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Vol. 5(12), pp. 6-8The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalDecember 2004

Review -- Annales Botanices Systematicae

R J Ferry

Walpers, Guilielmo Gerardo and Carolo Mueller. 1848-71. Annales Botanices Systematicae. 7 volumes (complete). Leipzig: Sumptibus Friderici Hofmeister. Tomus 1: 1848-49, 1127pp.; Tomus II: 1851-1852, 1125pp.; Tomus III: 1852-18531168pp.; Tomus IV. 1857, 959pp.; Tomus V. 1858, 966pp.; Tomus VI: 1861. 1309pp.; Tomus VII. 1868, 960pp.

This set of books is not for the faint hearted! Printed with page after page and volume after volume of Latin text, it is a compilation of the plant kingdom down to the species level as known during the period published. Notable for orchidists, is the substantial amount of coverage on orchids, among which is the large section (pp. 167-933; 766 pages) by H. G. Reichenbach fil. Obviously, to properly review the referenced items in their entirety would take several pages. Indeed, it would be a book in its own right! For example, the index for only Tomus VI runs from p. 1073 to p. 1309; 236 pages of print of about font size 8, the size print normally used for the captions beneath figures in this journal. However, if you are a serious botanical fanatic who seeks the clarity of plant descriptions as described by the original botanist, these volumes will provide many an hour of delightful (and insightful!) reading. It is one thing to read a work by a recent author who feeds the reader his version of what a prior author interpreted from what an even earlier author had translated, but one can receive entirely different contexts, perceptions, and insights into history when the original text is laid before one's eyes!

Fig. 9. Walpers, Vol. VI. Page 575.

Fig. 10. Walpers, Vol. VI. page 576.

Fig. 11. Catasetum barbatum Lindley. (syn. Myanthus barbatus Lindley) Scan: Clr. Pl. 14 in Stern, W.T. (1999), p. 46.

Fig. 12. Catasetum macrocarpum Richard. (Monachanthus viridis Lindley) Scan: Clr. Pl. 14 in Stern, W.T. (1999), p. 47.

As an example of what's within these volumes, Tomus I was opened randomly and pages 575 and 576 scanned (Fig. 9) (Fig. 10). The Latin description of Myanthus viridis is as published by Reichenbach's close friend Lindley in 1836, followed by a commentary in English. As a historical aside, it's noteworthy that in 1836 Lindley was unaware that, in Catasetum, both male and female flowers may be produced and differ greatly in appearance. In November, 1832 he published two genera, Myanthus and Monachanthus, and in 1837 was astonished to find a Myanthus changing into a Monachanthus, related to Monachanthus viridis, and "combining in its own proper person no fewer than three supposed genera, Myanthus, Monachanthus, and Catasetum!" It led him to state, in 1853, that "such cases shake the foundation to all our ideas of the stability of genera and species." However, in 1861, when Darwin was completing his book On The Various Contrivances, he provided Lindley with the following explanation: "Catasetum tridentatum is male and never seeds according to Schomburgk. Monachanthus viridis is female. Myanthus barbatus is the hermaphrodite form of the same species." This caused Darwin to publish a paper "On Three Remarkable Forms of Catasetum tridentatum, an orchid in the possession of the Linnean Society," in November 1862 (but read 5 April, 1862). That should have cleared up the confusion, but it didn't. According to Rolfe (1891), Darwin and Schomburgk had misunderstood the situation. Under the name Catasetum tridentatum two species with female flowers much alike, but male flowers very different were being confused. Thus Darwin's female flower was of Catasetum barbatum, his supposed hermaphroditic flower was a male flower of C. barbatum (Fig. 11), and his male flower was a male flower of C. macrocarpum (syn. C. tridentatum), (Fig. 12). So where do the Walpers pages 575 and 576 fit in with all of this Catasetum confusion? They fit right in with what the state of botanical knowledge was in 1861, and the reader can read the Latin descriptions and Lindley's remarks directly, rather than getting--second hand--the state of knowledge of that time.

Does all of the above imply that the science scholar should also be something of a linguist as well as a historian? It doesn't just imply it; it effectively proclaims it! Yet, there is much more than just clarity to be obtained from having the ability to read what is written in the original language of the author. There is a beauty, a "chispa,"...one might even say a certain amount of chutzpah to be personally gleaned from reading and comprehending what is read in its original form, and this applies to much more than just plant descriptions. Try "translating" into "normal American English" (if such actually exists!) the Ode To A Fieldmouse (Robert Burns). Do it, and the poem's rhyming beauty will be lost along with much of the sense of what was conveyed in the first place! Try singing "Las Mañanitas" in English instead of in Spanish; the mourner's Kaddish in English instead of in Hebrew; Mozart's Requiem mass in English instead of Latin; or Beethoven's Ode To Joy (Symphony #9, last movement) in English instead of German. Oh yes, it can be done,...but in each case,...something's lost! Do it and the "chispa de la vida" tends to become something one gets from one's sister instead of from one's sweetheart!

Your editor has long personally bemoaned his personal shortcomings of fluency in German, French, Greek, Latin, and yes, even both Spanish and English, but what is one to do with only 39 hours in a day and a mere nine days in each week?? As the review of the above seven volumes is being written (well, typed into the computer), it's somewhere between two and five in the morning, the house and neighborhood is quiet, and nobody's around to question the sanity of the man who walks the floor reading plant descriptions in Latin,...softly, in Gregorian chant. Hey, don't knock it 'til you've tried it. There is a certain beauty to reading Latin that way, just as singing instead of saying the Mourner's Kaddish,...and--yes--when one's writing instead of reading aloud, the Latin of Mozart's Requiem Mass is in the background from the other computer,...or Debbie Wolorski sings in beautiful Sephardic Hebrew,...or The Tenors hold forth in other languages. Perhaps all this may seem strange to you, but this scholar has often wondered how (or whether!) any serious studying can be done with such noise as rock-and-roll, hip-hop, rap, or other forms of sonic swill blaring in the background! Yet, think of it: words spoken are not as beautiful as words sung,...and one studies botany (and orchids in particular) not just for knowledge, but for the beauty of the knowledge itself! Taken in these contexts, the seven volumes of Walpers, some now well over 140 years old, are even more beautiful, in the light of present-day knowledge, than when they were first laid into print.


Darwin, C. R. 1854, reprinted. 1979. Fertilization of Orchids By Insects. Stanfordville, NY: Earl M. Coleman, Publisher. 365pp. Note: original was published as The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects.

_______ . 1862. On Three Remarkable Forms of Catasetum tridentatum, an orchid in the possession of the Linnean Society. Journal of the Linnean Society, Botany. 6: 151-157.

Rolfe, R. A. 1891. On the sexual forms of Catasetum, with special reference to the researches of Darwin and others. Journal of the Linnean Society, Botany. 27: 206-220.

Stern, W. T., ed. 1999. John Lindley. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Antique Collectors' Club in association with The Royal Horticultural Society. 232pp.

Copyright © 2004 R J Ferry