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Plant Focus

Quercus xjackiana acorns
The hybrid of Q. alba and Q. bicolor

Let’s Not Be Sloppy with Quercus lobbii

While working on Quercus in Trees and Shrubs Online with Allen Coombes, I came across some odd shenanigans surrounding the name Quercus lobbii. In many databases,1 the accepted name is Q. lobbii Ettingsh., crediting its publication to Baron Constantin von Ettingshausen (1826–1897), an Austrian botanist. The odd thing is that Ettingshausen mainly studied fossils from what was at the time called the Tertiary era (66 million to 2.6 million years ago); no other living oak species is credited to this author. So why is he cited as the author of this name? He published it in 1883, in an article about the Tertiary Flora of Sumatra2, and in fact named Q. lobbii only in passing, stating that the fossil Q. bidens had some similarities to the leaves of several living oak species, among them Q. lobbii, which he cited as “Q. lobbii Hf. et G.” [sic]. The article included an illustration of two leaves from this species. The author abbreviation Hf. et G. is garbled: it should read H.f. et T., an abbreviation for Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911) and Thomas Thomson (1817–1878). The standard abbreviation would be Hook.f. & Thomson (J. D. Hooker is known as Hooker filius, Latin for Hooker Jr., as he was the son of William Jackson Hooker, whose abbreviation is Hook.)

Quercus lobbii in Ettingshausen publication
The first valid publication of Quercus lobbii was in an 1883 article by Ettingshausen,
but the author citation should read "H.f. & T.", not "Hf. et G."

The type of this taxon was collected by Thomas Lobb, a British plant collector who visited India between 1848 and 1853. The specimen was collected in the Khasi Hills, Assam, in northeast India, and ended up in the herbarium at Kew, at that time the herbarium of Joseph Hooker. The herbarium sheet, containing two specimens, is labeled “Khasya, Thos. Lobb” and also bears a label that reads “Q. lobbii”, a name assigned by Hooker and Thomson.

Type specimen of Quercus lobbii, collected by Thomas Lobb
Type specimen of Quercus lobbii, collected by Thomas Lobb © The Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

In 1886, Theodor Wenzig published an article3 on the oaks of East and South Asia, in which he classified this taxon as a variety of Q. lineata, basing the name on “Q. Lobbii Hooker f. et Thoms. mss. in hb.”. The last part of the author citation refers to the fact that the name was taken from a manuscript in a herbarium, not from a valid publication. This name became Q. lineata var. lobbii Hook.f. & Thomson ex Wenz., where the author citation indicates the name was validly published in a work by Wenzig, but the original authors were Hooker and Thomson. When in 19314 Aimée Camus restored Q. lobbii to species status, stating that it was quite distinct from Q. lineata, the name became Q. lobbii (Hook. f. & Thomson ex Wenz.) A. Camus, showing that Camus had reassigned Wenzig’s earlier combination under a different species.

This would be fine and good, but according to the rule of priority, Ettingshausen’s 1883 publication, which though scant on details is valid, takes precedence over Wenzig’s more accurate 1886 publication. But the 1883 name should be Q. lobbii Hook. f. & Thomson ex Ettingsh., not straight Q. lobbii Ettingsh. Presumably the original authors were excluded because they were not identified behind the citation “Hf. et G.” that Ettingshausen (or his editor) used in the publication. Why was the abbreviation garbled? I suspect that it may be based on the label on another specimen at Kew, collected by Griffith in East Bengal and determined to be Q. lobbii. The handwritten label could be easily misconstrued to read “Hf. et G.” rather than “H.f. & T.” Ettingshausen visited London on several occasions starting in 1876, where he had been summoned to work on paleobotanical collections at the British Museum of Natural History; perhaps he had opportunity to examine the Griffith specimen and mistranscribed the name on the label.5

The handwritten label on Griffith's specimen of Quercus lobbii
Handwritten label on Griffith's specimen of Quercus lobbii in the Kew Herbarium © The Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

In any case, if we must recognize Ettingshausen’s publication as the original publication of the name, we should also recognize the original authors: it was Joseph Hooker and Thomas Thomson who were responsible for honoring Thomas Lobb in the choice of epithet, not the Austrian paleobotanist. We notified Kew’s World Checklist of Selected Plant Families and the change has already been made, both on their website and in the Plants of the World Online website. Other databases and future publications should follow suit.

1 See for example: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/138193767/184345413, https://www.gbif.org/species/2880772 (accessed October 12, 2021)

2 Constantin Freiherr von Ettingshausen, “Beitrag zur Kenntniss der Tertiärflora von Sumatra,“ Sitzungsberichte der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Classe Abt. 1 Mineralogie, Botanik, Zoologie, Geologie und Paläontologie Bd. 87 (1883): 395–403.

3 Theodor Wenzig, “Des Eichen Ost- und Südasiens," Jahrbuch des Königlichen Botanischen Gartens und des Botanischen Museums zu Berlin.4 (1886): 214–240.

4 Aimée Camus, “Sur quelques Chênes d’Asie,“ Bulletin du Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, 2:3 (1931): 337-338.

5 I am indebted to Allen Coombes for pointing out the probable source of "Hf. et G.".