Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research
And What Do You Call That?
An essay on classification of Australian plants
by Ian White
(extracted from CSIRO Plant Industry Yellow Sheet No.22, 12 June 1995)
Half the population breaks into a cold sweat when they're asked of some plant, animal or bird "...and what do you call that ?". This is because the world is evenly divided into lumpers and splitters. Splitters take great delight in knowing the proper names of things. They smirk when they point out that casuarinas, like Constantinople, are no more. They feel compelled to correct you that these wonderful, whispering she-oaks are actually allocasuarinas. As if the exact name made them burn any better. Lumpers do not need to know the names of things. When faced with the mind-numbing variety of galaxies, stars, plants, animals, birds, fish, insects, viruses, DNA, atoms, and nuclear particles, we remain silent. It is the spirit of things that we seek to know. Had Noah been a lumper, we might now be blest with only cows, cockies, cockroaches and flatheads, recognisable by even the most lumpen of lumpers.
It is curious, though, that while splitters are content, even smugly superior, with their lot, lumpers are slightly uneasy about theirs. My hypothesis is that our discomfit arises, not from any inferiority to our self-satisfied splitter neighbours, but because we suspect we may have some memory disfunction. That part of our brains, which ought to be filled with the names of things, may be clogged with snatches of part-remembered songs like the nasal twang of "Why must I be a teenager in luuv?" or "I'm dancing with a dolly with a hole in her stocking..." or "There is a green hill far away without a city wall...". Anyone who has tried to use a Soundblaster card to record music digitally on their 486 computer appreciates how memory-hungry music can be. For some unfathomable reason, I've always imagined that splitters are constipated and lumpers are loose bowelled. Such simplistic notions of digestive determinants of behaviour are, of course, totally out-of-fashion. Whatever the cause of our lumpiness, hope is at hand. Many years ago, a system evolved in our town which allows lumpers to hold their heads high.
Our town had a disproportionate number of lumpers and eccentrics. Actually, eccentrics is a bowdlerism. These weren't your mildly peculiar individuals. They weren't even emotionally challenged or mentally disadvantaged. Nightmare Alice, Ma Gunn, Digger Round, Toot-Toot, these were downright, fair dinkum nut-cases. They regularly saw the devil walking up the dusty road from the station on summer afternoons, or burst spontaneously into song in the middle of the main road or sat candle-in-hand at attic windows, trying to lure ships to destruction on the bomboras which fringed the beaches, in the recesses of their minds. They didn't know their own names, let alone the names of plants around them.
Perhaps the large number of lumpers in our town was due to the town's two main occupations, coal mining and dairying. When you're 5 kilometres underground with a world that's a dimly lit, 2 metre patch of coal face, or you have your head buried in the side of a steaming cow at 4.30 in the morning, your attention tends to be focussed on the job in front of you. The world behind you is, of necessity, out of mind.
The general lack of awareness of the world around us was reflected in the flowers, shrubs and vegies that we grew. Australian native plants or trees never graced our yards. The marvellous varieties of coastal vegetation which grew at the periphery of our town and our vision were regarded as weeds. This was particularly so of native trees, which we divided into two classes, gum trees and wattle trees. Wattle trees had begun to be tolerated in school yards and in some of the smaller parks because of the first stirrings of national identity. The young Queen, the cloying yellow wattle blossom, the Snowy scheme, and free, but rancid milk at playtime, were making us a nation.
Gum trees did not share the grudging acceptance of wattles. They were viewed with disfavour because they had a sinister tinge to them. It was well known that gum trees, from 100 metres away, with unerring accuracy, could drop all their leaves into house gutters, which filled with this incendiary mix the night before every bushfire. Also, they deliberately festooned the lawn with twigs, which inevitably flew up and hit you in the eye when cutting the grass with the primitive, toe-removing Victa (footnote 1). Gum trees were well known to drop massive branches on holiday-makers who set up camp beneath their protective canopies, even on totally windless nights. Worse still, it was common knowledge that their roots broke up all paths, and clogged all sewer pipes, for 200 metres around any gum tree of any age. Their potential to clog sewers was always used by our local shire council as the rationale for removing gum trees from public lands.. This was somewhat curious as our town wasn't sewered. Still residents felt that the principle was sound.
The native shrubs in the surrounding scrub didn't have a sinister tinge, they were downright evil. They harboured the bottle ticks, which killed our dogs and cats with amazing regularity. Even kids would swell up to twice their size and writhe in delirium with ticks in the head. It was natural, then, that anything that wasn't a gum tree or a wattle tree was labelled a tick bush. If we didn't think twice about cutting down gum trees, we didn't think at all about clearing tick bush. The town was constantly wreathed in the smoke of our fires of purification as we all burnt-off encroaching tick bush.
This then was our classification scheme for Australian flora; gum tree, wattle tree, and tick bush. We didn't need to know any more to manage our environment. It was sufficient; we were content with it, and it placed us in harmony with our surroundings.
That was until a new principal was appointed to our primary school. Within a week of his appointment, he had nailed tin nameplates to all the trees in the school grounds. We thought this was a little peculiar, but passed it off as a mild, city-bred eccentricity. However, we were horrified to be told at our Monday morning assembly, just after we'd pledged our undying loyalty to our remote English monarch, that we were expected to know the names of all these trees.
Monday lunchtime, the principal appeared in the playground. This was unheard of. Cane in hand, he seized a passing boy and pointed to a distant tree. "Well boy, and what do you call that." The stammered, but in our view, technically correct "gum tree sir" resulted in two of the best cuts of the cane (footnote 2) we'd ever seen. It was immediately apparent that we had a problem. When faced with great difficulties, years of training had taught us to run, hide or feign contagious illness. Our Monday playground became instantly boyless. We hid under the weatherboard lunch shed, in the lantana (footnote 3) in the neighbouring cemetery or down in the creek. In hindsight, this was pretty stupid. All were punishable by six cuts, and, after a few of us had been caught, we realised that we had to adopt a different strategy. So we removed the nameplates.
I suspect that the headmaster had foreseen our response. The following Monday assembly he announced that the teachers would cane every boy in the school in one week's time unless the plates were replaced. Which we did, but on the wrong trees. Again we were threatened with the cane. The next Monday morning, all labels were properly reinstalled, but a magnificent cedar (Toona australis) in which we all played, had been felled neatly across the asphalt assembly area. Who did it remains one of the great unsolved mysteries. The police were called. but, as usual, nobody knew anything.
The headmaster lost heart as he envisioned a guerilla campaign of deforestation. He abandoned his attempt to make splitters of us. We responded by adapting our classification scheme to other indigenous species. Birds were split into two varieties, parrots and magpies. A kookaburra was a laughing brown magpie; an emu, a large flightless magpie. Even canaries, which we honestly thought were natives, were classified as small, yellow, nervous magpies. Animals were of two varieties, drop bears (possums, koalas, even flying foxes) and wombats. Kangaroos were large jumping wombats, platypus were swimming wombats. Insects were also of two classes; the flying kind, blowflies, and the crawling kind, spiders. We could count, but the difference between 6 and 8 legs in the insect world was as unimportant to us as it was to cricket followers of that period (footnote 4). It was a terrible blow when we found that cockroaches, which we had called large flat shiny 6 legged spiders, could fly. We decided this was an aberration, and we stomped on as many cockroaches as we could and removed them totally from the insect nomenclature. Such was our inherent confidence in the appropriateness of our classification schemes. Our native plant classification scheme, however, has remained our first love and our joy.
Gum trees, wattle trees and tick bushes were all we needed or wanted to know. It was, of course, quite apparent to us, even then, that our classification scheme had some slightly grey areas. Trees like Illawarra flame trees (Bracchychiten something [sic = Brachychiton]), when they burst into their brilliant, crimson flower, were clearly not gum trees. When you have a classification scheme which works for you and imposes no strain on memory, there is no point in abandoning it. Flame trees were enfolded by the system and became, when in flower, red-flowered wattles, otherwise they were gum trees.
We have resisted strenuously any expansion to the tick bush genus, it is just so right for the Australian scrub. When challenged by some exasperated, egg-bound splitter to name some obscure Melaleuca, I can say with all the assurance of years of experience and with a smirk of self-satisfaction, "That, my friend, is a tick bush" and I know for certain that I am right.
(1) Victa was the first brand of rotary lawnmower in Australia. The blade, in the original models, projected more than 10 mm beyond the protective base plate to enable one to cut right up to obstructions. Many people cut lawns in bare feet. This was not very bright.
(2) The cane was a 1 metre long, 10 mm diameter stick with which you were hit hard across the open, upward-facing palm of the hand. This was called "getting the cuts". We believed that 6 was the maximum permissible cuts allowed.
Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research
Updated 30 March, 2002 by Jim Croft (email@example.com)