Fibraurea or Coptis?

Jane’s Fibraurea deserves special attention because her name for this plant may have had some validity.  Were it not for the underlying history of taxonomy and the establishment of official Latin names for plants, and the general rules being followed officially and unofficially at the time, Jane’s name for Coptis as well as several other plants may have been added to the list of proposed names for each plant.  The fact that Jane’s work is found primarily in manuscript former, that was rediscovered many years after her death, prevented this from happening pretty much. 

This lack of attention to Jane’s work was also promoted, and ironically, perpetuated by the publication of an article on the content of her work by her admirer, whose work mentioned her efforts as part of a thesis on native plants with medicinal values, not anything to do with North American taxonomy discoveries.  This lack of attention to Jane’s work also came as a result of some avid followers of her work, in particular those of the Germanic section of Western Europe where most of the respect for her acomplishments prety much came from for nearly two decades by the time her work was rediscovered due to the purchase of the Linnean collection by British scholars. 

Even Linneaus himself may have in part been responsible for Jane not receiving her due attention as a taxonomist in botany.  He very much admired her for what she was doing, and offered her the respect she was due as a lady engaged in science during the mid 18th century.  However, much of Linneaus’s mention of Jane refers to her at time as if she were more of a hobbiest in this field, not at all the botanist and scientist that Linneaus was defining her father to be.  Linnaeus mentions the amount of admiration he had for her work, mentioning it in association with several other women with an enthusiasm for botany at the time.  The fact that Jane also concentrated more on the pencil and pen and ink line drawings of plants and plant form also perhaps suggested to him that Jane was perhaps interested in this field, more as a sense of personal amusement and educational duty. 

Still another tone that Jane’s work possessed was her attention to the numerology of plants, in particular the numbers associated with how the plant was created and how these forms and images generated by specific numbers in the plant taxonomy world were propagated.  This is very much a natural theological way of interpreting plants and their meaning to mankind in Jane’s sense of the world.  Although she mentions little about religion specifically as a part of her scientific activities with plants, her focus on the numbers of parts reveals her fascination with theological signs that were very Christian in nature and natural philosophy based in the scientific writings.  Jane focusses on the forms of the plants that symbolize trinity and the cross to a considerable extent, and even shows a tendency to focus on plants with Saint related names, physical aspects or morphological features.  In this case, Jane’s work represents a detailed example of how Christians could take the old concepts of phytogonomics (doctrine of signatures) and convert them to some form that had Christian Pastoral meaning.  Like the symbolism of landing in the New World vocalized by Adrian Van Der Donck in his writings or exploration of the Lower Hudson area, for which many of his plant mentioned were very much filled with Christian symbolism representative of the Garden of Eden, Jane’s plants too had these lines of reasoning that Jane was developing as she came to understand not only their taxonomic scientifically defined form, but also their metaphysical form and meaning, truly a result of her upbringing by a father with his own metaphysical point of view concerning the universe and its hidden stories.

So, when we review Jane and admire her work as a taxonomist, it is important to keep in mind perhaps that she was a little bit more expressive about her philosophy than many scientists would be for the time.  Like her expression as an artist producing line drawing of her plants, Jane was also a scientist trying to document something like a scientist would do.  She also gathered and pressed herbarium speciments, and she made drawings perhaps more than most male scholars in this field, since these too if validated could prove as some source for identification and documentation of a new species of plant.  All of this importance to Jane’s methods are inferred to us in a review of the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature,  cowritten by an informal follower of Jane’s, H. W. Ricketson, who was at the time Senior Curator of the Library of the New York Botanical Garden.

International Rules for Plant Naming and Discovery

Rather amazingly, about the time Jane’s manuscript was being reviewed for publication by the Orange and Dutchess Counties Garden Society, a new edition of the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature was just published compiled and edited by W. H. Camp, H. W. Rickett and C.A. Weatherby (The Chronica Botanica Co., Waltham, Mass., 1948, published as well in Brittonia, April 9, 1947, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 1-120).  For those very familiar with Jane’s manuscript, this is the same Rickett who wrote one of the forwards in the book on her work.  By the time this book was to be published about Jane’s successes, Rickett was probably very familiar with her importance as one of the first female taxonomists in plant science. 

In the review of the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature that he coauthored, Rickett provides additional insights into the practice of defining, documenting, publishing and then accepting a new name for a plant for the first time.  Although much of the content in this book demonstrates the behaviors official scientists engaged in during the twentieth century to deal with the issues of plant discovery and documentation, there is enough review of pre-20th century progress in this field to provide us with important insights into the plant discovery process and the official steps taken and processes adhered to by the leaders in this part of the scientific community.  Both Jane and Linnaeus were active during this period in science history (as was her father Cadwallader as well of course), but the events that ensued and made Linnaeus the ultimate initiator of names for many of the plants Jane and others had prepared during the early to mid-1700s, provide us with further insight into how Jane as a woman was treated and admired as a female scientist.  Either indirectly or directly, many other events in the field of taxonomy during this time helped define how and why Jane’s work came to be treated the way it was–often as a curiosity more than as an official scientific discovery.  This treatment of course contrasts greatly with how her father, Cadwallader Colden, was treated, as he effectively produced and published the first Flora on New York which came to be treated much like an authentic scientific piece by the scholars in this field, in particular Linnaeus, even though it was perhaps no different from that of Jane’s.  The main difference between the two–Cadwallader Colden’s work came into Linnaeus’s hands fairly early in the history of this newly defined profession, Jane’s work came in during the mid-life of this period in botanic history, and was not officially discovered and evaluated until the final years of the Linnaean period in botanic history.

Official or Not?  One of the first questions we have to ask about Jane’s work is was it “official” enough to be accepted as the type of work needed to come up with a viable new epithet or plant name?  Was she simply an admirer of her father’s work, and so decided to take it on as a part of her own life experience?  Or did she become so interested and enthusiastic enough about this form of study that she ultimately became a purebred scientist herself? 

Jane of course was neither.

According to the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature (IRBN from here forward), the answer to the first question is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  Her work may be considered official, even though it was not officially published, for it was provided with the image needed to become an authentic piece of work once the contents were documented and published by later scholars in science and the press.  Much if Linnaeus’s work for example has also been considered official at times, in spite of numerous mistakes that came about when these first time writings were treated with such sincerity.  It is for this reason for example that the early official name for Prunella, as seen in the review of Cadwallader’s work, used the name Brunella instead.  The result of a typographer’s reading error perhaps, and according to some of Camp, Rickett, and Weatherby’s writings on IRBN, was perhaps not a reason to change the name for this plant to its proper spelling Prunella. 

This process of decision making it ends up, all depends on both the content and overall awareness of the work at hand.  In Jane’s case, the public and offical awareness about her manuscript may have in part been a reason some of her “discoveries” were never considered as such.  Jane’s process of decision making in the identification and naming process has numerous errors strewn about her work,  But none of these were enough to completely remove her from the intellectual process in official plant naming.

The following rules decided upon by International Botanical Congresses (1905-1935) set the stage for this argument.


Chapter III.  Names of Taxonomic Groups (Art. 15-72, Rec. III-L). Section 3. Limitation of the principle of priority; publication, starting-points, conservation of names (Art. 19-22). 

Art. 19. A name of a taxonomic group has no status under the Rules, and no claim to recognition, unless it is validly published (see Section 6).

. . .


Section 5.  Conditions of effective publications (Art. 36)

Art. 36.  Publication is effected, under these Rules, by sale to the general public or to botanical institutions, of printed matter or indelible autographs, or by distribution of these to specified representative botanical institutions. 

No other kind of publication is accepted as effective; communication of new names at a public meeting, or the placing of names in collections or gardens open to the public, does not constitute effective publication.

Section 6.  Conditions and date of valid publication of names (Art. 37-45, Rec. XXI-XXIX)

Art. 37.  A name of a taxonomic group is not validly published unless it is both (1) effectively published (see Art. 36) and (2) accompanied by a description of the group or by a reference to a previously and effectively published description of it.

Mention of a name on a ticket issues without a dried plant without a printed or autographed description does not constitute valid publication of that name.

A name of a taxonomic group is not validly published unless it is definitely accepted by the author who publishes it.  A name proposed provisional (nomen provisionem) in anticipation of the eventual acceptance of the group, or of a particular circumscription, position or rank of a given group, or merely mentioned incidentally is not validly published.

. . .

Articles 42 through 44 of IRBN:

“Art. 42.  A name of a genus is not validly published unless it is accompanied (1) by a description of the genus, or (2) by the citation of a previously and effectively published description of the genus under another name; or (3) by a reference to a previously and effectively published description of the genus as a subgenus, section or other subdivision of a genus.

An exception is made for the generic names published by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum, ed. 1 (1753) and ed. 2 (1762-3), which are treated as having been validly published on those dates. (see Art. 20).

Art. 43.  The name of a monotypic new genus based on a new species is validated: (1) by the provision of a combined generic and specific description (descriptio generico-specifica), or (2) by the provision of a plate with analyses showing essential characters; but this applies only to plates and generic names published before January 1, 1908.

Art. 44.  The name of a species or of a subdivision of a species is not validly published unless it is accompanied (1) by a description of the group; or (2) by the citation of a previously and effectively published description of the group under another name; or (3) by a plate or figure with analyses showing essential characters; but this applies only to plates or figures published before January 1908.”

So, perhaps Jane’s manuscript is not really what botanists during this period of time might consider to be adequate publication material or a good example of an “indelible autograph.”  Unlike her father’s manuscript, Jane’s work wasn’t mailed to any scientist or possible link to publishers in due time, except as an examples of a post-humous document.  Does a belately introduced discovery still constitute and early discovery, or one of several similar discoveries made at the time, when it is later discovered and defined to have been produced at an important time in science history.

Again, the answer to this question is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

A number of Jane’s species have descriptions eluding to a particularly local plant not officially identified until much later, by such botanists as Michael Adanson, Carl Willdenow, Andre Michaux (late 1790s to very early 1800s), or even Thomas Nutall of the early 1800s.  Some of the plants defined by Jane did not receive their official name until around 1810, but her manuscript was first uncovered years several earlier, its contents published just a couple of months later.  (By this time, of course, knowledge about formatting your discovery of a new plant was in favor of these new botanists.  A closer review of Jane’s work, once plant identifications are finalized to the species level, should provide more insight into this matter.)

Jane’s Flora

What about being accepted as a writer by the publishing world?  Could what was being called a “Flora” produced by Jane be considered a valid discovery piece or plant species history? Did the publication of news about her “Flora” have the impact needed to formalize her discovery, enough to make it a scientific accomplishment, even if her versions of the names were not finally accepted? 

Well, it ends up that it helps to produce your discovery in Latin.  Jane’s writing was in English.

When Jane produced her manuscript or “Flora,” as it is referred to by some early writers, Jane’s genus name for this plant was Fibraurea meaning ‘Golden-thread’.  As a “manuscript”, this item was not officially considered published.   But as a “Flora”, questions arise as to its actuality as a piece of work considered akin to a publication.  Was such an item an “indelible autograph” (Art. 36) or “autographed description” (Art. 37) as the requirements stated?  Well , not really.  Although this item was kept in an archives as an official library document, it was not put into press in the right way so as to constitute an actual source of documentation and reporting for any new plant discovery.

Still, Jane has a document that can be used to prove her discoveries if she made any, and this is the purpose this stage in her manuscripts life that her work and academic efforts wer e now beginning to take.  In some ways, this resembles the kinds of discoveries now made in the lab by scientists in other fields.  In terms of “discovery” and ‘invention’, this fits the protocols for making a discovery in any academic setting such as a chemical lab within a university’s chemistry department.   This is much the same way the MRI or NMR as it was originally called, for use in measuring water content as a diagnostic medical research apparatus, was discovered by Nobel Prize winning professor Paul Lauterbur at Stony Brook University, Long Island, NY.  Lauterbur had his realization during one of his lab times over a weekend, and had to call a colleague from his line of work in to sign his lab book–a manuscript–documenting his discovery on how to read more into body tissue thn through the use of radiation, ultrasound or catscan equipment.  In this case, the manuscript is a proof of discovery.  Can the same be said for Jane’s?

What do we define as ‘truth in a name’? 

Jane’s Latin name for her newly “discovered” plant “Fibraurea” and her documentation of this discovery did follow some of the basic discovery, naming and nomenclature rules.  Her genus name “Fibraurea” was a true description of its appearance.  There was no way to state that it was ambiguous in any way.  Her name, like its other name Coptis, was in reference to the shape of its leaves, an identification trait passed onto the species name as well, a practice that was in adherence to another IBSN rule for non-discordant names.   [The name Coptis is from the Greek for “cut leaved”, referring to the partial splitting of each of the three leaflets into two sections per leaf, a feature common to this species and therefore also definitive, a naming pattern supported by IBSN.]

Non-discordant names are favored for ISBN.  These are names which absolutely make sense when you look at the plant and know the background and history of its identifier.  Genus and species are acceptible whenever they referring to certain identifiable features of the plant, and cannot be considered discordant from the plant’s overall appearance.  Such names, capable of causing in meaning  are termed doubt nomina dubium (doubt in meaning).  Even worse scenarios are termede nomina confusa (confusion) and are also considered eligible for abandonment by the taxonomic society (Arts. 63 and 64).  In the case ambiguity in the name and description of a plant, nomina ambigua exists and is also in need of review for replacement (Art. 62). 

So how was Coptis chosen over Fibraurea?  Article 59 states “A name must be rejected if it is illegitimate”, as in superfluous meaning it is preceded by another name of similar quality and form, or if it is produced as part of a larger group name (i.e. Plant Family) considered to be improper or illegitimate, or in some way, shape or form fits the nomina ambigua or nomina dubium category due to an improper naming such as the use of an informal but common name that other than due to popularity has no true taxonomic meaning (Art. 67).    This therefore begs the question, was Jane’s name considered illegitimate?

As I noted elsewhere, this name was no perhaps more official than the name given to it by Linnaeus–Helleborus trifolius L., with the major exception that Linneaus’s name selection became published of course.   Linne’s name suggests a significant relation between what is now considered Coptis and the forever popular Helleborus nigrum of the same family (Ranunculaceae or Buttercup). 

People familiar with Hellebore will wonder, how did Linneaus link Coptis to Helleborus?  Linnaeus’s method relied almost totally on how he grouped flowerform, in particular by the numbers, forms and arrangements of the parts of a flower, such as the sepals, petals, pistils, and stamens.  For Coptis versus Helleborus, three out of four wasn’t so bad to make them part of the same genus.   According to Asa Gray’s Manual of Botany (1856, pp. 10-11), sepals, petals and pistils  kind of matched, but stamens most certainly did not.  Nor did leaf-forms really, unless imagination allowed you to match an obscurely 3-lobed, sharply toothed, obovate-wedge form leaf (Coptis) to a sizeable palmate or pedate leaf (Helleborus) of various possible sizes, shapes and forms of lobule-generation.  

Perhaps Linnaeus assigned this plant the genus name Helleborus due to grossly compared flower and leaf features, and its overall appearance and apparently best fit within the family to which he had already assigned it–Buttercups.  Whatever the reason, Linneaus’s choice of the genus name Helleborus was supported a few years later by famous evolution-natural selection biologist and botanist Jean Baptiste Lamarck.  In support of Linneaus’s selection for a genus name, Lamarck called this plant Helleborus trilobus L., again referring to its 3-lobed leaf form, but this time with the species name.   

The Ultimate Battle for Naming Rights

The publication of Jane’s work by Linnaeus, like that for her father, may have helped.  But since Jane’s manuscript was not brought to the public’s attention until the 1780s, this is just a moot point.

Years later Richard A. Salisbury stated much the same for the naming of this plant by Linnaeus, again referring to it as a Helleborus species–Helleborus pumilus Salisb.  But in the end, Salibury, it ends up, made the final decision regarding the official naming of this plant.  Salisbury later conceded to Linneaus’s species name by finally defining this plant to be Coptis trifolia (L.) Salisb.  A short while later, still another name was offered, which never really got any recognition or acceptance–Isopyrum trifolium Brit., referring to Nathaniel L. Briton’s (also spelled Britton’s) publication of this recommended official name.

To Jane, naming this this three-leaved, three-lobed plant “fibraurea” probably had some philosophical meaning that the other taxonomists were lacking.  To the botanists Coptis was simply a new species, one that really did not receive full recognition of its formal Latin genus name “Coptis’ until about 1807.  By then, Jane’s work was pretty much forgotten in the Anglican science world.  Jane’s only consolation with this plant was perhaps her win post-humously over Britton’s Isopyrum trifolium Brit., which never took off in popularity. 

To Colonial herbalists and perhaps locally trained physicians, Coptis did have some features which made it stand out as a medicine.  Helleborus did as well, although its uses were distinctly different than those of Coptis, and often considerably more toxic.  The golden color of the thread-like roots of Coptis, especially when scraped of its thin outer coating or “bark”, made it seem very attractive for use as a medicine.  This gold color alone made it to some appear to be a highly valuable tonic when used as a medicine, used to treat yellow bile related diseases.  Its bitter taste confirmed this to most, associating it with several other higher class tonics like Gentiana, Berberis, and the local Xanthoxylum.  The brilliant golden color of its tinctures however eluded the most to the four humours theory, and made it distinct golden plants used as medicines.   

Jane’s name for this plant best fit its overall role in medical history and ethnobotanical importance.  The final accepted Latin name Coptis best fit its form.  Like Isopyrum, Linnaeus’s name Helleborus, did not really fit the virtues of this herb as much as the other two.  In the end, for the case of goldthread, taxonomy and form won over Jane’s preference for appearance and use, and perhaps that ever-dominant first discoverer, first publisher naming issue defined by ISBN, a rule or concern never really present during Jane’s years spent botanizing.