Sunday, 2 March 2008

John Ray? Who's he?

You will have all heard of Linneaus. But have you heard of John Ray?

I've just finished reading The Naming of Names: the search for order in the world of plants by Anna Pavord. (I mentioned it in a blog several weeks ago. Oops, maybe that means the book is overdue at the library!)

I expected that Linneaus would get a lot of Anna's attention, but no. He gets a mention or two in the last chapter, but John Ray is given a huge pat on the back. I knew that he is called 'the father of botany' but didn't realise that he himself coined the term in 1696, that he worked out six rules of classification that are still used today. He divided plants into dicotyledons and monocotyledons, grouped plants on the basis of multiple similarities, rather than just on a few key features (such as number of petals, medicinal purpose, size, leaf shape) that his contemporaries and earlier men had been trying to do. Ray suggested that plant names should be changed as little as possible, that related plants should not be separated. And he was the son of a blacksmith!

Naturally there is a spanner in the works. Ray didn't know about DNA. Scientists can now work out the evolutionary tree, so there has been, and will be, some major shifts happening. Some very unexpected relationships are turning up, and not only in the plant world. But that's OK. We amateurs can live with that. Eventually field guides will be published that incorporate the changes and we just accept it (with a whinge or two) and move on.

But I notice in my latest Growing Australian magazine that it is proposed that the dryandras be moved into the banksia genus, and callistemon be included within the melaleucas. So Dryandra pulchella becomes Banksia bella. And so on. Oh dear.

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