‘It’s a nice name, but what does it mean’?

Have you ever noticed when you wander around a zoo or botanic garden that the animal or plant you’re looking at has two names? You may see a sign telling you that you’re standing underneath the canopy of a River Red Gum tree, but the same sign also tells you that you’re also standing under a Eucalyptus camaldulensis. If your curiosity goes beyond how beautiful the tree is it may prompt you to wonder what that secondary name is all about.


While those secondary names – known as binomial or scientific names – may seem challenging at first, you can be rewarded if you unravel them. Deconstructing a scientific name can unravel history and quirkiness that gives context to the time and events when European naturalists studied and described elements of our natural world. In this series we will deconstruct some of those strange names and find out that there is often quite a story – or at least a fascinating translation – behind them.

So let’s use the aforementioned Eucalyptus camaldulensis to start deconstructing some of these names. Eucalyptus is the name of the genus that includes over 700 tree species within the Myrtaceae family. The River Red Gum is a very Australian tree. Not only did it provide early settlers with quality building timber, some of them were retained as livestock shelter; travelling through open farm country in much of Australia the paddocks and fields are punctuated by these broad, beautiful trees. And throughout the hundreds of years of their existence these trees provide habitat to a diverse range of our wonderful wildlife. This is a tree that has been labelled ‘Australia’s tree’ or an ‘Australian Icon’. So it would be fair to assume that the River Red Gum’s scientific name would reflect its place as an Australian cornerstone, right? Well we need to think about the time and events of when our River Red Gum was ‘christened’ with its less obvious name.

In December 1816 botanist and naturalist English Allan Cunningham arrived in Sydney after spending two years collecting plant specimens in Brazil having left England 4 years earlier. Before he died in Sydney in 1839, Cunningham had collected several hundred specimens and seeds of Australian plants. Some of these samples he believed would replace the ‘imperfect’ specimens collected by the more famous botanist Joseph Banks. In 1817 one of the plants’ seeds Cunningham collected was that of what we now know as the River Red Gum tree.

Meanwhile in Naples, Italy, the German botanist Friedrich Dehnhardt was busy curating gardens for a man known as the Count of Camalduli. The Count was part of an order of monks whose history dated back to 1012. The name of this order of monks was the ‘Camaldoli’. Camaldoli is derived from the Italian words Campo (countryside) and Maldolo. Count Maldolo was said to be the man who donated the countryside field to St. Romuald who established a monastery on the site in Tuscany.

Tuscany, Italy

It’s unclear how they were aware of each other, but Allan Cunningham sent some of his River Red Gum seeds to Friedrich Dehnhardt. Dehnhardt duly planted the seeds at L’Hortus Camaldulensis di Napoli, the private gardens of the Count of Camalduli. These trees were allowed to grow until the 1920s. Given that he was the curator of the Camaldoli gardens and that is where he studied the plant, Dehnhardt believed that this Eucalyptus tree species should be named in honour of the gardens. But that wasn’t the end of naming this iconic Aussie bush tree.

Friedrich Dehnhardt named The River Red Gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis in 1832, but his botanical work and naming of the species was largely unknown for some years. Other botanists had their own take on the tree in the following years. In 1847 another German botanist, Diederich Franz Leonhard von Schlechtendal, named the plant Eucalyptus rostrata. This name, however, had already been applied to another Eucalyptus species by Spanish botanist Antonio José Cavanilles. In the 1850s the famed German/Australian botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller named specimens of the tree Eucalyptus longirostris. In 1934 Australian botanist William Blakely declared that the rightful botanical name for the River Red Gum was Eucalyptus camaldulensis. Blakely assisted British botanist Joseph Maiden who was considered the foremost authority on Eucalyptus species, writing the eight volume A Critical Revision of the Genus Eucalyptus.

Australian indigenous Aboriginals have many names for this wonderful tree that they have witnessed over tens of thousands of years. Throughout areas of Victoria it is known as Be-Al. Other Aboriginal names include Yarrowee, Bealiba and Warracknabeal. If you are fortunate enough to admire one of these quintessential Australian trees just remember it was described and named by a German in Italy from seeds sent to him from an Englishman.

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