Botany, a man’s world?

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

What do you make of this: ‘In the 18th cen­tury, not yet 30 years old, she became the first woman to travel around the world. Along the way she helped col­lect thou­sands of plant spe­ci­mens, some of which were new spe­cies. And she did it all dressed as a man’?

Sounds incred­ible, I know but appar­ently it is true and relates to one Ms Baret (or Baré). To cut a long (but fas­cin­at­ing!) story short, a wrong – that no plant was named after this indefatig­able plants-person – has now been righted by Eric Tepe et al. Their art­icle entitled, ‘A new spe­cies of Solanum named for Jeanne Baret, an over­looked con­trib­utor to the his­tory of bot­any’ form­ally describes Solanum bare­tiae Tepe, sp. nov. As the authors proudly declare ‘This spe­cies in [sic] named in honor of Jeanne Baret (1740–1807), an unwit­ting explorer who risked life and limb for love of bot­any and, in doing so, became the first woman to cir­cum­nav­ig­ate the world… a woman dressed as a man, a female bot­an­ist in a male-dominated field, and a work­ing class woman who had trav­elled farther than most aristocrats’.

Fittingly, S. bare­tiae is a new mem­ber of a cos­mo­pol­it­anly cul­tiv­ated, well-travelled and import­ant food genus, suit­ably befit­ting for such a cos­mo­pol­itan, well-travelled lady! And let us not for­get that the genus — Solanum — includes S. tuberosum, the potato, which itself can be dressed up in many dif­fer­ent guises, e.g. chips (aka ‘fries’ in the USA, ‘frites’ in France, and – allegedly – ‘Fritz’ in Germany), mashed potato, duch­ess potato, jacket potato and crisps (bizar­rely called ‘chips’ in the USA). But cross-dressing, eh? I think I’d be cross if I had to dress as a woman to pur­sue my botan­ical pas­sion; but if that’s what it takes… Hopefully, how­ever, and nowadays, we are much more egal­it­arian and any­body with the appro­pri­ate aptitude can aspire to be a bot­an­ist. Though with sci­entific names like Phallus impudicus and Clitoria for organ­isms within the remit of the Melbourne Code, and what with that racy Scandinavian Mr Linnaeus’ overtly sexu­ally charged plant clas­si­fic­a­tion sys­tem, maybe bot­any is not such a suit­able pas­time for the gentler sex – or those oth­er­wise of a nervous or sens­it­ive disposition…?

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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