Menzies, Lambert and Poiret

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by James L. Reveal
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland

The nomenclatural morass associated with the scientific name of Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, is a long and complex tale. The history of its scientific name is tied closely with the history of early explorations along the western coast of North America, and the development of our modern system of rules for the naming of plants embodied in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. The present-day name, Pseudotsuga menziesii, is only the latest innovation in a long series of learned pronouncements, and for the uninformed, the relationship of the scientific name to its common name, Douglas-fir, is hardly obvious.

Sir Joseph Banks

Portrait by Thomas Phillips (1731-1781)

Painted portrait of a 19th-century noble gentleman

Courtesy The Royal Society of London

The tree was seen by various naturalists who visited the Pacific Northwest in the later part of the eighteenth century, usually from aboard ship looking onshore. It was the surgeon-naturalist Archibald Menzies aboard HMS Discovery—captained by George Vancouver—who first collected specimens. Apparently, he gathered them in July of 1792 (not 1791 as often reported) from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. They probably were sent to England in the fall of that year, but it is not known when Sir Joseph Banks, Menzies' sponsor before the Admiralty, received the specimens. If seeds were gathered in 1792, or in 1794 when Menzies returned to the Island, there is no evidence they reached England or, if so, that the tree was introduced into cultivation.

In September of 1803, the English conifer expert, Aylmer Bourke Lambert, assigned the name Pinus taxifolia (tax-eh-FOHL-ee-ah, having needles like the yew tree, a member of the genus Taxus [TAX-us]) to Menzies' specimens in his now rare book A description of the genus Pinus. Unfortunately this name was a homonym, that is, the same name (Pinus taxifolia) had been used for a totally unrelated conifer by another English naturalist, Richard Salisbury, in 1796. Two years later the French clergyman and botanist Jean Louis Marie Poiret, writing various portions of the botany section for Jean Baptiste Lamarck's Encyclopédie Méthodique, inadvertently proposed the new name Abies taxifolia in August of 1805. Remarkably, once again this name was a later homonym.

According to our modern rules of botanical nomenclature, a later homonym is considered to be an illegitimate name, and, being a name proposed in opposition to the rules, it cannot be used. Although the tree was described and known to the scientific world, it did not yet have a correct ("valid" in the jargon of the rules) name.