This new flag is even better than you think

This November, there are a lot of very consequential elections and referenda in the United States. Most of them I won’t comment on here (although it wouldn’t be hard to infer my thoughts about the highest-stakes one). But one referendum, in one state, is – perhaps surprisingly – right up Scientist Sees Squirrel’s alley.  The people of the state of Mississippi will vote, I hope, to approve the new state flag pictured above.

The proposed flag won a design competition and will be on the ballot for approval in November.  It will replace an older flag that included an inset Confederate battle emblem, and I hope everyone knows why its time is (more than) up.* While the use of “In God We Trust” (the official motto of the USA) is regrettably exclusionary, there’s no question that swapping out a symbol of racist oppression for a beautiful native flower is a huge step forward. The flower in question is that of southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, which is Mississippi’s official state tree**. Perhaps botanists are particularly excited; but I think all humans should welcome this.

But it’s even better – much better – than that.

You probably know that I’m weirdly fascinated by the etymologies of Latin names – especially when those Latin names turn out to be eponymous (based on the name of a person).  There’s not much to grandiflora – that just means “large flowered” – but Magnolia is something special. I didn’t know about this until I started work on my recent book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, but the genus Magnolia is, in fact, eponymous.

Magnolia was named in 1703 by Charles Plumier, and it commemorates an earlier French botanist named Pierre Magnol. Magnol was a brilliant botanist whose major contribution was science’s first attempt at grouping plants into families. Magnol made what we would now see as (mostly) natural, or evolutionary, groupings – because he observed that those groupings could be based on “a certain likeness and affinity in many plants which does not rest upon parts taken separately but in the total composition”. (Magnol would quite possibly have been horrified by the evolutionary biology that underlay his groupings; but for a botanist working comfortably before Darwinian insight, the issue wouldn’t have come up.) Magnol took this huge scientific step 50 years before Linnaeus became famous for sorting plants (and everything else) into families, and his system was arguably better than Linnaeus’s “sexual system”.

But that’s not why the new Mississippi flag is so good.

In his dedication of Magnolia to Magnol, Plumier used this rather effusive phrase: “the illustrious Pierre Magnol, counselor to the King, Professor of the Academy of Physicians and Professor at the botanical garden at Montpellier” (my translation).  But here Plumer rather misses the most important point about Magnol.  Counselor to the King, Professor of the Academy – sounds like Magnol had it made, doesn’t it?  Anything but. Magnol was a Huguenot – a Protestant in Roman Catholic France. For many years he botanized as a hobby, essentially, because he was passed over for professional appointments. Notably, in 1668 there were two open professorships at Montpellier, and Magnol applied and outperformed all the other candidates in an examination. But King Louis XIV refused to appoint a Protestant.  That was just one small part of his hostility to the religious minority. In 1685, he revoked the Edict of Nantes, which protected Protestant rights, and began to actively persecute them instead – leaving Magnol, and many others, the unappealing choices of leaving France, converting to Catholicism, or accepting oppressive measures such being forced to quarter Royal Dragoons in their homes. Magnol eventually and reluctantly converted, and only then (at the age of 56) did he finally gain the professional appointment and status that Plumier recognized.

So Magnol is more than a brilliant botanist, and Magnolia is more than a beautiful flower. Magnol, and Magnolia, are symbols. They can remind us of our sorry history of excluding religious, gender, sexual-orientation, ethnic, and other groups from full participation in science and in society; and they can remind us of what we have to gain when we can finally leave that history behind. Who knows what even greater contributions Magnol might have made, had he not had to bear the burden of religious discrimination? Who knows how many other Magnols there were who never managed to make their contributions at all? Who knows how many there still are?

Is the symbolism in the Magnolia flag obscure, and likely accidental? Yes – I’d be surprised, actually, if the flag designers even knew about Magnol’s history. But this is a good example of what’s out there to be learned, when you tug on the loose thread of an eponymous scientific name.

Science needs everyone.  Society needs everyone.  And the (proposed) new Mississippi flag centres a great big symbol of that. What an improvement over what went before!

© Stephen Heard  September 29, 2020

 Image: The proposed new flag © Rocky Vaughn, Sue Anna Joe, and Kara Giles CC BY-SA 4.0; Bust of Pierre Magnol, © Albertvillanovadelmoral CC BY-SA 3.0

This post grew from a comment I left on Jeff Ollerton’s blog, on a guest post about the botany of the flag by Peter Bernhardt. Parts of it are based on Chapter 4 of my book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.

*^In the unlikely event that someone isn’t familiar with this: the Confederate battle flag represented, and still evokes, the Confederacy in the US South that fought the American Civil War in an effort to retain slavery.

**^And also its official state flower. Mississippi also has an official bird, butterfly, insect (the non-native honeybee, sadly), fish, mammal, reptile, beverage (milk!), colors, dance, food, gemstone, mineral, rock, seashell, slogan, coat of arms, seal, and language. If this strikes you as a little silly, head on over to Lowering The Bar and enjoy Kevin’s series of posts on “Official State Crap”.

6 thoughts on “This new flag is even better than you think

  1. Peter Bernhardt

    The sexual system of Linnaeus does not sort plants into families. The hierarchy of Family was not instituted widely until the 19th century. The sexual system of Linnaeus remains a useful, diagnostic tool incorporated into modern plant identification to this very day. Linnaeus was no more an evolutionary biologist than Magnol and his system made identification much easier (provided you owned a hand lens). He was well aware his system didn’t reveal much about natural genealogy (see the book “Flora Unveiled,” by Taiz and Taiz, 2016, Oxford U. Press).. Of course, we don’t depend on the number of stamens and pistils exclusively to make a diagnosis anymore. While modern keys to identifying flora still require counting stamens and pistils there are many more numbers traits including sepals, petals, floral fusion and reproductive stem (inflorescence) characters to make identifications. For those interested in the sex and violent fantasies behind plant etymologies please see my own book, Gods and Goddesses in the Garden; Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants (Rutgers U. Press, 2008)…


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for the elaboration, Peter. With respect to the sexual system: surely you’d agree that the fact that numbers of stamens and pistils are still useful characters in keys (and are fairly well conserved evolutionarily) doesn’t in itself make the sexual system, which used *only* those in a rigid way, a success? But of course that’s all tangential to Magnol’s story…

      Thanks for dropping the link to your book. Readers here who like my posts about scientific names will definitely like your book!



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