The cobra lily got its name from the hood-like shape of its specialized leaf: a pitcher filled with a secretion that digests insects lured by the sweet liquid to enter and slip down the pitcher into the fatal brew. This plant isn’t a lily at all but a pitcher plant, and one so different from others that it’s classified in a separate genus, Darlingtonia. It got its species name, californica, from where it was discovered: at the base of Mount Shasta in California by a botanist on the US-sponsored Wilkes Expedition (1838-1842). This particularly ambitious enterprise ranged as far as Japan and Antarctica and sent a party to explore parts of Oregon and California before they were US territories.
Darlingtonia californica was named and described by John Torrey, a New York botanist. The pressed specimen he originally received from the expedition had pitchers and stems, but no flower, usually the most distinctive part of a plant and necessary for a full description. Ten years after the plant was originally collected, another traveler personally delivered several specimens of the plant to Torrey along with other California plants. Torrey was thrilled to get it because this specimen had a flower. However, he was disheartened to find that another specimen in the packet revealed that its genus, which he had named for his friend William Darlington, wouldn’t hold. He had based this name on a rather poor specimen and was forced to retract his determination.
This disappointment was short-lived because Torrey decided to instead name the pitcher plant after Darlington, an elderly Pennsylvania botanist who had been trading specimens and information with Torrey for years. Torrey had perhaps prematurely told Darlington about the other plant, and the older man had been thrilled. After an article on the cobra lily was accepted for publication, Torrey wrote to Darlington describing what had happened and proposing the pitcher plant name instead. Darlington was pleased but wary, because not only had one name been snatched from him, but two. In 1826, a French botanist designated a mimosa species as Darlingtonia, but in 1841, the British botanist George Bentham reclassified it as belonging not to a separate genus, but in the mimosa genus. Darlington was very disappointed; he referred to Bentham as “inexorable.” It was years before his renamed the specimens of it in his collection.
This story reveals how much a plant name can mean to a plant-lover: it is a way to botanical immortality and a sign of value in the botanical world. I got interested in Darlington and Torrey when I found a letter in which Torrey reassured Darlington that another pitcher plant, recently named by George Bentham, was not the same as Darlingtonia. Torrey even went to the trouble of tracing the figure from the article about the new plant. That impressed me. Here was a noted botanist taking the time to draw the plant in order to calm an old man’s fears about losing an honor that meant so much to him. To me, this story is a reminder that not only are plants very valuable to us, but also that even their names can be treasured.
Note: I’ve included three images here: the live plant showing its pitchers, the specimen Torrey studied, and the illustration Isaac Sprague drew from a similar specimen. The last shows how an artist can “revive” a pressed plant, while still providing accurate information.