The vagaries of taxonomy and the characters who cast themselves as taxonomists tend to make taxonomic histories worth exploring. So it is with the Lilium lancifolium.
Until recently, the accepted scientific name assigned to Tiger Lilies was Lilium tigrinum Ker Gawl., a name dating from 1809. But, apparently, the plant described in 1794 by Swedish naturalist and Linnaean disciple Charles Peter Thunberg in the Transactions of the Linnean Society (Botanical Observations on the Flora Japonica) is now accepted as having been a Tiger Lily and so, Thunberg’s name for the flower has precedence over English botanist John Bellenden Ker’s 1809 effort.
The scientific name of the flower in question isn’t the only name marked by uncertainty. Though I’ve chosen to call the botanist John Bellenden Ker, it’s not clear to me what name I should use for him. More on the source of this confusion in a moment.
That I’m a bit puzzled by Thunberg’s description of Lilium lancifolium is not surprising. It is, of course, written in Latin, and Google Translate did a very poor job, stymied by the abundant botanical terms. Armed with Jason Hollinger’s Plant Latin Dictionary and my two years of high school Latin, I got enough out of the description to have a quibble with Thunberg's description and a wee doubt as to whether what he was describing is what I’m seeing. He wrote that the corolla (the structure made up of the flower’s petals) is subcampanulatis which I translate as “nearly bell-shaped.” To my mind there’s nothing sub about the campanulatis nature of the Tiger Lily corolla. The flower hang down, fully bell-like.
Too bad there is no drawing of the specimen described in Thunberg’s article, as there is in the 1809 publication in which Bellenden Ker offered up his choice of name for the flower.
Bellenden Ker is the stuff of fiction (perhaps a romp by Henry Fielding or George MacDonald Fraser). John Bellenden Ker (1765? – 1842) was born John Gawler. He was forced to resign his military commission in 1793 because, according to the National Biographical Dictionary (Volume 31, 1892), he “displayed sympathy with the French revolution.” In 1804, he changed his name to Ker Bellenden (Bellenden was his mother’s maiden name). Curiously, he was apparently forthwith known as “Bellenden Ker.” The name change was part of an effort by his second cousin William, seventh baron of Bellenden and fourth duke of Roxburgh, to ensure that his estate and titles went to John. But, after William’s death, protracted litigation thwarted those intentions. The National Biographical Dictionary noted, in its usual understated way, that, John Bellenden Ker “was long known as a wit and man of fashion in London. Many stories were told of the charm of his conversation, and he was the hero of some ‘affairs of gallantry.’” (p. 52)
In botanical names attributable to him, his name is abbreviated “Ker Gawl.” A beautiful illustration of what are clearly Tiger Lilies accompanies his 1809 article in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. (The publication from which I acquired this image is dated 1810, but, since it contains volumes 31 and 32 of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, I assume the 1809 date widely cited is correct for the 31st volume.)
Now, Bellenden Ker knew about Thunberg’s work, but, apparently, concluded that his was a separate species. He characterized as “erroneous” botanist Carl Ludwig Willdenow's attempt to label Lilium tigrinum a synonym for “Thunberg’s lancifolium.” As for the specific plant depicted in the illustration, Bellenden Ker wrote, “Our drawing was made from a plant in Mr. Salisbury’s Botanic Garden, Sloane-Square.” (I really like this kind of arcane and largely irrelevant detail.)
Here, then, are several photographs of the small nearby stand of Tiger Lilies that seduced me these past few days, at least until a full day of rain beat down many of the blossoms. It wasn’t until later, after handling the flower, that I realized the anthers on the ends of the dangling stamens had covered my hands and pants with a sticky rust colored pollen.
As for the last photograph, it was taken because, not having ever really paid attention to these flowers, I had hoped that when I peered into a corolla I would spot the tell-tale green star outlined by the base of petals that marks the native Turk’s-Cap Lily (Lilium superbum L.). But, it wasn’t there. No need to comment on the common name of this particular lily, but the scientific name merits a couple of parting remarks. First, the “L.” following the name is the abbreviation for Linnaeus who named it – a very fine pedigree. Second, I stumbled over the species name until I realized that the accent is on the second syllable, not the first (try it) – superbum is Latin for “haughty” or “proud.”