The Acacia name change – botany and emotion

Botanists from around the world are sharpening their battle axes for another fight over the Latin name of the group of yellow-flowered, pod producing plants known as wattles, mimosas, thorn trees, and acacias.  Australians and their friends want to keep the name Acacia for their most common plant genus, and not to have to rename their wattles Racosperma.  Others (particularly South Africans – who for example constitute 13 of 69 authors on a recent position paper) want to keep the name Acacia for the fever trees, umbrella thorns, and other emblematic trees of the savanna (as opposed to calling them Vachellia and Senegalia).  Battle is expected in late July at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, and given the emotions involved, the atmosphere could be as charged as when the Wallabies and Springboks meet on the rugby pitch.

Proponents of different views refer to the rules of botanical nomenclature (that is, how plants get their scientific names), to statistics of numbers of name changes demonstrating various kinds of inconvenience, and to usage (or avoidance) of certain names in the scientific literature.  They call for arguments to remain factual, and not emotional, nationalistic, or even jingoistic like some which emerged around the last battle, in Vienna in 2005.  Yet they call for people to get involved, to possibly go and vote at the IBC Nomenclature Section in Melbourne (as in a recent email circulated to the Australian-based “Acacia study group”).  What would motivate people to get involved?  Clearly the issue is indeed emotional.

More importantly, I believe there is nothing wrong with that.  Why shall we all hide behind supposed scientific neutrality and impartiality?  If historical and sociological studies of science have shown us anything, it is that science has always been shaped by the social context.  This debate about national symbols and the way words roll off our tongue (‘Racosperma…’, yuck) has caught the attention of taxonomists, botanists, scientists and the general public far beyond the few acacia specialists, and we care about it not because of nomenclatural rules or inconvenience to publishers of flora, but because we are human, and we give meaning to names, symbols, flowers, nations.  Let’s call a spade a spade, and acacia Acacia.

The best proposal I have seen is that by R. K. Brummitt (here), who suggests that nomenclatural rules be bent such that all main groups of Acacia keep the name Acacia for most uses, but that for specialized botanical and taxonomical purposes, a parenthetical Racosperma, Senegalia, or Vachellia be added to the name for the three genera.  So the silver wattle that blooms in the Melbourne winter would be Acacia (Racosperma) dealbata for the specialists (but just silver wattle or A. dealbata for most of us) while the iconic tree in the African savanna being nibbled on by a giraffe would be Acacia (Vachellia) tortilis (but just umbrella thorn, or A. tortilis, for common use).  Makes a lot of sense to me.

The simplified back story (see also the paper by Jane Carruthers & Libby Robin, or the website ‘worldwidewattle‘ maintained by Bruce Maslin, the website acaciavote from Moore et al., or the references in the papers linked to above):  Scientists have produced compelling evidence that the massive genus Acacia should be split into at least three new genera.  By the rules of botanical nomenclature, the name Acacia would be kept by some 180 plants found in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.  The rest would get new names, including Senegalia for another 150 plants in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and Racosperma for over 1000 species in and around Australia.  Herein lies the problem:  Australia doesn’t want the ugly sounding Racosperma.  So in 2005, botanists at a congress in Vienna approved a different name solution: Australia keeps Acacia, and the group that had originally kept the Acacia name becomes Vachellia.  Now it was (mainly) South Africa’s turn to be upset, pointing out that Australians call their acacias wattles anyway and that in Africa, the trees are actually called acacias.  Economic, nationalistic, numerical, and moral arguments were raised on both sides, including debate over the voting procedures.  2011 is the next International Botanical Congress, in Melbourne, and several proposals are on the table to raise the issue again.

[see more on this issue in the comments below, and in my new blog posting with more comments. See also our recent publication (available as pdf):

Kull, Christian A. & Haripriya Rangan (2012) Science, sentiment and territorial chauvinism in the acacia name change debate. In Peopled Landscapes: Archaeological and Biogeographic Approaches to Landscapes, edited by Haberle, S. G. & B. David. Canberra: ANU E-Press, 197-219.]

19 Responses to The Acacia name change – botany and emotion

  1. J. B. Friday says:

    Auwe! More work for us foresters to learn new names.

  2. Thanks for your good article. I also honor emotions. And the compromise from Mr. Brummit seems to be a possibility to lead “the world” out of this impending axe-fight.

    Let me comment on the species numbers. I am not a botanist, but a chemist. My hobby are the trees and I have two main specialities: the Acacias (which are not at home in Europe) and the beech trees (which are the main tree species in Middle Europe).
    There are strictly spoken only eight beech species worldwide. If you are generous: Make it twelf. But there are over one hundred varieties. These varieties show very different form and/or different color/s of the leaf, different growth habits, even some modification in the bark – and all kind of combinations of these features. They are very well documented in two books by Mr. Gerhard Dönig. And you can find pictures of Fagus sylvatica ‘xyz‘ all over the web.
    On the other hand the Acacias, where each small difference (not only in flower or fruit) leads to a new species.
    As there is no Government regulation as to what a plant has to show to become a separate species, the scientific community decides, what it wants.
    Curiously in the case of beeches, botanists decided to keep the number of species extremely low, in Acacias its the opposite. Thats what I learned as an “amateur”.

    • tony says:

      This is highly simplistic. If Acacia was a European genus, then we would probably have 30 000 varieties recognized. A variety is a variation within a species. A species is a group of plants which interbreed with one another and not other species. I would not be surprised that if the same criteria were carefully applied across both genera, that the Beeches may well have less than 8 species or that Acacia would have a very lot more than 1000! Strictly it is the plants that “decide” on what a species is and scientists merely document this. The two problems are that some scientists “read” more finely than others and that some plant groups havent quite “decided” who they breed with.

  3. Eugene says:

    Although Christian Kull notes that “scientists have compelling evidence that the genus acacia should be split into three genera” that view represents one point-of-view held but some (maybe even many) in our contempory world. Take the time and read Frank White’s ochlo species paper (and by the by the Frank White I knew must be writhing in his grave right now with all these futile arguements and gerrimanderings going on) and you will see that his view was that by splitting genera into a whole bunch of new and much smaller genera leads to less exciting questions regarding evolution. Instead of splitting acacia into more genera why not keep it as one big genus(which, by the way, has served us well thus far on the planet) and investigate questions of evolution of the differences. Wolf-Achim Roland has summed it up quite nicely for Fagus, yet in acacia we are tearing at each other and the genus – for what end.
    Make Melbourne a place that bring people together rather than tearing them apart as has been done by Brummitt and Maslin at Vienna.

  4. Anon says:

    The case for subdividing the Genus Acacia is far from compelling. The past 100 years of Acacia nomenclature has not inhibited taxonomy of the group. Confidence in the taxonomists arguing for change is tribal. Funding for future taxonomic study will become increasingly difficult for in- depth study. It was hard enough to persuade the Australian government to launch the Flora of Australia back in the 1950/60s. Eucalyptus taxonomy has been soow sloow and underfunded with the foresters largely responsible forprogress. M.Ian H. Brooker and David A. Kleinig deserve an A.O. for lifting the taxonomic game.

  5. […] is a topic on which we wrote several blogs last year in the run-up to the Melbourne IBC conference (1, 2, 3).  We review the acacia battles as a manifestation of long-standing struggles in science […]

  6. Anton says:

    I think Racosperma and Acacia are what we should be holding onto. However if Australians don’t like the feel of the word Racosperma in their mouths they can continue to use Wattle, that’s obviously easier to swallow for them as they’ve been using it for a couple of hundred years. Just as we in South Africa have been using Acacia and will continue to use Acacia.

    I am unanimous in that! I think so are most people (: So why stir the waters.

    I fully buy into the emotional baggage behind a name after all it has cultural and historical significance. What would the good people of Australia say for example if they woke up one fine day only to find their countries name had been changed to “The Lesser Gondwanas” just because it suited a scientific model of the origines of our respective continents?

    What I don’t buy into is RK Brummit. This is a silly compromise and makes Latin jargon even more meaningless. Its after all easier to live with the meaningless names we know already. I also think it obviously and unnecessarily paves the way for future undesirable permanent name changes and splits in genera. We will split genera only to confuse those after us trying to see the bigger picture of how we got there??? A continental divide is more than sufficient.

    This divide between South Africa and Australia is an important one botanically speaking. I think we can all agree on that at least. For one reason for example is that all Australian Wattles are alien invasive pests in South Africa, so it is important they aren’t confused with the genuine Acacia of Africa. It goes without saying these pest Wattles are also unique to Australia of course.

    Acacia, Wattle. Problem solved. Hang on that means no name changes at all. YES!

  7. Kobus says:

    “Science, sentiment and territorial chauvinism in the acacia name change debate” is really not a well considered heading for this topic.

    Let’s start with the name Acacia originates from the Greek language, not Latin and it refers to a “spiny plant”.

    Secondly, you will have to rewrite the Bible to accomodate the many references to “acacia wood”, which would give some indication of the cultural value of the word and the “Greek root”.

    I am a conservationist and cannot understand how educated people could decide to lobby for a word which incorrectly describes the species from a scientific point of view, just because they are incapable of adopting the correct alternative. It dies not make sense and Linnaeus must be turning in his grave.

    • Anton says:

      Exactly Kobus.

      • Kobus says:

        The best solution would be to add the prefix “pseudo” to the names of all the wattles. That does not involve a name change and explains the mistaken assumption that the Australian wattles were part of the same species. From a historical, cultural and heritage perspective the word Acacia belongs to a group of plants which occur in Africa and the Middle East. It is disingenious to think otherwise. No committee or organization can solve this extremely important issue, by arranging a vote in Australia and then change world history single handedly. This is surely an issue which should be addressed by an organization like UNESCO.

        We have a wonderful tree in our area, Euclea pseudebenus, which is part of the ebony family and the name is self explanatory.

  8. This topic still stays in the news: a recent blurb in the Acacia Study Group Newsletter 132 (quoted in entirety here) alerted me to a short article by Tim Low in Australian Geographic.

    “A recent article in Australian Geographic magazine by Tim Low refers to the Acacia name issue that was resolved at the 2005 and 2011 International Botanical Congresses held in Vienna and Melbourne respectively. Tim Low’s article can be viewed at journey/2016/03/the-wattle-war.

    “The article suggests that Australians conned the Congress and stacked the vote at the Vienna meeting, implying that were it not for this, the decision in relation to the name Acacia would have been different. Kevin Thiele, former Curator of the Western Australian Herbarium, has refuted this suggestion, noting that the Vienna meeting was dominated by European and North American delegates, and that the number of Australian delegates was vanishingly small compared with other nations, including Africans.

    “The Tim Low article appears to be a rather strange piece of reporting, partly because it deals with events that have long been resolved. It also unfortunately makes a number of broad unsubstantiated assertions that, based on my understanding, are not correct. For example, reference is made to the 2005 decision being an exception to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. This is not correct, as the process that was followed was totally in accordance with the rules of the ICBN, and no different to what had been applied previously in dozens of other plant groups.
    The article also implies that there were 163 African thorn tree species that would be renamed Vachellia as a result of the Acacia decision. This is not correct – there were only about 70 African thorn tree species affected by the name change.

    “It should also be noted that almost all of the African species that needed to be renamed Vachellia (following the 2005 and 2011 decisions) have now been formally renamed by African botanists (in various botanical journals).

    “Some Study Group members may be interested in reading the following paper by Bruce Maslin which includes a
    summary of the extensive uptake of the new generic names worldwide:

    “Maslin, B.R. (2015) Synoptic overview of Acacia sensu lato (Leguminosae: Mimosoideae) in East and Southeast Asia. Gardens Bulletin Singapore 67(1): 231-250”

    • Anton says:

      Pleased to see on a recent visit home to South Africa that all nurseries and forest departments are still using Acacia. The African thorny “Acacia” as the name implies.

      I think its outrageous the Australians have decided to miss interpret Latin for their thornless species of weeds!

    • Eugene Moll says:

      I was unfortunately not able to access the Tim Low article – and from the brief summary Christian gives it sounds like some more stirring!
      However, irrespective of the “scientific” merits or de-merits of the name change and all the fuss and hullabaloo about that, what remains IN THE MINDS OF THE GENERAL PUBLIC AND TOURISTS TO AFRICA is that the name acacia still belongs to the spiny African, iconic trees – even if some need a name change because of better taxonomic microscopy!
      What Maslin and Co need to understand is that by their maneuvering (all legitimate I concede) they have created a situation where many Africans and tourists to Africa now have a lower opinion of Australians IN GENERAL. A consequence the authors of taxonomic change did not envisage I am sure (after all they simply live in their “taxonomic boxes”). Maybe they were not bothered about helping to create a poor image of Australia and Australians when they proposed and managed the change? But the backlash has been significant AMONGST THE GENERAL PUBLIC (but muted in the scientific community who realize that they lost this one by sleeping on the job).
      To me the main fall-out has been sociological NOT taxonomic. How long this will reverberate, and what the long-term consequences may be, is unknown at this stage. I just know that in my circle of many friends and colleagues there is nothing but “hate” for this change – so nothing was done for goodwill between people by this taxonomic “clean-up”. That is now for me the interesting part…

      • Anton says:

        “The genus name is derived via Latin from ancient Greek ακακία (akakia). It was the name used by Theophrastus and Dioscorides to denote thorn trees, the word root being ἀκίς (akis) or ἀκή (akḗ), meaning “thorn” and “point” respectively.

        Before discovery of the New World, Europeans in the Mediterranean region were familiar with several species of Acacia, which they knew as sources of medicine, and had names for them that they inherited from the Greeks and Romans.”

        The Latin meaning of Acacia has not changed, nor has the species. As we still mostly use Latin in botanical nomenclture why should the species name change, its a very literal description. You don’t need an electron microscope or even a pair of glasses to see why they’re called Acacia.

        I suggest any confused Australian botanists bone up on their Latin or take a little safari in Africa, where with a little help they might be gently or otherwise persuaded to get up close and personal with any one of the numerous Acacia’s found there. If they don’t scream “Akakia!” in the process then fair enough they can have it.

      • Eugene Moll says:

        Unfortunately, or possibly deliberately, Anton you do not understand the globally accepted rules of that govern taxonomic nomenclature (there is an international committee that overseas all nomenclature matters and every four years there is an international gathering where taxonomic issues are determined). Many of us are sad and even angry that we lost the name “acacia” (despite its Latin derivation) to Australia – BUT that is now done and dusted and no amount of argument will bring the name back scientifically (and then only for some of the African species since African “acacias” are now recognized to be two genera – one basically with hooked and the other with paired straight spines). HOWEVER, we in Africa can still use acacia but just not if we write about the species in the scientific literature. Q.E.D.

  9. Anton says:

    That’s ridiculous, how can you call something thorny when it doesn’t have thorns? Completely retarded.

    You’re right we will so what’s the point?

    I notice wikipedia still calls a spade a spade.

    Botanical publications should just ignore the international nomenclature committee. They’re obviously out to lunch and need to be replaced.

  10. Kobus van Coppenhagen says:

    The matter can only ever be resolved, by a “reversal” of the Melbourne decision. The Acacias have been assimilated into culture, religion, folklore, history, conservation and everyday life over a period of more than 2000 years in such an intimate manner, that it cannot be untangled in any way, least of all by a decision which was made in Melbourne the other day, after a short discussion only. The “admission” of Mr.Moll that they have been caught asleep on the job, is a serious indictment. Their renaming of the Acacias with other unrelated names is a nullity and is resented, because they have work to do.

    On the other hand this is an example which proves that the “Curse of Babel” is as real today as it was thousands of years ago.

  11. Anton says:

    Australian wattles or Racospermas do deserve separate nomenclature , they are after all invasive pests in every country that has introduced them to their forestry industries, and yes they don’t have thorns. The damage has been extensive and often irreversible, water table destruction in some of the poorest nations on earth and out competing native flora that is often highly valuable medicinally to the same populations. Bio diversity has been severely impacted as a result.

    May I suggest “Pestilentia” for the Australian species of wattle if they don’t like the less accurate racosperma. The Latin translation very literally describes them, “plague, bane, pestilence, canker, pest…..”.

    It also has a nice ring to it, “Pestilentia”. Obviously the Ausralians don’t have a clue about Latin so they won’t notice, as long as it sounds important, which it does.

    The change will go unnoticed, just make it simpler because it fits the entire 1000 or so Australian species.

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