Latin Name vs. Common Name: Hairy Lip Fern

By Rachel Floyd

Most of the time, when discussing plant species, I find Latin names preferable to common ones. This is because Latin usually leaves less room for confusion, since there is only one Latin binomial given to a particular plant species while the same species may have several common names. However, there are exceptions and this is a notable one. Hairy lip fern has only been given that one odd common name (as far as I know) and yet it has been transferred in and out of various genera and swapped its species name so many times that who knows what we will be asked to call it (in Latin) next!

The species was first described by Europeans in 1803, one of which named it Nephrodium lanosum. In 1804 it became Polypodium lanosum and in the same year, someone found it in the Carolinas, and thinking that he had found something new, he sent it off to someone who agreed, and called it Adiantum vestitum.  In 1806, it was reclassified as Aspidium lanosum and, because the specimen then under the name of Adiantum vestitum was still thought to be a different species, Cheilanthes vestita. In 1811, an observant French botanist recognized that Aspidium lanosum and Cheilanthes vestita were the same plant, and consolidated the two as Cincinalis vestita. In 1813 he changed his mind and renamed the species Notholaena vestita. New thinking bent on generic classification from 1836 to 1842, put the species back under the broad umbrella of the genus Cheilanthes. However, scientific work in 1852 recognized several distinct subgroupings hiding out under that umbrella, and teased out a new genus called Myriopteris.  By 1857 hairy lip fern was briefly known as Myriopteris vestita. Then in 1859, due to a mixup between western and eastern hairy lip fern plant material, things get really confusing, so let’s just come up for air in 1896 when things are somewhat sorted out and hairy lip fern has emerged from the fray as Cheilanthes lanosa.

Unfortunately, following two whole decades of peace, in 1920 an American herbarium curator, botanist, and drug inspector by the name of Oliver Atkins Farwell decided that it would be clever of him to strictly apply something called “the principle of priority” and put poor Cheilanthes lanosa into the genus Allosorus just because that genus name was published before the genus name Cheilanthes, and, perhaps,  because he liked the idea of causing lay people to confuse ferns with dinosaurs. Then, with what looks like the best of intentions, a large group of European men gathered in Paris in 1954 to write up the Paris Code which states that the essential points in nomenclature are: to aim at fixity of names, and to avoid or to reject the use of forms and names which may cause error or ambiguity or throw science into confusion. Hear! Hear!  And hip, hip, hooray! Hairy lip fern became Cheilanthes lanosa once again and stayed that way until 2013 when new molecular evidence caused a couple of pteridologists (fern scientists) named Amanda Lee Grusz (Take note, please. A woman is finally on the scene!) and Michael Dennis Windham to revive the genus Myriopteris and put our beleaguered hairy lip fern back in there. Rashly, in 2018, a certain Mr. Maarten J. M. Christenhusz seems to have lobbied to transfer the species to the genus Hemionitis, but so far our new heroine, Amanda, has prevailed and hairy lip fern is still being called Myriopteris lanosa!  Still, in light of all this confusion, it seems prudent to me to simply call this fuzzy little fern it by its common name.