Aloe pumila, Haworthia pumila; what or who is confused?

With some astonishment I learned recently of an opinion that the name pumila as used in Haworthia is confused and therefore should be discarded. There is no doubt that it is difficult to unravel the literature and the usages of the name, but I think there are a number of important questions which should first be answered. Is the name confused or is it us and others, as individuals, who are confused? It is worth asking such questions because names are words in the process of communication and mutual understanding around which all knowledge and its sharing revolves.

If the facts of the matter are properly examined there is a clear path of events. It may be very complex and take many words to explain, but it is there. If a reason has to be sought for confusion I have no doubt that it can be tracked to the door of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. My reasons for saying so should become clear.

Paul Forster, who is himself a professional and highly qualified taxonomist, commented on my treatment of the name H. pumila as follows “We do not live in a vacuum”. Here he suggested that I had failed to consult authority and that there was professional opinion available that would have resolved my confusion.

If one thinks about Paul Foster’s statement it is quite evident that:
1. he does not consider himself able to resolve the problem (this is a valid point because to do so does require knowledge of the elements involved, and also requires insights into the intricate mechanisms of the Code which are beyond most).
2. he simply believes that there is someone in the hierarchy who is competent and able to do so.
3. I had not thought there was.

The latter point is simply not true as I have consulted almost every single botanist and non-botanist (yes, many non-botanists are free to dabble in plant taxonomy because of the non-scientific nature of the activity) available to me. A list of names and also authors and published references would fill a few pages.

Turning to the name “pumila” itself, it can be shown very clearly (botanical terminology to mean something quite the opposite, but which I use here in the true sense of understandable) that Linnaeus used the name for four “varieties” of small Aloe. Confusion certainly followed about which of his names should be used, but there should be no doubt about which four these were.

The problem arises out of the Code and how, relating to names for those four “species”, it is now interpreted and by whom. It becomes a juristic problem requiring a great deal of fancy intellectual footwork, complicated by an approach to the code which largely ignores the basic intention to bring stability and uniformity to plant names. It also involves use of words like “validity”, “legitimacy”, “intention”, “relevance”, “strict interpretation” and “according to article…” with gay abandon.

Without going into the very extensive historical detail which includes the fact that the names margaritifera and pumila were used for the same single thing, it is almost sufficient to say that Col. C.L. Scott took the plunge. Defying the predictable response, he took the assistance of Dr L.E. Codd, who was then and still remains a highly respected taxonomists. Together they concluded that because of what and despite what, anyone had done with those two names, the name “pumila” was valid and correct for the species represented by the illustration t10 of Commelin 1701.

They argued that despite the fact that the name had already been used in Haworthia for another species, this did not preclude its correct use for the one represented by the Commelin illustration. The fact that confusion may have arisen and continues to this day, is to my mind correctly laid at the door of Dr W.T. Stearn, paragon and patron saint of plant taxonomy.  He wrote a paper in 1938 in which he annotated the names of Salm-Dyck and reconciled them with Berger’s revision of Aloe in 1908.  What he did was also to  typify the name Haworthia herbacea (Miller) Stearn. In my opinion, had he known anything about the actual species involved, he would have recognised the problem arising from the inclusion of “pumila” in the history of that name and resolved it accordingly.  He did not.

After Scott (and Dr Codd) had reached a decision in 1978, I still remained in some doubt using the name “pumila” until forced into a decision when I undertook to write a revision of the genus myself. I had been asked to write a synopsis of the species of Haworthia occurring in the Cape Floral region.  This request was by the taxonomists Dr. J. Manning and Dr. P. Goldblatt and I in turn asked them (as had become my routine practise with taxonomists) to clarify the use of the name “pumila”. They contacted Dr Fred Barrie who I presume is a figure in the hierarchy alluded to by Paul Foster, and the following was his reply. “According to the Linnaean Typification Project database, Aloe pumila var. pumila was lectotypified by Wijnands (Taxon 34:310, 1985) on Commelin, Hort.Med.Amstel.2:t.10, 1701. Linnaeus cited this figure under A. pumila var. margaritifera in Species Plantarum (p322) as “Comm.hort.2,p.19,t.10.”  Consequently, var. margaritifera and the autonym are synonymous.  Var. pumila, as the autonym, has priority.”

There is more to the reply, but it does not address the problem of the different usages of the name “pumila” by various authors until its inclusion in Haworthia by Duval for a species based on a different type.

There is no confusion in this. It is simply a question of how the Code directs that the name should be treated. I was confused over the issue. I did wade through the detail of synonymy with Mr Larry Leach and subsequently with Dr Peter Bruyns. It was evident from this arduous process that, was “pumila” not available for the species in question, the name “maxima” should be used. There is absolutely no reason for confusion about which species I am referring to, nor about the names available or the way in which they have been used since Scott 1978. But I decided to treat the name “pumila” according to Dr Barrie’s response. This suggested to me that Dr Codd and Col Scott were correct and that “pumila” as used by Aiton and Duval was incorrect and did not preclude the use of the name as typified by Wijnands. The essence is that Linnaeus used the name “pumila” as a prime name in Haworthia and it should sensibly remain there.

What is confusing and what should confuse everyone, is that there are persons who feel the need to contest the issue. The need only arises from personal feelings and the fact that the Code has generated this vast arena for endless vain debate. Where a name has so convincingly and obviously been used in the literature of the time, it obviously meets the need. Changing it, or attempting to change it, generates confusion. We do not have to feed on it.

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