Wonderful Latin Names, Part 6: Syzygium aromaticum

Photos: S. aromaticum flowers by Hafiz Issadeen CC BY-ND 2.0 via flickr.com; S. aromaticum leaves by Forest & Kim Starr CC BY 3.0 via wikimedia.org.

A couple of weeks ago I described the evolutionary history in each jar of my mango chutney. My chutney has 19 botanical ingredients, and I looked up the Latin name of each one to locate it on the angiosperm phylogeny. I was delighted, in doing so, to discover that cloves are Syzygium aromaticum*.

The species name aromaticum is certainly appropriate to cloves, which have one of the loveliest aromas to grace my kitchen. We can thank Linnaeus for aromanticum, but that’s not what makes the clove tree the 6th installment in my series on Wonderful Latin Names. Instead, it’s the genus name Syzygium that made my day. That’s because it shares roots with one of my very favourite English words, syzygy. Who wouldn’t love a word that flies off the tongue like a feather-fletched arrow leaving a bow? A word with three vowels, all of them y’s? A word with meanings in poetry, biology, and astronomy?

Both Syzygium and syzygy come from the Greek syn, meaning ‘together’, and zygon, meaning ‘yoke’ – thus, ‘yoked together’. In poetry, syzygy is either the combination of two units of metre into one, or the repetition of a consonant at the end of one word and the beginning of the next. In biology, syzygy can be the pairing of chromosomes during meiosis, or a fusion of two segments in the arm of a crinoid. In astronomy, syzygy is the alignment of three celestial bodies in a straight line – for instance, the Earth, Moon, and Sun during lunar and solar eclipses.

clove leavesWhat about Syzygium? Here I was at first disappointed, because the story of its naming is untidy. The genus was originally named by the Irish physician and botanist Patrick Browne**, who apparently chose the name in reference to its “coupled leaves and branches” (they’re arranged oppositely on the stems). So yes, the genus name recognizes the same kind of twinning or yoking as do other senses of syzygy. But it’s not a particularly creative naming, since many, many genera have opposite leaves. And here’s something odd: Browne described and named Syzygium in his 1756 book The Civil and Natural History of Jamaica (where he was working as a physician) – and yet Syzygium is an entirely old-world genus. Browne’s description is thus based on an introduced, presumably cultivated, tree***. A single tree, as it turns out: “I have never seen”, Browne writes, “but one tree of the kind; it grew at the corner of the road under the hill, as you turn directly toward the bridge [near the ferry]”. So if you were imagining an intrepid explorer, pushing bravely into the wild Indonesian jungle to discover Syzygium in its native flora, well, Browne isn’t your man. To make matters worse: Browne actually spelled the name Suzygium, which doesn’t have nearly the ring of Syzygium. Perhaps fortunately, though, he didn’t provide a botanically valid description. In 1788, Joseph Gaertner fixed both the description and the spelling (in De fructibus et seminibus plantarum), which makes the modern genus name, with authority, “Syzygium P. Browne ex Gaertn”.

So bringing us the name Syzygium took false starts and kludges, the happenstance of a tree near the ferry, and finally the work of Gaertner to repair (or build on) that of Browne. As I dug into all this, I got frustrated; I wanted a simple, clean story to lie behind the name I like so much. I considered dropping Syzygium and moving on. But as I sorted out the details, I realized that Syzygium’s story is partly that great things can emerge from false starts and kludges and happenstance – which is, if you think about it, also the story of natural selection. In the untidy history of Syzygium’s name, then, I can see an analogy to biology itself, and another to the way we work to untangle it: false starts and errors, kludges and corrections, and more than a little luck; but progress all the same. Nearly as much as I like Syzygium itself, I like the way these three ideas have lined up – making a syzygy, if you will.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) February 4, 2016

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*It’s a tree in the Myrtaceae native to the Maluku Islands (= Spice Islands) of Indonesia. Cloves are the dried flower buds, and have been traded over thousands of kilometers since at least 1700 BC.

**Not, as Wikipedia would have you believe, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown who first described what we now call Brownian motion. That would have been nice. Both Brown and Browne were working in an age when science hadn’t entirely gelled or professionalized, and it was routine for a worker to dabble in many fields. In some ways I’d have enjoyed being a scientist then.

***Of S. fruticosum; S. aromaticum was transferred into the genus later. It’s a big genus – something in excess of 1,000 species, although the systematics are too unsettled to be sure. Among other mellifluously named species: Syzygium ramavarmae, Syzygium samarangense, Syzygium symingtonianum, and to leave the best for last, Syzygium syzygioides.


20 thoughts on “Wonderful Latin Names, Part 6: Syzygium aromaticum

  1. timothycurran

    Great post, Stephen! I’ve always liked Syzygium, both for the name and the wonderful trees that they are. We have many species Down Under, including the cauliflorous S. cormiflorum (common name; bumpy satinash), the licorice-flavoured S. anisatum, and S. papyraceum with its wonderful, reddish papery bark. The common name for several of the species is ‘lilly pilly’, which just rolls off the tongue. Sadly, the etymology of lilly pilly is unknown.

    The Myrtaceae also offer a perfect accompaniment for your mango chutney; in Australian dry rainforests (an ecosystem close to my heart) you can find Backhousia angustifolia, which has leaves with a wonderful sweet curry aroma.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Interesting – perhaps this makes more sense than his tree being introduced from the old world, although it doesn’t explain why he explicitly said he’d only ever seen one tree of the species. Have you traced this to illustrations in his Jamaica book?


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