Hello sage, goodbye rosemary!

Parsley, sage, sage and thyme?


Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Remember me to one who lives there,
For she was once a true love of mine.

Thanks to the latest machinations of botanists, a visit to Scarborough fair may never be the same again.

In a study published in 2017 (yes I am really on the ball), scientists revealed that, after studying the DNA of salvias (commonly called sages)  and closely related genera including rosmarinus, they are all equally related. This new knowledge posed a problem and meant that there would need to be reclassification. This might either mean splitting the genus salvia or putting plants from the other genera in with salvia. There are strict rules that govern renaming, but any changes have to take into account common usage.

There would be no problem renaming some obscure moss from the Canadian tundra, but are any of you old enough to remember when chrysanthemums were split up and the common florist chrysanth became dendranthema? That idea was ditched in 1999 because the plant was so important commercially important and no one was going to drive into a petrol station and ask for a bunch of wilted dendranths!

Now if the botanists decided to split the genus salvia it would mean renaming 700 of the 1000 species. It was considered that it was less contentious to move the other, small genera into salvia.

Rosemary is (was) Rosmarinus officinalis and although botanists try to cause as little harm as possible, once it was decided that rosemary was a salvia this could not become Salvia officinalis because that already exists – it is sage. So Rosemarinus officinalis becomes Salvia rosmarinus. At leasts the name retains the identity of the plant even if the ‘officinalis’ bit (which means ‘of the shop’, referring to its use by herbalists). Ironically, this is a name that was proposed in 1852 so perhaps being two years late discovering this news is not so bad after all.

Researching this simple name change, I discovered a Turkish paper (three years previous) that proposed splitting the genus Salvia, and trying to get to grips with this almost made my head explode.

And in a slightly ironic twist it seems that, unless someone knows better, perovskia remains as perovskia and has not become a salvia, despite its common name being Russian sage.

In case this has depressed you so early in the morning, the common name need not change. Common names are not bounded by such strict rules and an international code, a bit like the science of astronomy versus astrology.*



*And I am a typical Cancerian!


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3 Comments on “Hello sage, goodbye rosemary!”

  1. Jackie Knight
    July 16, 2019 at 7:36 am #

    Brilliant! loved this, I do get upskuttled by the name changes, ‘tho I’m sure it is the correct thing to do now they have such sophisticated methods of I.D.

    • thebikinggardener
      July 16, 2019 at 7:44 am #

      thank you. And while it is amazing what new science is teaching us it makes it more difficult for us mere mortals who just have eyes and a hend lens.

  2. tonytomeo
    July 22, 2019 at 4:07 am #

    Oh, goodness! Nomenclature is supposed to simplify, not complicate!
    Incidentally, for those who are unfamiliar with how botanical nomenclature works, I compare it to automotive nomenclature. For example, General Motors is a family, Buick is a genus, and Electra is a species. Well, after all that, I realize that, unlike the old cars, the Chrysler was made by Mercedes Benz, with a Lexus Engine! As screwy as it sounds, it is sort of relevant to botanical nomenclature.

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