In search of flowers in the Northeast

Loving Linneaus

In 1735  the young botanist, Carl Linneaus,  published System Naturae, and with its publication, modern botany was born. Originally 11 pages long, he worked on the publication throughout his lifetime. The final, 13th edition was published in 1770 and was over 3,000 pages long.

As a busy collector, Linneaus needed a better, simpler way to identify his specimens. Prior to his work, plants were given long, descriptive Latin names and each name was like a new, unrelated discovery. After completing two expeditions collecting specimens, he was the first to drop the lengthy descriptions and to consistently use two simple words to identify his specimens. He had studied the work of botanists before him, including their naming systems, and had collected, identified, discovered, and thought about so many species that he was beginning to see order where those before him had not. One area he focused on was the flowers of his specimens and he began grouping specimens by the arrangement of their reproductive parts — by counting the numbers of stamens and pistils.

This was almost 120 years before Darwin. The idea of evolution was a long way off. As a matter of fact, Linneaus would have been alarmed at the whole idea. But Linneaus did something extraordinary — he laid the groundwork for future taxonomists and phylogenists. Today, scientists try to find relationships between taxonomy, or the study of classification systems, and phylogeny, or the study of evolutionary relationships between species. In other words, scientists try to align naming systems with evolutionary pathways.

Even though much of Linneaus’ sexual classification system has been modified, much remains, even after Darwin’s Origin of Species and DNA sequencing. Look for the capital “L.” after a scientific name, it stands for “Linneaus” and means the name hasn’t changed since Linneaus assigned it over 200 years ago. And we still use much of his sexual system, counting flower parts – sepals, petals, stamens, pistils, and stigmas – for plant identification.

Today, there are scholarly groups responsible for scientific names and every once in awhile, based on new evidence, they play “fruit basket upset” and move things around. So, when you hear that snapdragons have been moved from the Figwort Family to the Plantain Family, don’t be alarmed, it’s just based on new information.

When you stop and think about plant evolution, it makes sense that there would be a connection between how a flower’s sexual parts are organized and where it stands on the evolutionary tree. I like to believe great thinkers like Linneaus, by seeing order where no one saw order before, help bring about even greater insights over time.

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