The Kimberley Society




1. What is the correct scientific name for the Australian boab: Adansonia gregorii F. Muell. or Adansonia gibbosa (A. Cunn.) Guymer ex D. Baum?

A number of members have written inquiring as to the "correct" scientific name for the Australian boab - the logo of our Society. These inquiries resulted from a scientific revision of boabs (Adansonia)  authored by David Baum and published in 1995 which included a new name Adansonia gibbosa  for the Australian boab traditionally known as Adansonia gregorii .

The boab (or baobabs as they are commonly known in Africa and Madagascar) belong to the genus Adansonia  in the plant family Bombacaceae. The generic name commemorates the French naturalist Michel Adanson (1727-1806) who visited Senegal in West Africa and provided the first detailed botanical description of the baobab Adansonia digitata .

The Australian boab has been known in scientific circles as Adansonia gregorii since 1857 when it was named by the Victorian Government botanist Ferdinand von Mueller. The species name gregorii  commemorates Sir Charles Augustus Gregory (1819-1905), a surveyor in WA and later surveyor-general in Queensland. In 1855-56 A.C. Gregory led an expedition searching for traces of Ludwig Leichhardt‚≥ party. During his travels in the Victoria and Fitzmaurice Rivers region of the Northern Territory, a number of boabs were carved with names and dates. These include the now famous "Gregory Tree", the boab that marked the base camp of the North Australian exploring expedition. Ferdinand von Mueller, the botanist attached to this expedition, collected flowering specimens and subsequently described and named this new boab after A.C. Gregory.

In the botanical description of Adansonia gregorii,  Mueller refers to descriptions of the 'Gouty-stem tree' contained in the published exploration journals of Allan Cunningham in P.P. King (1827) and J. Lort Stokes (1846). In the "Botanical Report of the North-Australian Exploring Expedition" published in 1858 Mueller commented that the boab "was evidently restricted to the north-western part of the continent, where Allan Cunningham assigned it to a range of 4 degrees of longitude...". He further noted: "Amongst the plants remarkable for their geographical distribution, the Gouty-stem tree (Adansonia gregorii)  is deserving of particular notice, since this expedition proved its generic identity with the Baobab or Monkey-Breadtree of Western Africa, which has hitherto remained the isolated representative of its genus".

In the early 18th century Allan Cunningham, the naturalist on HMC Mermaid  under the command of Captain Phillip Parker King, was the first European to collect fruiting specimens of the boab (he referred to them as the "large gouty-stem tree") growing on the north Kimberley coast. On 22 September 1819 when exploring Cambridge Gulf he made the following notes in his journal: "In a season of extreme drought I was most pleasantly surprised to discover so many remarkable and valuable botanical desiderati. The large gouty tree observed on the shore of the large island [Lacrosse Island] without leaves I found bearing fruit at the extremities of the branches - which I with some difficulty gathered: it proved to be a Capparis " The following year, a particularly large boab at their Careening Bay campsite was inscribed by members of King‚≥ crew "HMC Mermaid 1820". It is presumed that this is the tree from which specimens in leaf were collected as Cunningham noted in his journal for 24 September 1820: "Some very large specimens of the gouty Capparis  were in the earlier stages of vernation . . ."

Cunningham noted the trees' resemblance to the baobabs of West Africa but believed, in the absence of flowers and based on the structure of the fruit, that it was a member of the caper family and applied the name Capparis gibbosa  in his journal. This was not unusual as botanists in the field often applied manuscript names for plants they assumed to be undescribed and these names were often accompanied by brief field notes. If, after study, the plant was considered to be new to science, the manuscript name was formalised by a botanical description and the name published. In the published report of his botanical explorations, Cunningham never formally described Capparis gibbosa  and the name remained a historical curiosity.

When HMS Beagle  surveyed the Kimberley coast in February 1838, Commander J. Lort Stokes encountered boabs at Point Torment in King Sound. He noted in his expedition report: "Here also I remarked the gouty stem tree, figured by Captain Grey, and described by Captain King, as of the Nat. Ord. Capparides, and thought to be a Capparis ; it also bears a resemblance to the Adansonia  described in Captain Tuckey‚≥ Congo".

Over time, manuscript names have the potential to provide botanists with headaches because of the rule of priority which governs the naming of plants. The rule of priority means that the first name published, even if the botanist concerned assigns the plant to the wrong genus, has priority over any subsequent name published.

In 1842 Robert Heward published a "Biographical Sketch of the Late Allan Cunningham" which included lengthy excerpts from his unpublished journal that included the passage containing the reference to Capparis gibbosa.  This paper did not purport to be anything other than the title suggested and there was no intention by Heward to publish a new botanical name for the Australian boab. However, some botanists would argue that publication of the name Capparis gibbosa  (accompanied by only the briefest of field notes)inadvertently formalised what until this time had been a manuscript name. If one accepts the proposition that Heward‚≥ publication validated the name then the specific epithet gibbosa  predated the name gregorii  by 15 years! However, none of the manuscript names mentioned in the "Sketch" was accepted as being published by contemporary botanists.

In the mid 1980s Queensland botanist Dr Gordon Guymer recognised the nameCapparis gibbosa  was an earlier manuscript name for Adansonia gregorii , and he prepared an article formalising the new combination. After discussion with his Australian colleagues he was advised that renaming the Australian boab would serve no purpose and would displace a well established name of an Australian icon. The paper was abandoned. However, Cunningham‚≥ specimens in British herbaria had been annotated by Guymer with the manuscript combination, with the result that an American doctoral student David Baum became aware of the earlier name and in 1995 published the new combination Adansonia gibbosa  (A. Cunn.) Guymer ex D. Baum.

The protocols for naming plants is governed by the "International Code of Botanical Nomenclature". The current edition, the "Tokyo Code" published in 1994 states "the XV International Botanical Congress urges plant taxonomists . . . to avoid displacing well established names for purely nomenclatural reasons, whether by change in their application or by resurrection of long-forgotten names". The renaming of the Australian boab is a clear case of a disadvantageous change: the displaced nameAdansonia gregorii,  is well established, and the displacement is based purely on the priority of a manuscript name that was never intended for publication.

Australian botanists are now taking steps through the International Association of Plant Taxonomists to conserve the name Adansonia gregorii  against Capparis gibbosa  and combinations based upon it. Therefore, Kimberley Society members are encouraged not to use the name Adansonia gibbosa  but continue to use the long accepted Adansonia gregorii . I will advise you when the process of conserving the latter name has been accepted.


Baum, D.A. (1995) A systematic revision of Adansonia  (Bombacaceae).Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard.  82: 440-470.

Cunningham, A. (1827) Natural history appendix. [Botany] pp. 497-565 In: P.P. King, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia Performed Between the Years 1818 and 1822 . John Murray, London.

Greuter, W. et al.  (1994) International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (Tokyo  Code).  Koeltz Scientific Books, Konigstein, Germany.

Heward, R. (1842) Biographical sketch of the late Allan Cunningham. J. Bot. British and Foreign  4: 231-320.

Macfarlane, T. & Guymer, G. (1995) Nomenclature of the Boab(Adansonia)Austral. Syst. Soc Newsletter  85:1-2.

Mueller, F. von (1857) Notes on North Australian Botany (cont.): New genera and species. Hooker‚≥ Journ. Botany & Kew Garden Miscellany 9:14.

Mueller, F. von (1858) Botanical report on the North Australian exploring expedition, under the command of A.C. Gregory Esq. Proc. Linn. Soc. Lond.  (Bot.) 2: 140.

Sharr, F.A. (1996) Western Australian Plant Names and Their Meanings.  Univ of WA Press, Nedlands, WA (enlarged edition).

Stokes, J. L. (1846) Discoveries in Australia. Voyages of HMS Beagle. (Two Volumes) T. & W. Boone, London.

Information provided by Kevin F. Kenneally






The report of the Committee for Spermatophyta:54‚ įublished in August 2004 inTaxon  53 (3) 814, the journal of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, is reproduced in full below.  That committee resolved that the name Capparis gibbosa on which David Baum based the combination Adansonia gibbosa  was never formally published and should therefore be rejected. The correct scientific name for the Australian boab remains as Adansonia gregorii .

Report of the Committee for Spermatophyta:54‚ ®1400).  To reject Capparis gibbosa  A. Cunn. (Sterculiaceae ).  Proposed by Paul G. Wilson & G. P. Guymer in Taxon  48: 175-176 (1999).  Votes: 9-6 (recommended).
The name was published with a minimal description in a biographical sketch by Heward of the then deceased Allan Cunningham in which extracts from Cunningham‚≥ unpublished diaries were included.  It seems unlikely that either Heward or Cunningham had any intention that this description should validate the name of a new species, and for many decades the name was disregarded.  Some members of the committee still consider the name not validly published.  However, some botanists have recently regarded it as validly published, and the type shows that the name refers in fact not to a Capparis  or any member of Capparaceae  but is the earliest name for Adansonia gregorii  F. Muell. in Steruliaceae .  The epithet was taken up inAdansonia  by Baum in 1995, and this has been followed by a few authors since.  The name A. gregorii  has long been well known for an endemic Australian tree of taxonomic, cultural and ethnobotanical significance, and the committee recommends rejection of the name C. gibbosa .  The delay in reporting this recommendation is due to a mathematical failure by the present author, who unaccountably considered that a 60% majority in the enlarged committee of 15 after the St. Louis Congress required 10 positive votes.  In fact, the 9 votes for the proposal are sufficient for a positive recommendation for acceptance.

Information provided by Kevin F. Kenneally







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