And then there were names

October 24, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

In ancient times common people named plants in the local vernacular after the plant's uses or common items they thought the plant resembled. By the 14th century learned scholars began to sort plants into groups by their outward appearance, and then gave them fanciful Latin names - but it was a hit-or-miss process.

In the 14th and 15th centuries came what has been described as the Age of Discovery or the Age of Exploration. Europeans were suddenly introduced to exotic ideas and plants from all corners of the world. This treasure trove of unfamiliar flora, a hodgepodge of plants with polyglot names, begged to be cataloged. But there was no generally accepted structure for the task. It wasn't until Carl Linnaeus that an ordered system of botanical nomenclature - both descriptive and universal - came to the field of botany.

Linnaeus - also known as Carolin Linnaeus and later, after he was knighted, Carl von Linn - was born in the southern Swedish town of Stenbrohult in 1707. His father was a parish priest as well as an amateur gardener and botanist. The family wanted Linnaeus to follow his father's footsteps into the priesthood, but he preferred plants to school. A family friend suggested that the lad's bent for natural science made him a perfect candidate to study medicine. In the 1700s the majority of a physician's medicines were derived from plants, so the practice of medicine and botany were closely linked.


Linnaeus studied and then taught botany at Uppsala University. He also became caretaker of the neglected botanical garden and soon introduced new and rare plants. At this time he began to develop a theory of botany that in time became "Philosophia Botanica," eventually published in 1751. With a grant he received from the Royal Science Society in Uppsala in 1732 he embarked on an expedition to document Lapland from a natural history point of view. His "Flora Lapponica" was the first description of the vegetation of this undocumented part of Sweden. Thus began his lifelong mission to collect and name plant specimens from around the world.

An inspiring teacher, he passed on this passion to his students.

They would tour the globe to study the flora and natural habitat of plants, and send seeds and pressed specimens home to Sweden. These were the basis for extraordinary herbariums. Linnaeus' most complete one, some 40,000 specimens, is now is on display at the Linnean Society in London.

In 1735, Linnaeus met Sara Elizabeth Moraea and proposed. His prospective father-in-law mandated that before a marriage could occur Linnaeus must get a medical degree so that he could support a family. In Holland, within just two months, he achieved the required cachet. But it would be nearly four years before he returned to Sweden to be wed. He used the intervening time to tour gardens and visit growers in Holland, France and England. This gave him access to new plants and sponsors. Linnaeus, throughout his lifetime, had the ability to entice sponsors, patrons and assistants to further his studies.

The farm he bought in Hammarby, to remove his family from the unhealthy air of Uppsala, remains today as a monument to his life's work. Hammerby is at the top of our list for our next trip to Sweden.

Throughout his life Linnaeus - botanist, entomologist and zoologist - sought to give order to the natural things he encountered. His botanical system recognized 24 classes of plants that were characterized according to their sex organs. Stamens (the male organ) determined the genus of the plant. Orders were determined by the number of pistils (female organs). It was an artificial system but it was convenient. Within those classes Linnaeus designated plants by two words: the first is the name of the genus, such as Rosa, which can be applied to any member of the rose family; the second name or 'epithet,' such as rugosa, describes the plant. Thus know that this plant - Rosa rugosa - is a rose with rugose or rough leaves.

With the publication in 1753 of "Species Plantarium," this binomial system for identifying plants was widely accepted - but only after vociferous and mean-spirited criticism from rival botanists.

As a gardener this botanical system allows me to visit a botanical garden in any country in the world and identify plants by the Latin names assigned according to Linnaeus.

Since his death in 1778 Linnaeus' system of binomial nomenclature has often been revised but his premise remains solid. Recent DNA testing has shown plant connections never before suspected. But Linnaeus got the ball rolling. This winter when you peruse the plant catalogs, raise a glass of glogg to the incredible vision of this illustrious Swede.

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