Saturday, April 18, 2009

What's in a name?

As the Bard of Avon might have written for his Juliet, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and fothergilla would, were fothergilla not call'd, retain that dear perfection without any other title.”

Fothergilla? Perhaps I've bent the Bard a bit too much. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind; he also borrowed heavily from the classic Greek and Roman tragedies. He had to. But here’s my naturalist's query: What in the world is fothergilla? And to whom does it owe its name? And would it retain its dear perfection without such a fancy title?

Fothergillas are shrubs native to the American Southeast that are grown as ornamental plants for their puffy-white flowers in spring and bright color of their fall foliage. (There are several in bloom near the Visitor Center at Ijams.)

John Fothergill (1712-1780) was an English physician, plant collector and philanthropist. As a physician in London, Fothergill had an extensive practice noted for successfully treating patients during the epidemics of influenza in 1775 and 1776. Fothergill’s hobby was botany. At Upton, near Stratford—hence my earlier reference to Shakespeare—Dr. Fothergill had an extensive botanical garden (today known as West Ham Park) with many rare plants collected from various parts of the world. Dr. Fothergill also helped finance the travels of American naturalist William Bartram, who collected plants from the Southeast to be shipped back to England.

Fothergillas, the shrubs collected in America, are named for the English physician. We all should be so honored.

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