Mirbel and Desfontaines

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In 1825, the famed French plant anatomist, physiologist and taxonomist, Charles Mirbel,12 proposed Abies menziesii (as "Menziezii") as a new name for the nomenclaturally incorrect Abies taxifolia. Amazingly, Mirbel's name had gone unnoticed for 125 years. Writing in an obscure Spanish journal, Franco proposed Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco for the green-leaved coastal phase and Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco var. glauca (Beiss.) Franco, for the glaucous-leaved expression common to the Rocky Mountains.

This conclusion was soon challenged by Little. Writing in Leaflets of Western Botany in 1952, Little once again maintained the correct scientific name for Douglas-fir was Pseudotsuga taxifolia (Poir.) Britt. ex Sudw. He acknowledged that the French botanist René Louiche Desfontaines validly published Abies taxifolia in 1804, but Little assumed Poiret's name was also published in 1804 and therefore considered Pseudotsuga taxifolia (Poir.) Britt. ex Sudw. to still be the correct name. Soon after he published, Little learned that the section of Lamarck's Encyclopédie Méthodique was actually published on August 28, 1805, and thus Abies taxifolia Poit. was a later homonym and the name Pseudotsuga taxifolia (Poir.) Britt. ex Sudw. was not correct.

Formal adoption of Pseudotsuga menzesii (Mirb.) Franco for the giant forest tree known as Douglas-fir began in 1953 when Little accepted the name in his Check list of native and naturalized trees of the United States (including Alaska). The name has remained unchallenged since then.

The fates were destined to combine the English surgeon-naturalist Archibald Menzies with the Scottish botanical collector David Douglas into the naming of one of North America's most important forest trees, with the discoveries of Meriwether Lewis merely footnotes. And the fates were to perpetuate a common binomial that is incorrect on both sides: This tree is not Douglas's, and it is not a fir. At best, the name memorializes a famous early Scottish-American botanist, and one entirely forgivable error in identification by Meriwether Lewis.

There is no question that Lewis described the coastal expression now known as var. menziesii, and he also saw the inland expression var. glauca in Idaho and Montana. But what happened to Lewis's specimens of Pseudotsuga menzesii (Mirb.) Franco? Pursh certainly saw them. But did he take them with him to England, or did he leave them in Philadelphia? Perhaps they will eventually be found, and this long and complicated tale will come to an end.


12. Charles François Brisseau de Mirbel was born in 1776 and at age twelve was associated with the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris as a botanist. For much of the same time, he was head gardener at Malmaison, an estate garden of some note. After serving with Louis Napoléon in Holland from 1806 until 1810, he remained quietly outside the field of botany until 1829, when he returned to the Muséum to assume the title of professeur de culture. He then published numerous papers primarily on plant anatomy and physiology. His 18-volume work, Histoire naturelle, gËnËrale et particuliËre, des plantes (1802-1806), was part of a larger 64-volume encyclopedic work on natural history edited by Count Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788). Mirbel died in 1854 with many projects in plant systematics unfinished, but with a reputation as a distinguished botanist.