What’s in a name? Part Two


For years I have insisted that wistaria should be spelled like that (as my mother told me) because it was named after somebody called Mr Wistar. For the same reason I tend to take issue with Americans who pronounce Forsythia to rhyme with pithier, (“but it’s named after the Scottish botanist and founder member of the Royal Horticultural Society, William Forsyth” I object pedantically), and still pronounce clematis to rhyme with lemon fizz when all the world about me calls it cleMAYtis.

It is hard to let go of the certainties our parents instilled in us when we were young, especially when the parents are no longer around for us to take issue with them. But with the help of Wikipedia I thought I really should settle this wistaria thing once and for all.

The plot immediately thickens. It turns out that the English botanist Thomas Nuttall named the genus after the distinguished 18th C American anatomist Dr Caspar Wistar – not to be confused with the 17th C German glass maker Caspar Wistar, who himself changed his name from Wüster when he emigrated to Pennsylvania – who is sometimes referred to as Caspar Wistar the Younger to distinguish him from his grandfather of the same name. Who knew, as they say!

But the aforementioned Nuttall (who has some very boring sounding plants named after him including Nuttall’s Saltbush: Atriplex nuttallii, and Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod: Bigelowia nuttallii), decided that the pronunciation would be more graceful if he spelled the word Wisteria.

So far both my mother and the rest of the world are correct.

But then Nuttall’s biographer chips in and opines that the genus may be named after the botanist’s friend Charles Jones Wister, Sr. of Grumblethorpe, Pennsylvania about whom nothing much seems to be known. Now I really love the sound of Grumblethorpe, Pennsylvania so perhaps it’s time to let go of decades of conviction and bow to convention. Wisteria it is then.

Anyway ours are looking spectacular this year, we have never seen them so beautiful, and they certainly by any other name would smell as sweet.

Incidentally my sister had a wonderful wisteria story which involved the gardener of a stately home digging up the entire front terrace, to the horror of the family, and burying a dead horse under it to feed the roots of the venerable climber. Apocryphal surely!

3 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Part Two

  1. Quelle splendeur! je suis ébloui … Et je me souviens parfaitement que tu avais piqué une crise quand dans les “courriers notes” tu avais écrit WISTARIA et que le bureau de Londres avait changé l’orthographe….
    Nous aussi aux Hespérides nous avons une glycine spectaculaire.Et aussi un rosier qui a grimpé sur un arbre à bien 10mètres de hauteur et qui est en train d’envahir ce gros arbre qui au printemps étrangement se couvre de roses qui n’ont rien à voir avec sa propre nature.

  2. Wow, gorgeous! Are they blooming already? Mine are just starting to leaf out here in Arizona!
    In German it is Glyzine, n’est-pas? Now where does that come from?
    Keep digging!

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