Object DomicileThe Bolus Herbarium is stored in specially designed steel cabinets with magnetically sealed doors, in an air-conditioned environment with humidity control. Specimens in the herbarium, like the Carpobrotus acinaciformis, are used for reference, teaching and research materials. A selection of the specimens have been scanned and are freely available online.
Object OriginKirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Kirstenbosch, Edgemead, Cape Town September 1924
This specimen was pressed to add to The Bolus Herbarium's collection of pressed plants. Herbaria collections are used as references for the positive identification of further specimens collected from the field. The accompanying illustration displays the flower and anatomy, in full colour, in order to get a better impression of the plant.
An herbarium is the botanical equivalents of a library, containing pressed plant specimens. As the Dewey Decimal System is used to organise books in a library, herbaria use a hierarchy of botanical taxa to group similar plants together. It is from this taxonomical process that the Binomial nomenclature develops, giving each species a scientific name, according to its defining characteristics and genus. Specimens held in herbaria are referred to when looking to positively identify a specimen collected from the field, or are examined and studied to refine the identity of the specimen. Herbariums are the institutional foundation for botanical taxonomy. The Bolus Herbarium, associated with the University of Cape Town, has a history of specialising in Mesembryanthemoideae, a large subfamily of succulents, to which the Carpobrotus acinaciformis belongs.
Within the context of the herbarium, the Carpobrotus acinaciformis inherits, through its botanical naming, a long lineage of relationships with every other plant, tracing its genealogy up through the taxonomic hierarchy, right up to life itself. But since taxonomic study and methods have changed, it has suffered a number of name changes along the way, leaving behind a trail of synonyms which lead back to Linnaeus, the father of the Binomial Naming System. Through investigating this history of naming, one can gain a clearer insight into the success and failures of this system, considering what reasons have led to its ubiquity in the sciences. and what the unintended consequences have resulted. The taxonomic method also reveals a first step towards knowledge generation, sparked by curiosity, which interrogates phenomena and discovers their constituent parts and arranges accordingly. Constantly lingering over this endeavour is the fact that life is indifferent to such imposed categories, and so inevitably such systems of naming fail. An awareness of this is required in order derive the greatest pleasure from constructing such categories, and to prevent such categories from being perceived as determining life, instead of the other way around.
Politics and Poetics in the Bolus Herbarium
A case study:
Carpobrotus acinaciformis (L.) L.Bol
Specimen No. 17704
In September of 1924, Mary M. Page, collected and made the botanical illustration for Carpobrotus acinaciformis, a species of suurvygie found readily on the Cape Penisula.
Five tips (calyx lobes) of the fruit are pressed onto a postcard, alongside 3 transverse sections of the flower. Individual anthers and petals of the flower arranged in demi-circles on the card. The card itself is stained brown presumably from the effort of the pressing process. The reverse side betrays it as originating in the early Cape, containing postal information: when mails close, mails arrive, what routes are being delivered. The specimen card is carefully folded onto a little envelope. The enveloped is marked 17704; Sept. 1924, 19 male/female acinaciformis. This envelop is mounted on a larger fibrous paper, slightly yellowing. Above the card, there is a watercolour and ink illustration, mounted much like any other pressed specimens by tucking it under glued strips of paper at each corner. There is a large, bright pink flower depicted at the top-centre of the page, to the right a depiction of the withering bud in brown, and the reddish-green stems and fruits of the plant. Elsewhere on the page there is there are various depictions and cross sections of the flower’s anatomy, including the bulb calyx, stamens stigma, and leaf-sections. The reverse side of the page contains the key for the numbers used in the illustration as well as details of the size of each part. The Bolus Herbarium stamp is on the back alongside a note directing the reader towards Sheet 1 for a sketch of the flowering branch. Page’s signature rests on the bottom of the reverse page: a simple M.M.P.
Botanical illustrations form an important part of any herbarium as a record of the physical characteristics of the plant for further research and classification. Succulents, in particular, when pressed and preserved, lose much of their physical characteristics. Botanical taxonomy groups plants which share certain features together for study, in service of their preservation, cultivation and use. Historically, taxonomy has focused on morphology, which considers the external presentation of the plant to bear the most significance, with particular importance on the flower. This system of naming inevitably consists of many false identifications, name revisions and confusion. It is indicative of a broader system of knowledge generation, which separates in order to appreciate variety, but requires a reunification to come to a better understanding of the whole.
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In October of 1915, Mary Maude Page (born 1867) first spent time with Dr Louisa Bolus, lifetime curator of the Bolus Herbarium. A sufferer of long bouts of illness, Page found a gentle reprieve in working with the natural world, having moved to South Africa in 1912 for her health (Bolus, 1928: 58). After meeting Dr Bolus, Mary was employed as the botanical artist from 1915 up until her death in 1925. Page painted over 2000 specimens in incredible detail and diversity (Smith & Walker, 2001: 124).
The Bolus herbarium began as the private herbarium of Harry Bolus (1834-1911) in 1865. When he moved, in 1875, to Cape Town he set up the herbarium up in his Kenilworth home. In 1911 Bolus bequeathed his herbarium, library and large sums of money to UCT to maintain his collection (Plug, 2014).
Harry Bolus’ great-niece, Dr Harriet Margaret Louisa Bolus (1877-1970), had begun working in the herbarium as an assistant in 1903 and became the lifetime curator at Harry Bolus’ request, until she retired from the position in 1955 (Plug, 2014).
Dr L. Bolus has authored more land plant species than any other female scientist, in total naming 1494 species (Plug, 2014). In 1920 she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa (previously the Philosophical Society of South Africa). Stellenbosch University awarded her an honorary Doctor of Science in 1936. From the late 1920s to the end of her life she gave great attention to Mesembryanthemacea (vygie), an incredibly diverse succulent plant family, becoming a world authority: establishing many new genera, many of whom are endemic to South Africa. The Bolus Herbarium under her curatorship held the foremost collection of Mesembs in the world (Plug, 2014).
Currently, the Bolus Herbarium contains over 300 000 specimens and is the third largest university herbarium in the Southern Hemisphere (Herbarium Bolusianum, 2019).
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Herbaria are the primary institutions of taxonomic and scientific identification of plants. Specimens of mostly pressed plants are used as reference material in describing plant taxa. Because the plants in the herbarium are properly identified, they can be compared to specimens collected in the field.
Taxonomy functions as the dramatis personae in the great musical drama of life. Instancing the characters in order to elucidate relations and tensions between them, and later to reunite them in. Creating discord in the third act for resolution in the fourth. Botanical taxonomy may be celebrated for its discipline in creating order and meaning from the overwhelming diversity of plant life. It is ultimately in service of the end-user, those playwrights who don’t have the time or attentiveness to develop these characters themselves, but wish to use them in their scripts.
Simply put, taxa organise life into different groups according to a hierarchy of characteristics. As one progresses down the hierarchy, the characteristics become more specific until what remains is a particular species, the only one of its kind to contain the sum total of its afore described characteristics. The question of what qualifies as a characteristic at each level of the hierarchy is as arbitrary as it is adhered to. That is to say, mostly, but with some qualifiers.
(‘plants’, from Latin plant)
(from Latin viridi ‘green’; + plant)
(‘flowing plant’ ie. ‘plant which produces a seed within an
enclosure’, from Latin angeion ‘casing’ + sperma ‘seed’)
(‘order of pink flowering plants’, from Latin carnationem
‘fleshiness’, from caro ‘flesh’ + –ales, suffix ending for order)
(from Latin aizoon, ‘live forver’, ‘evergreen’ + -aceae, suffix
ending for family)
(New Latin from Greek mesēmbria ‘noon’; + anthemon
‘flower’; + oideae, suffix ending for subfamily.
(From Latin karpos ‘fruit’; + brotos, ‘edible’)
Species: C. acinaciformis
(From Latin acinaces, ‘scimitar’; + –formis, ‘shaped’)
Following the etymology of the acinaciformis taxonomy, it becomes clearer that each naming group describes a further characteristic of the plant. Thus, through viewing the hierarchy, one understands that this species is an evergreen plant, with pink flowers which are only open during the day and edible fruits shaped as a scimitar.
The specimen Carpobrotus acinaciformis was first described by Swedish Botanist Carl Linnaeus (L.) in the mid-18th century after being brought back as a type specimen by European enthusiasts in the Cape. He identified it as a Mesembryanthemum ‘midday flower’ acinaciformis, due to its flower opening during the day and closing at night (Wisura & Glen, 1993: 83).
In 1924, Dr Lousia Bolus (L.Bol) moved the acinaciformis over to Aizoaceae, a sister family, classifying it under the genus Carpobrotus, where it has remained, thus establishing in the Bolus Herbarium a new type specimen (Wisura & Glen, 1993: 83). A type specimen represents the exact specimen examined in the naming of a species. Each new name, produces a new type specimen. Botanical naming custom obliges that the original namer, and the most recent, be recorded alongside the species name.
Current curator of the Bolus Herbarium, Dr Cornelius Klak, has brought about the acceptance that Mesembes are actually a sub-family of Aizoaceae under the Caryophyllales order. Described as a nested relationship, Mesembes are now referred to as Mesembryanthemoideae. Within this subfamily there is located, amongst others, the Mesembryanthemym genus which Linnaeus established. This reclassification, whilst speculated through morphological traits, was confirmed by Dr Klak using molecular testing which categorically sunk Mesembes within Aizoaceae (Klak, Bruyns & Hedderson, 2007: 737). Dr Klak shares with Dr Bolus a particular interest in Aizoaceae and has worked extensively in the field and with the herbarium’s rich collection.
Such evolutions of renaming are perhaps one of the predominant features of the current scientific binomial taxonomic system. Botanical names are far more dynamic than common names.
The process of classifying and reclassifying reveals serious difficulties at almost every point of the taxonomic process. Firstly, the vast majority of taxonomic characteristics are based on morphological and external appearance. This means that often species or genera which look similar are often grouped together, despite having vastly varied molecular make up. There isn’t much genetic evidence to suggest that pink flowering plants should be grouped together for any particular reason. What results is a system where DNA analysis has emerged as dominant impetus for classification, yet is measured against to a morphological framework (Padial et al, 2010).
Even in cases where morphology is the accepted basis, there is little international (sometimes even national) consensus as to what names or groupings to use. Disagreements may extend on almost every level of the hierarchy. One institution may have a species under one family, and another a completely different family. The Angiosperm Phylogeny Group was founded in 1998, as an international group of systematic botanists in an attempt to establish an international standard in naming amongst flowering plants (APG, 1998: 531-532). Predictably the project has been met with much resistance, not least because each institution is accustomed to its own particular naming habits. As a result, it is incredibly difficult to develop a uniform classification.
Variations in plants of the same species can also occur to substantial margins, depending on a range of environmental factors including sunlight, water, micro-organisms and animal grazing patterns (Padial et al, 2010).
There are competing botanical publications and botanists who push their own agendas of naming, jostling for the recognition of correctly establishing a new species. This has led to many species being sought out, and much effort placed into separating different species based on extremely subtle and often contested differences.
How then should one consider a specimen such as the Carpobrotus acinaciformis, within the broader context of the herbarium, and within the even wider ideology of classification and isolationism within the sciences?
The explicit aim of science is to build towards understanding in the world, so that we might engage with it in a more conscious manner. It is curious to be in the herbarium and to see such due diligence and attention being paid to plants, which are seldom acknowledged in everyday life.
Goethe, in the introduction to his Theory of Colours (1810: xxxvii), traces the formation of knowledge. He observes that the desire for knowledge is first born in the curiosity of something which catches our attention. Indeed, what strikes us is the “vast variety which presses indiscriminately on our view”. For the curiosity and intrigue to be maintained, we should facilitate an engagement with the phenomena in some capacity, by further investigating it, becoming better acquainted. During this process we are forced to separate and distinguish, and later we combine so that we can be overwhelmed once again, but with a greater awareness and understanding.
The taxonomic process is one step further towards advancing a collective understanding. It looks closely, and it marvels as it separates, removing microscopic hair from microscopic hair. But embedded in this half of the process are the various warnings that using only this approach will beget an incomplete understanding.
It is evident that this tendency to delineate doesn’t exist within the sciences alone, but pervades almost all aspects of knowing. It comes as no surprise that the binomial naming system echoes human naming systems far across cultural divides by linking a family name with an individual name. It is part of the process which celebrates, but also marks strong divisions between species, families, classes, genders, races and individuals – and often counts those as indivisible.
The analytic approach is one half to the two-sided coin of knowledge. The other side is that which looks to general theories and unifications of universal motions and beings.
But the taxonomist holds a secret. In investigating the natural world, we are also investigating different aspects of ourselves. Like is only known by like. We can only recognise the infinite complexity of the natural world because we are infinitely complex ourselves. When dissecting a flower to count the number of stamen, one is dissecting a delicate part of one’s own soul, gaining a brief glimpse of its internal workings. While searching for a single specimen, the taxonomist will climb mountains and scale deep valleys, traversing in breadth and depth the natural offerings of the psychological landscape.
Scientific names are created by taxonomists to uniquely identify a taxon, or botanic group. Common names, or folk names, on the other hand, are validated not by taxonomic publications, but by usage through time. They are much less likely to change, as the plants remain roughly the same (Mankeltow, 2010). Morphological, DNA, molecular, breeding, reproductive modes of analysis are more or less drawn on to produce a name which is shared and understood by those who share the cultural context. The characterises of the plant are often hinted at by the name, but generally focus on one particular trait.
The Carpobrotus genus is often referred to, in South Africa, as the suurvy (sour-fig), suurvygie, strandvy (beach-fig) or ghaukum. Sometimes there are additional qualifiers to distinguish species: elandvy may refer to acinaciformis, and ghoenavy may be used only for Carpobrotus edulis (SANBI, 2006). It is difficult to ascertain exactly how accurate common naming systems can be because of the widespread variance in usage, even across a single culture group. Salvia, for example can refer to any one of any several dozen species in at least 3 families, with greatly varying properties (Bennet & Balick, 2014: 388).
Common naming systems are often unreliable, and may lead to confusion. The same common name might apply to plants which are otherwise very distantly related. Melkbos (milk-bush) for example, refers to many different plant species, amongst them the Sideroxylon inerme (a species of tree) and Euphorbia damarana (a species of shrub) which share a taxon only above the level of order. Yet both excrete a white fluid from their branches, so are given the same name. There are examples of common names shared between different species of the same genus, where one species is poisonous and other not.
Perhaps then, what botanical nomenclature should be thought of as a common naming system for those who study plants. This consideration allows for both systems (and their countless variations between institutions and cultural groups) to be discussed alongside each other.
Systems of naming, classification, order and hierarchy are by no means unique to Western societies or to Western modes of thinking. The first plant taxonomy was developed in the East by Shen Nung, the Emperor of China around 3000 BC (Menkeltow, 2010). And it is worth noting that the universalisation of scientific naming has allowed for a widespread sharing of medical and botanical knowledge.
The impetus to order and study the natural world is an innately human trait, the embodiment of one of the ways in which we conceptualise the natural world, life, and our place in it. The herbarium provides a point of contact with this form of knowledge that delineates a clear and artificial path of meaning. One may spend time inside, considering its flaws and its merits, surrounded by dead plants and beautiful illustrations.Contribute information to this page