Linnaeus and the Rhododendron Names
Per M. Jørgensen, Ph.D.
In the very interesting posthumous article by Theo Schmid (fall 1999 issue) about the name "rhododendron," it is assumed that Linnaeus read the Greek Anabasis, as he certainly was trained in Greek. I doubt, in spite of this, that this is the explanation to Linnaeus' use of the generic name Rhododendron, which certainly is Greek, meaning rose tree or just a flowering woody plant. Linnaeus had obvious problems with Greek, and another problem in finding suitable candidates for the many new names he needed for his new naming system (the binomial nomenclature). He took freely from classic sources, some of them Greek, and quite often misunderstood how the names had been used originally. Rhododendron was one of the Greek names for oleander (Nerium oleander) (Stearn 1992), another flowering bush with pink flowers, and quite common in Greece, as opposed to rhododendrons in our understanding of the word.
Concerning his use of the epithet ponticum there is a much simpler explanation, offered by Linnaeus himself in Species Plantarum (1753). He took it from the phrase-name used by Tournefort (1719): "pontica maxima."
While dealing with rhododendron names, I'll take the opportunity to mention the generic name Azalea L., which also has a Greek origin, the word "azaleos," which means dry, and to my knowledge was not used on any Greek plant. The application of this name on deciduous rhododendrons surely is one of Linnaeus' misunderstandings. It does not, however, originate from his bad knowledge of Greek, but from the fact that he originally used this name in quite a different way than later botanists did. He included all species with five anthers, instead of the ten he found in proper rhododendrons (of which he accepted only six), irrespective of their deciduousness. He first used this name in Flora Lapponica (1737) referring to the dry habitat of the included species today known as Loiseleuria procumbens, a low growing, evergreen, ericaceous plant, in English still called "trailing azalea." It was Gronovius who in his Flora Virginica (1739) took up the name for two erect, deciduous species later named A. nudiflorum and A. viscosum by Linnaeus. This is how this unsuitable name came to be transferred to this group of species.
They are today included in the genus Rhododendron as taxonomy no longer pays so much attention to the number of stamens or to when the leaves are shed.