Carl Linnaeus – The Father of Taxonomy

Rudbeckia hirta – Black eyed Susan


1: the study of the general principles of scientific classification. 

2: especially : orderly classification of plants and animals according to their presumed natural relationships.

When I first came to these beautiful mountains, I was amazed at the variety of wildflowers present and I wanted to know all about them!  Luckily, I had books available which gave me a lot of information.  I could flip through this book and that and find specimens of flowers that I thought were like the ones I wanted to learn more about because the information I was looking for was always presented in an orderly, predictable manner.  But, it was not always like this.  Did you ever wonder who thought up ways of making sense of the world around us?  It always takes one person to take the first step in a journey into which others follow.  Carl Linnaeus was such a man.

Carl Linnaeus was born on May 23, 1707 in Sweden.  At the time most people in Sweden did not use last names, but his father had adopted a Latin name when he had gone to the university to study to be a Lutheran priest.  He named himself after a Linden tree and Latinized the name to Linnaeus.

His family was hoping that Carl would be a priest, like his father, but instead he decided to go to medical school.  At the time botany was part of the medical school curriculum since most medicines were derived from plants and physicians were expected to prepare their own medicines.

Carl Linnaeus spent his time in medical school collecting and studying plants.  He lived near Lapland, and in his early 20’s he lead a group there on a botanical expedition.  He came home to tell about it.  He loved finding out new things about plants and writing about them.

Carl traveled to Holland where he finished his medical studies at the age of 28. That same year he published a small pamphlet which would have a tremendous influence in the world of Botany.  It was Systema Naturae  in which he classified all living things.

Before Linnaeus’ time people had named plants and animals but it was a local thing. In the first century A.D. Pliny the Elder had published an encyclopedia in many volumes called Naturalis Historia.  with a book devoted to Botany. But the world in 77 a.d. was a very different place then, and the names he used for plants were fine for the time, but local.  In fact, some of his names are in use today.  He named the little yellow buttercup “little frog” in Latin (Ranunculus) which Linnaeus kept as the name for the Buttercup genus. Rana means frog in Latin and it is unclear whether Pliny named the little plant that because the flower reminded him of a little frog or because the plant grew in moist settings where frogs were likely to be,

ranunculus hispidus_1

In Nantahala we have the little bristly buttercup with a name that reminds us equally of little frogs, Pliny the Elder who first named them that, and Carl Linnaeus who kept that descriptive name.

But, until Carl Linnaeus thought up the binomial system, no one had come up with a system of nomenclature which was easy to follow. He had become interested in something he had recently heard about from one of his teachers.  It was that plants reproduced sexually with stamens and pistils being their reproductive organs. The notion that plants had sexual interaction shocked and scandalized many people and got Linnaeus into trouble with the Church for proposing it.

The possibility of plants being female and male, like people and animals, gave him an idea.  His idea was that plants were living things, like people and with that in mind one could begin to group all living things into taxa (sing. taxon) or groups.  He began with 3 KINGDOMS.  These were divided into CLASSES, they in turn into ORDERS, which were then divided into GENERA (sing. genus).  He grouped all living things by shared characteristics.  This had never been done before.

Linnaeus lived at a time when people were beginning to travel a lot around the world and within the Americans.  There were many, many new plants being discovered.  He himself traveled on plant finding expeditions some, but more importantly he sent out his students into new territories to find new plants. Those plants had local, common names, but they differed from place to place.  Linnaeus’s system of nomenclature would ensure that when referring to a particular plant everyone would be on the same page.

His system was binomial (two-part name) of giving each plant two names, which is what is done to this day.   The first name belongs to the plant’s genus. The second one either refers to one of its attributes or a person associated with the plant.  But think about it, naming plants in a consistent fashion must have been daunting. First he had to separate all the plants he knew of into  genera, some of which he named for his friends.  For example, Rudbeckia hirta, Black-eyed Susan, is named after his professor Olaus Rudbeck. The epithet hirta indicates that the plant is “hairy” (hirta is related  to the word hirsute).  It is said that he sometimes named some noxious plants for people he didn’t like!

If you notice, shall I say, the “official” name of a plant, rather than saying the “scientific name” or “the Latin name”, you begin to notice that several plants that you keep track of have the same epithet and gradually those Greek or Latin based words fall into a pattern.  For example, hiking along the Appalachian trail in Nantahala, one comes across two plants which cling to the side of the path in a creeping, or crawling fashion, very close to the ground.  Both of those plants share the epithet repens which comes from the Latin present particle of to crawl or to creep.

patridge berries

This creeping plant bordering many paths on the Appalachian Trail is Mitchella repens.  Carl Linnaeus named the Mitchella genus after John Mitchell, (1711-1768), a British physician  who lived in America and provided him with a lot of information regarding plants in America.

epigaea repensAnother creeping plant on the trail is Epigaea repens, or Trailing Arbutus.  Interestingly enough, this plant is the only one in the Epigaea genus – a name derived from the Greek meaning “close to the ground”.

Linnaeus went on to expand his little pamphlet many times throughout his life as well as to write many scientific papers.  Since his time taxonomy has evolved and changed but his innovations are still an important part of our everyday life.  For example he was first to use the Venus symbol (a mirror) for females and the Mars symbol (a shield and arrow) for males.  He was also the first person on record to notice that flowers have their own particular time to open and close so he is also the father of chronobiology.

There are many available articles on the Internet about Carl Linnaeus.  Here is just one link:

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