Splitters vs lumpers

by gabeatkinson / 24 November, 2012
Some botanists think every plant variety is its own species, but Joseph Hooker wasn’t one of them.

English botanist Joseph Hooker visited New Zealand only once, in 1841, but he had an enormous influence on the country’s botany. His catalogue of New Zealand’s plants, Flora Novae-Zelandiae, described 1800 species and became a lasting reference work. Some of the specimens he described were collected during his three months in New Zealand, but he also relied on local collectors who sent plants to him at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

In return, Hooker was generous with his thanks, but only to a point, says historian and fellow countryman Jim Endersby, who is speaking about Hooker in Auckland this month. “He bought them presents, he helped them to purchase microscopes and other equipment that was not available in New Zealand, he helped them to become fellows of the Royal Society and the Linnaean Society, he named plants in their honour, but he wouldn’t concede one crucial point, which was the right to name species in the colonies.”

One of Hooker’s closest friends in New Zealand, with whom he kept up a correspondence, was Anglican missionary and amateur botanist William Colenso. That didn’t stop them arguing. Colenso, says Endersby, was “a splitter – he gave every little variety of a plant its own name and that exasperated Hooker”. In contrast, Hooker, who had a more global perspective, was “a lumper … he lumped together a lot of different small varieties under a single species name”.

On his visit to New Zealand, Endersby hopes to get outside and see some New Zealand plants. “There are a lot of things that I only know from letters and dried specimens,” he says. “Hooker and Colenso wrote quite a lot about Phormium tenax, the New Zealand flax, which I’ve never seen growing. Colenso classified Phormium tenax into three species and Hooker lumped it into one. Colenso argued they were used for different things, and no New Zealander [which meant Maori in Colenso’s day] would ever mix them up. He had this very detailed knowledge, not only of where the plants grew and when they flowered, but also of the Maori uses of them.”

It turns out Colenso had it right after all. Te Papa botanist Patrick Brownsey says botanists today “accept two species, Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum. The latter has two subspecies – subspecies cookianum and subspecies hookeri. So I guess you could say that Colenso won that argument, albeit posthumously.”

Jim Endersby will lecture on “Imperial science: The invention of New Zealand’s plants” at Auckland War Memorial Museum on November 27 at 7.00pm.

Scientific pen pals

My Dear Hooker

“I am to take charge of a cargo of Fireflies and Lizzards,” wrote James Hector to Joseph Hooker on February 20, 1862. Fireflies and lizards, along with mosses, coal, moa bones and flaxes, were the sorts of things that occupied Hector during his reign as 19th-century New Zealand’s most powerful public scientist. He wrote many letters to Hooker between 1860 and 1898, but his awful handwriting has confined his correspondences to the archives – until now. Simon Nathan, a GNS Science emeritus researcher working on a biography of Hector, took up the challenge and last summer he and history graduate Rowan Burns, working on a Victoria University scholarship, embarked on the painstaking task of transcribing 165 of Hector’s letters to Hooker, for online publication by the
Geoscience Society.

Hector was one of many colonial scientists who sent dried plant specimens to Hooker for the collections at Kew, and the two men maintained a lively correspondence. Hector’s letters contain plenty of gossip about his fellow scientists – he described Walter Buller as “a very good specimen of what a New Zealand-born chap can do without the aid of Universities” – as well as descriptions and drawings of New Zealand biology and geology.

View the letters here.
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