenced pseudonyms for individuals involved with plants, and of alternative names of places or events and of titles of subjects eg. ‘Bungs See Stoppers’ (sometimes more than one), appearing in the General Index allows these to be looked up easily should they need to be updated eg. added to – as well as offering a check on their near-duplication.
iii) A massive Index of Botanical Names and Synonyms includes both synonyms for species in the main text and identified common names of plants which have still to be researched. (A common name for a plant needs to be noted when found as it might not emerge opportunely in the future.)
iv) The Nursery Documents enable initial scraps of information on unresearched species to be accumulated prior to concentrated research and the possible eventual inclusion of the material in the main text eg. announcements made on News programmes about the synthesis of Sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) for a laboratory-produced malaria treatment were noted accordingly.
v) ‘Translated’ botanical and medical terms into plain language are maintained in order to provide a consistent description in the general text. (Similarly plant descriptions compiled in plain language offer support in the preparation of text absorbed into a main entry eg. the colour of part of a plant, its smell, texture, etc.)
vi) A List of Species Referred To in main entries apart from their own (or occasionally when they have yet to be researched for eventual inclusion) is kept to ensure that a plant thus referred to can be found in the event that it has to be amended because of, for example, a botanical name change.
vii) A further document attempts to deal with the Qualifying/Descriptive Information provided about individuals, etc. as this is sometimes incomplete – or in the case of dates, the year of death of a living person needs to be added.
Despite these safeguards however, I have to admit, with great sadness, mistakes/omissions can still occur occasionally and we welcome advice of them if ever you come across any.
Discrepancies in Material Researched
When researching the material, which is basically a compilation of more obscure but already published information from many varied and sometimes surprising sources, it becomes apparent that there are an inordinate number of discrepancies between different botanical descriptions, as well as other data. While a portion of these may be due to error or ongoing professional debate, some can well be appreciated by us all. For example
- the form of a plant eg. its height, can vary tremendously from one region to another;
- the plant can change by nature or design if it is cultivated instead of dispersed naturally;
- the scientific name of a plant can be revised in the light of additional subsequent understanding of its qualities (in recent decades results of work on the DNA of a species offers a good example);
- the derivation of a plant’s name can be open to further argument as more historical or other factual information becomes available;
- a plant's date or method of introduction to a country can be revised as historical material is supported by new facts. A striking example of this is provided by the cherry (Prunus avium). Scholars have quite reasonably relied upon information gleaned from the remaining works of the highly respected 1st Century Roman natural historian, Pliny the Elder (23-79). He wrote that this cherry was introduced to Italy from Asia Minor by a Roman soldier, Lucius Licinius Lucullus (c.110-57 BC) – but as a result of subsequent research this is now recognised as an error. The Etruscans were cultivating this cherry in Pliny’s homeland before Lucullus returned from Asia Minor – and, even more daunting, archaeological evidence has been found that the plant was growing in temperate areas throughout the northern hemisphere in prehistoric times. (It should be said that modern authorities now suggest that Lucullus may well have introduced a new variety to his homeland, not a new species.) One of the problems is that Pliny’s material (and that of many other authors both ancient and modern) has been perpetuated over the centuries and decades, in good faith, in very many books and other literature (even this one, despite the rigorous checking and re-checking) which will continue to provide reliable information on other issues.
And these are only some of the valid reasons which can account for variations in published material.
Plant Biographies is Neither Exhaustive Nor an Exact Science
It is also surprising to find that it is not easy to obtain full descriptions of quite a few plants referred to by name in text aimed at the general public and which in part or whole can be a familiar sight say, on supermarket shelves. Despite this, some of these species have been included as the general information which has come to light could be of interest.
The hope is that Plant Biographies, which is a living ongoing Project, already embraces some of the most obvious plants met with in day-to-day life. Frustration must be admitted however, in the recognition that although the main text is ever-expanding, it would never be possible to include every species and all the relevant facts that could touch any of us because there is so much fascinating and ever increasing material out there.
In other words it is not possible for all the information contained within to be either an exact science or exhaustive.
Botanical Name for an Entry
As already mentioned there can be quite a few synonyms for the botanical name of a plant – let alone debate on a species’ prime name. Thus for consistency of presentation on professional advice received the chosen name for a higher plant’s entry has been determined by reference to certain authorities, i.e. Heywood, Brummitt, Culham and Seberg’s Flowering Plant Families of the World, together with Brummitt’s Vascular Plant Families and Genera, the VAST nomenclatural database available on the TROPICOS website, Mabberley’s Plant Book, The Royal Horticultural Society’s RHS Plant Finder and Kew’s The Plant List website (details of all are listed in the Bibliography). From time to time botanists will change/update a name of a family, genus or species and in due time entries affected by botanists’ actions are amended accordingly.