Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What's in a Name?

By Jess Hodges

What links your daily cuppa and the first free pharmacy in the Philippines? Does the name Georg Joseph Kamel jog you memory? If you're anything like me then probably not but when I tell you he was also known as Father Camellus maybe that will give you a clue? Bare with me here.

If you've ever wondered where plants and animals on this planet get those snappy Latin names, the answer, for the vast majority of them, is from Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus is usually thought of as the father of modern taxonomy, the science of classifying life on earth. Linnaeus rearranged the names of a vast array of organisms so that they followed one simple system in which each species has a long list of names starting with the kingdom it belongs to and working down through smaller and smaller groups until you reach the genera and species names that identify it uniquely.

Organising all life on earth into groups and naming them was a mammoth challenge but sorting out the last two, most commonly used names for hundreds of thousands of species was an incredible feat. Often it was just a case of reorganising the current name so it followed the hierarchy but a lot of the time there were gaps to be filled in. Linnaeus named species based on their appearance or defining characteristics, for example Homo sapiens for the sentient ape, but he also took the opportunity to honour those who he felt deserved it.

So we come back to Kamel, a jesuit missionary and botanist in the sixteen hundreds who opened his pharmacy in Manila in order to provide free medicines to the poor. Born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1661 he was sent to the Philippines in 1668 where he made a thorough study of the plant life he found there, including two volumes on the medicinal species.

Linnaeus thought so highly of Kamel that he didn't just name a single species after him but an entire genera, Camellia, a group famous for beautiful flowers such as the Japanese tea rose. The genus also provides an important cooking oil for much of east Asia and is grown ornamentally in gardens throughout the world, many of it's species are a popular food for caterpillars. However, of the hundreds of described species in this group there's only one that concerns us. C. sinensis, an infusion of which you're probably drinking right now.

It is sometimes fun to remember that your favourite beverage is the product of the leaves of a plant which has it's own story and it's own place in the natural world. Belonging to the kingdom Plantae, being in order an Angiosperm, Eudicot and an Asterid, of the order Ericales and the family Theaceae, genus Camellia, species sinensis, that which we call tea by any other name would taste as delicious.

Next time you enjoy a cup spare a thought for two scientists who have absolutely nothing to do with it but have left their stamp on tea forever.