What’s in a (tree) name?

‘I’m a taxonomist and a genealogist – so sometimes I look at family trees the other way up,’ says HUGH GLEN

Photos by Hugh Glen

What’s in a (tree) name?

‘I’m a taxonomist and a genealogist – so sometimes I look at family trees the other way up,’ says HUGH GLEN

Photos by Hugh Glen
This coastal toad-tree (Tabernaemontana ventricosa) sowed itself in the author’s garden in Durban. 


Fuchsia Dunlop – the name made me stop in my tracks when I spotted it on a book at our local public library. I was not so surprised by details on the book jacket that Ms Dunlop was the first westerner accepted as a student at Chengdu University in Sichuan, China, nor that she soon transferred to the local cookery school to specialise in the fiery cuisine of Sichuan and became one of the West’s top Chinese chefs.

No, what really surprised me was her first name. Who on earth calls their kid Fuchsia?

Many of us are familiar with Fuchsia magellanica, which has been popular in gardens in the moister parts of South Africa. This and other members of the South American plant family are popular round the world, including in the warmer parts of south-western Scotland where Ms Dunlop grew up. The origin of her first name can be traced back to Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566), who wrote an early herbal in German.

Commemorating botanical pioneers in the names of trees and other plants whose existence they first reported in print is a tradition going back centuries. My own interest in plant names was kindled and nurtured by many mentors, most notably the late Miss Mary Gunn and Dr L.E. Codd. Here are some of my favourite South African plant-people associations.


Jakob Theodor von Bergzabern (1525-1590) was a contemporary of Leonhardt ‘Fuchsia’ Fuchs and also lived in Germany. Bergzabern’s namesake plant is a small tree with one species indigenous to the area from the KZN coast as far north as the Chimanimani, Zimbabwe – where it would count as a “garden thug” if it spread itself any more enthusiastically. A second species is indigenous to the Kruger National Park.

Bergzabern’s Neuw Kreuterbuch was first published in Frankfurt am Main in 1588. English herbalist John Gerard (c.1542-1612) is believed to have drawn on it considerably for his bestselling Herball, first published in 1597.

As was general practice at the time, Bergzabern’s name appears in Latin on the title page of his book. The name used is Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, which probably gives you the clue that the tree is the common toad-tree, Tabernaemontana. Von Bergzabern came from the German town of the same name, which translates as ‘from the mountain pub’ – and the Latin genus name wittily translated this literally.

The scientific name for the common toad tree is based on the name of 16th-century botanist Jakob Theodor von Bergzabern, considered one of the “fathers of German botany.” The frontispiece and title page of the 1625 edition of his Kreuterbuch are shown here.


Pride of De Kaap or Bauhinia is both well known and well loved. The great Swedish botanist Linnaeus (1707-1778) chose this genus name to commemorate two Swiss brothers, Johan and Caspar Bauhin (1541-1613 and 1560-1624 respectively).

They lived in Basel and always worked together. The leaves of this genus remind us of the brothers, as each is composed of a pair of partly joined leaflets.

The Bauhinia genus is widespread in both Africa and South America. Some South African species commemorate local botanists, for example B. galpinii, the well-known Pride of De Kaap (which, incidentally, has the makings of a garden thug) after Ernest E. Galpin (1858-1941), a banker who was devoted to botanical collecting.

Main photo: The partly joined leaflets of this Pride of De Kaap set off its glorious flowers. Photo by Alice Notten/SANBI. Inset photo: By the time this second edition of the Bauhin brothers’ Pinax was published in 1671, only Caspar was still alive. Photo: Public Domain


Moving a century or so ahead in time and a long way up in size – at least as far as the tree is concerned – we come to French naturalist Michel Adanson (1727–1806), who lived to almost 80 despite being the first botanist to explore widely in West Africa, where most early European visitors contracted one or another fatal disease.

The tree named for him is Adansonia – the ever-familiar baobab. One species occurs throughout tropical Africa, with another seven in Madagascar and one in Australia.

This baobab (Adansonia digitata) at Sagole (top) is said to be the largest of its kind in southern Africa. The leaves and flowers of this baobab (above) were photographed near Shimuwini Bush Camp in the Kruger National Park.



Swedish botanist Adam Afzelius (1750–1837) had studied under Linnaeus before he went out to West Africa as a botanical explorer in the 1790s. Linnaeus commemorated his work in Afzelia, the pod mahogany, a genus of about 30 tropical African trees that yield fine hardwood timber. One of these species, A. quanzensis, extends as far south as Maputaland in KZN.

The wood is traded under the name chamfuta, and bark and roots are used medicinally. The seeds are eaten by rodents and birds and are used by humans to make curios.

The flower of this pod mahogany (Afzelia quanzensis) was photographed in the garden of the KZN Herbarium in Durban (left). This pod mahogany (Afzelia quanzensis) grows on the Mahonie Loop near Punda Maria in the Kruger National Park (top right) and this fruit from a pod mahogany (Afzelia quanzensis) was photographed at Kasanse, Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe (bottom right). 



I think Bruguiera gymnorrhiza is one of the most attractive impossible-to-grow small trees that we have. Why impossible? Because its natural habitat is in river estuaries, and the trees expect to be inundated with more-or-less salt water twice a day. Yes, it is a mangrove.

Mangroves are favourites with certain molluscs so it may be fair enough that it is named after a zoologist, Jean Guillaume Bruguière (1750–1798), who published extensively on molluscs and later on worms. It might seem incongruous that Bruguière Peak in Antarctica is named after him but Bruguière sailed with Yves-Joseph Kerguelen-Trémarec (1734-1797) to what became the Kerguelen islands. Bruguière was the second scientist to visit the Antarctic after Edmund Halley (1656-1742).

The black mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza) seen growing and in flower at Beachwood Mangroves, Durban.

Feasting on systems

Hikers in the Magaliesberg in January may count themselves very lucky to find a certain small tree with ripe fruits that have not yet been attacked by wasps or baboons. If you do, the next recommended step is to put down your pack, find a comfortable place to sit and pig out on stamvrug. The tree’s botanical name, Englerophytum magaliesmontanum, commemorates one of the great systematic botanists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Heinrich Gustav Adolf Engler (1844–1930). He began his career in Breslau, Silesia (now Wroclaw, Poland), and rose to become head of the Berlin Botanical Garden. He devised a system for ordering plant collections and taxonomic knowledge of plants that was used until recently by the vast majority of herbaria around the world.

Tempting fruit spotted on the stamvrug (Englerophytum magaliesmontanum) near the Hennops River in the Magaliesberg.



Not all plants named after people commemorate individuals, nor are some names exactly what one might call compliments. Let’s take a sidestep as Halloween approaches and consider witchweeds, the Striga genus.

These hemiparasites can be an utter curse to cereal crops, which is well reflected in both the scientific and common names. The Latin word striga signifies a witch and is almost identical in modern Italian, strega.

In fact, if you browse the liqueur shelf in your local bottle store, you may find one labelled Strega. It is made in Benevento in southern Italy and is basically an infusion of many different herbs, some of which may even be medicinal.

Indeed, if you remember the witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories, like their medieval counterparts, they were basically benevolent, though often crusty. So by all means sample a shot of Strega, but make a little go a long way!

The parasite witchweed (Striga elegans) at work in Vryheid Hill Nature Reserve, KZN. 

By profession, Dr Hugh Glen (hfglen@gmail.com) is a taxonomist. Among his many interests, he has been involved in genealogy for about 30 years. He is author of SAPPI What’s in a Name? (Johannesburg, 2004) and co-editor with Gerrit Germishuizen of Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa, 2nd edition, Strelitzia 26 (SANBI, Pretoria, 2010).

A version of this article has also been submitted to the genealogical magazine, Familia.


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