Linnaeus Publishes “Species Plantarum” (1753)

Taxonomy as we know it began on May 1, 1753.  Before then, the naming and description of species was a free-for-all.  Species were described by long, cumbersome Latin names that were given randomly by different observers.  A single species might have several names that the originator changed at will.  The common wild briar rose, for example, was called Rosa sylvestris inodora seu canina by one botanist and Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore, folio glabro by another.  From now on, that would be different.

Linnaeus is a name familiar to anyone who has taken a biology course.  Carl von Linne, or as we know him, Carolus Linnaeus, was born in 1707 in Sweden, studied medicine and became a prominent Swedish doctor, eventually serving as the physician to the Swedish royal family.  His family name was taken from the linden tree, a favorite of his father, a minister.

Statue of Linnaeus as a young student of botany (photo by Larry Nielsen)

Like his father, Linnaeus loved plants.  At the time, studying plants was part of studying medicine, because doctors needed to know which plants to prescribe as drugs for their patients’ ailments.  But Linnaeus’ interest went much farther.  He explored the agricultural and economic uses of plants, including creating gardens and indoor growing environments in which he hoped to produce varieties of tropical plants that could grow in Sweden.  He wasn’t particularly successful in that work.

He was successful, however, in figuring out a way to organize plant identification that was simple and standard.  He created the binomial system we use today, designating a plant’s identification by a genus name and a species name, both in Latin so that common names wouldn’t confuse botanists and the public.  He worked on this gradually over years, eventually publishing Species Plantarum on May 1, 1753.  He named the wild briar rose Rosa canina.

Cover of Species Plantarum, at Linnaeus Museum, Uppsala, Sweden (photo by Larry Nielsen)

Species Plantarum inventoried and classified every known plant at the time, 6,000 species in all.  The book immediately became the standard way to classify organisms, marking its publication as the historical beginning of modern taxonomy.  His innovation allowed much better communication among scientists and also allowed the public to participate in botanical exploration and discovery.

Linnaeus followed up his botanical treatise with a complete binomial taxonomy of known plants and animals in 1758, the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae.  The biological basis of his classification was challenged because he used only sexual characteristics in his ordering of plants—some considered it too restrictive, and others thought it was obscene.  But his system of classification—genus and species—has become standard.

Some also consider Linnaeus a pioneer in ecology.  He understood that the relationship between a plant and its environment was crucial to its success.  That is why he was so convinced that he could breed plants with traits that were more adapted to the cold environment of Sweden.

Garden at Linnaeus home in Uppsala, Sweden, showing his plantings of botanical specimens in their natural habitats (photo by Larry Nielsen)

So, next time you complain about having to learn the two-name scientific identification of a plant or animal, stop and thank Linnaeus that you can describe a species in two words–instead of a paragraph of nonsense!

References:

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Species Plantarum.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Species-Plantarum.  Accessed April 30, 2018.

University of Aberdeen.  Carolus Linnaeus, Species Plantarum.  Available at:  https://www.abdn.ac.uk/special-collections/carolus-linnus-species-plantarum-458.php.  Accessed April 30, 2018.

University of California Museum of Paleontology.  Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778).  Available at:  http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/linnaeus.html.  Accessed April 30, 2018

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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