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The naming of plants

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The naming of plants

‘Names carry value like coins, the sound of the name, not its contents, is to remind us of the named.’

Weidemann (1817, quoted by Knapp et al 2004).

Although Gesner had been finding his way to a natural system of classification based on the flower, seed and the fruit (letter of 26th November, 1565, quoted by Vines) classification as opposed to describing really began with Cesalpino whose system based on fruit and flower, although ignored in his own time, greatly influenced later botanists. Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax (1623) was a marvel of organization of over 6000 plants and their synonyms drawing on an extensive range of material from his network of correspondents (only 10% of the material was Bauhin’s own) and was widely used but did not provide a satisfactory classification. Morison, Ray, Rivinus, Tournefort and Vaillant in the later part of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries refocused on the problems of classification although their solutions to the problems were not the always the same. These efforts culminated in the work of Linnaeus who introduced an artificial but practical classification based on sexual organs of the plant in Systema naturae  (1735).



Robert Morison, Plantarum umbelliferarum distributio nova (Oxford, 1672), Tabula 12.

Linnaeus, in his  Species Plantarum (1753) then addressed the issue of the multiplicity of synonyms and the inordinate length of plant names by imposing a strict bi-nonomial nomenclature, a practical solution to help botanists remember names. This principle of binomial nomenclature survives although the names of particular plants and their families may have changed. Although Worth was dead over twenty years by that time, as this exhibition shows, many of the early botanical books he had collected, were books that Linnaeus referenced extensively in his Species Plantarum. Later botanists also mined these same books to determine the original source of the oldest name; the priority of publication concept introduced by de Candolle in 1813 and still in force..

Although taxonomy has moved on and Linnaeus’s sexual system has been replaced by systems which are based on evolutionary and phylogenetic principles, the fundamental importance of taxonomy remains ‘as the pioneering exploration of life on a little known planet’ (Wilson, 2004).


Commentary A History of the Ecological Sciences,Part 18: John Ray and His Associates Frances Willughby and William Derham 2005:

Davis, P. H. and Heywood, V. H. (1963), Principles of Angiosperm Taxonomy 1st Edition (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd)

Gesner, C (1577) Epistolae Medicae, p113 (quoted in Vine (1913), p 11).

Jarvis, C. (2007), Order out of Chaos Linnean Plant names and their Types (London).

Knapp S, Lamas, G, Nic Lughadha, E & Novarino, G (2004), ‘Stability or stasis in the names of organisms: the evolving codes of nomenclature’ in Phil. Trans. R Soc. London B 359, pp. 611-622.

Linnaeus, C (1735) Systema Naturae. Leiden.

Linnaeus, C. (1753) Species Plantarum (Stockholm,vol  2, p. 1100.

Vines, S. H. (1913), Robert Morison 1620-1683 and John Ray 1627-1705 in Makers of British Botany A Collection of Biographies by Living Botanists edited by F. W. Oliver (Cambridge University Press), pp. 8-43.

Wilson, E. O. (2004), ‘Taxonomy as a fundamental discipline’ in Phil. Trans. R Soc. London, B 359, p. 739.

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