The Botanist of Many Skills

#OTD It's the death day of William Herbert (12 January 1778 – 28 May 1847). 

He was a British botanist, distinguished scholar and poet, Amaryllis breeder, and a clergyman who eventually became the first Dean of Manchester; the head of the Chapter of Manchester Cathedral.
In 1837, Herbert wrote a book about the Amaryllidaceae ("am-uh-ril-id-AY-see-ee") or the Amaryllis ("am-uh-RIL-us") family. The Amaryllis was named after Virgil's shepherdess Amarysso from Greek mythology, meaning "to sparkle."
Nearly two decades earlier, Herbert had split the genera in two – creating one genera for the original Amaryllis genera named by Linnaeus and for the other genera for what he called the Hippeastrum ("hip-ee-ASS-trum").
He explained his actions in writing, saying:
"Many years ago,...when I distinguished this genus,... I retained for it the name Amaryllis, and proposed that of Coburghia for Belladonna and Blanda. I was not then aware that Linnaeus had given the name Amaryllis to Belladonna, with a playful reason assigned; but as soon as I learned it, I felt, ... that the jeu d'esprit of a distinguished man ought not to be superceded, and that and that no continental botanist would submit to the change. I therefore restored the name Amaryllis to Belladonna, and gave that of Hippeastrum or Equestrian star to this genus, following up the idea of Linnaeus when he named one of the original species equestre."
Hippeastrum is Greek; Hippeus for rider and Astron for star - thus, "horseman's star." Gardeners surmise that the closed buds of the flower look something like a horse's ear, and the blossoms are shaped like six-pointed stars.
As is often the case in horticulture, the more popular name didn't end up with the more popular genus. The original Amaryllis genus ended up with only one species - the belladonna - although another species has been discovered. Meanwhile, the Hippeastrum genus has a whopping 90 species and over 600 cultivars. It's clearly more significant, botanically speaking, after being hybridized in the 19th century. Thus, it's the hippeastrum genera that gives us the large bulbs we pot up in the winter and lovingly call by their common name: Amaryllis... but they are really Hippeastrum. So this November, when you're potting up your Amaryllis, think to yourself - Hip Hip Hooray - it's Hippeastrum day!
What's the likelihood that actually happens?
Yeah. It doesn't roll off the tongue, does it?
The confusion about the two different genera stems from the fact that folks didn't like and don't likesaying Hippeastrum.
When the change was announced, the eminent horticultural empire builder, Harry Veitch challenged it eloquently when he said,
"Are we wrong in continuing to call these grand flowers after the name of the Virgilian nymph, and should we therefore drop the pleasing appellative with which they have been almost indissolubly connected from our earliest memory, and substitute the rougher Hippeastrum for the softer Amaryllis?'
Veitch was not alone. The century growers from the infamous bulb families refused to go along with the name change. To this day, the bulbs are exported from the Netherlands in crates, clearly marked Amaryllis.
Yet, William Herbert is remembered fondly through the ages. The genus Herbertia of Sweet - a small genus in the Iris Family - commemorated him.
Charles Darwinwrote about Herbert in the On the Origin of Species(1859):
In regard to plants, no one has treated this subject with more spirit and ability than W. Herbert, Dean of Manchester, evidently the result of his great horticultural knowledge.
And, the International Bulb Societyawards The Herbert Medalto people who advance the knowledge of bulbous plants.
 
 
 
 


This post was featured on
The Daily Gardener podcast:

helping gardeners find their roots,
one story at a time
William Herbert
William Herbert