By Dawn W Todd, MsK Nursery Intern

Name This!

Thank you all so much for helping to make our fall plant sale a success! Now the sale has ended, it is time to take stock…literally. Plant inventory time.

Last Thursday as I worked my way through the tables of potted plants, carefully writing the formal Latin plant names in our ledger, I couldn’t help thinking about Carolus Linnaeus, aka Carl Linnaeus, aka Carl von Linné. That’s his picture up top—were you able to name it? He was a Swedish doctor, naturalist and explorer who is considered the father of taxonomy. Prior to Linnaeus plants had long, complicated names that had more information included in them than anyone needed.

Linnaeus came up with principles for defining natural groups of organisms. Similar organisms are grouped into families, then genera (singular “genus”), and then lastly species. Linnaeus is also credited with the formal introduction of binomial nomenclature. The first word of the name identifies the genus to which the species belongs; the second word identifies the species within the genus.

David Quammen (The Name Giver, National Geographic, June 2007) said,

“Here’s what makes [Linnaeus] a hero for our time: He treasured the diversity of nature for its own sake, not just for its theological edification, and he hungered to embrace every possible bit of it within his own mind. He believed that humankind should discover, name, count, understand, and appreciate every kind of creature on Earth.”

Good old Carl was not without his whimsical side. He designed a flower clock!

The idea was that certain plants opened and closed their flowers at the same time of day, and that different species opened their petals at different times. Arranged in sequence, the plantings made a kind of clock. There is a public flower clock at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, where Linnaeus was a professor.

My favorite Linnaeus story has to do with the way he categorized plants. Linnaeus attached great significance to plant sexual reproduction, which had only recently been rediscovered. The sexual basis of Linnaeus’s plant classification was a titch controversial in those days; although it was easy to learn and use, it clearly did not give good results in many cases. Some critics were offended by its sexually explicit nature. A fellow botanist, Johann Siegesbeck, called it “loathsome harlotry”. Linnaeus named a small, useless European weed Siegesbeckia. (Take that, Johann!)

Later systems of classification largely used morphological evidence from all parts of the organism in all stages of its development. (Morphological is a fancy way of saying, “what it looks like”.) Now, of course, modern taxonomists can use a plant’s DNA as an aid in classification. They may have other, more obscure reasons for reclassifying plants. I can just see them in their labs, laughing devilishly as they change Xanthocyparis nootkatensis to Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, merely to provoke my Conifer ID instructor. I saw them laughing again, with “high-fives” all around as they change Alaska yellow cedar once again, right before my Native Plants mid-term, to Cupressus nootkatensis.

The important point is that Linnaeus’ hierarchical classification and binomial nomenclature have survived. When you read Dr. Kruckeberg’s article in your most recent Kruckeberg Botanic Garden newsletter, you’ll know just a bit more about the “long history” of taxonomic nomenclature.