The Bluebell Creeper and Botanical Classification

Bluebell Creeper, Billardiera heterophylla formerly known as Solly
Blue nodding flowers of the Bluebell Creeper, Billardiera heterophylla © Karen Netto (Andrews)

While the garden is filled with the hot colours of autumn, the sky-blue, nodding flowers of the Bluebell Creeper create a more delicate contrast. This is an evergreen, twining climber that has made its way as an ornamental plant from Western Australia into our gardens. It is also commonly known as the Australian Bluebell or Climbing Bluebell. It has a Royal Horticultural Society Award for Garden Merit (AGM).

Latin Name Change

Taxonomists now refer to the Bluebell Creeper as Billardiera heterophylla based on Cayzer & Crisp’s 2004 research. Yet again, horticulture is waiting to see if the proposal gains widespread acceptance. You will probably still find this plant labelled as Sollya heterophylla in garden centres.

Lindley

The British botanist, John Lindley (1799-1865), originally named the plant after another botanist, Richard Solly. Lindley’s name is probably familiar from its connections to the Royal Horticultural Society with its Lindley Library and Lindley Hall in London. He organised the horticultural society’s first flower show in England. He was a prominent Orchid expert.

Despite missing out on a university education himself, Lindley became the first Professor of Botany at the University of London. He even propounded his own natural system of plant classification based on easily observed characteristics. This referred to classification work by the French botanists, Bernard and Antoine de Jussieu, and was scathing of Linnaeus’ formal system. Although Lindley’s system was never adopted, he was nonetheless highly influential and respected in his time.

Imperfect Architecture

I wonder what Lindley would think about how today’s systematists are using electron microscopes and invisible DNA to work out plant relationships? Lindley readily acknowledged that errors are made. A new classification is unlikely to be completely perfect. He compared the process to planning the construction of a huge building with many labourers. Some parts of the building work well from the start, but other sections prove problematic with multiple, unsatisfactory attempts before the final plan is agreed. Today’s building work seems likely to result in a major reconstruction project where work is already well under way, but without clear sight of the final plan.

Consistency and Obstinacy

Lindley’s argues that consistency is obstinacy. He notes that science is in a state of incessant change. A few new facts or new genera can change a previously strongly-held viewpoint. Perseverance in error is sometimes upheld as commendable for consistency’s sake. I suppose the issue is that some name changes are reversed or amended on successive occasions. In the electronic age, this leads to the desire to wait and see if a change sticks before undertaking a major overhaul.

A New Leaf?

Heterophylla means other + leaf. It relates to the Blue Creeper’s variation in leaf shape, from young spear-shaped leaves to older ovate leaves. The epithet will remain. I wonder if it will be nearly 50 years before Sollya heterophylla turns over a new leaf to become Billardiera heterophylla in horticulture?

References and Further Reading

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