Although Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) is lionized as the man who brought order to the natural world, he was not the first to attempt to standardize its description. In the first half of the eighteenth century, most botanists followed the classification structure of either John Ray (1627–1705) or Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708). An English naturalist, Ray divided plants into groups based on general resemblance (
the likeness and agreement of the principal parts, root, flower, and its cup, seed and its vessel) as well as monocotyledonous and dicotyledonous groups and groups based on ancient divisions of trees, shrubs, and herbs. Ray’s rival, the French botanist and physician Tournefort, dismissed this classification method for using too many traits to define groups. He instead advocated a classification method based on a single feature—the corolla or petals of a flower, its numbers, shape, and symmetry. Ray, however, thought this forced too many unnatural groupings, and that it was an artificial system that did not reflect nature appropriately.
In addition to classification, naming also presented problems. It was all too common for one plant to have several Latin names given to it in different geographical locations or at different stages of its life. These names were often long Latin phrases describing the features of the plant so future botanists could identify them. This made different plants hard to memorize and fit into a broader system, especially with new specimens arriving from abroad.
Linnaeus had studied both Tournefort and Ray in his youth, but by the 1730s, after closely studying flowers of different plants, he rejected their classification systems in favor of an artificial classification system based on the arrangement of stamens and carpels within a flower. He once said:
The actual petals of a flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as the bridal bed which the great Creator has so gloriously prepared, adorned with such precious bedcurtains, and perfumed with so many sweet scents, in order that the bridegroom and bride may therein celebrate their nuptials with the greater solemnity.
This striking statement effectively dismissed Tournefort’s petal-based classification. Linnaeus was not the first to classify plants according to their sexual organs. French botanist Sébastien Vaillant (1669–1722) had done so in the early eighteenth century, but fellow naturalists scoffed at him, believing that such a system was useless and vulgar. Colleagues also rejected Linnaeus’s “Sexual System,” as he called it, thinking it inappropriate. Johann Jacob Dillenius, the Sherardian Professor of Botany at Oxford and head of the Oxford Botanic Garden, a friend and frequent correspondent of Linnaeus, wrote to Linnaeus in 1737:
I consider sexual differences altogether useless, superfluous, even misleading, for establishing the character of a plant. What is the point of it all? It is puerile; and it is quite enough that one botanist—Vaillant—should have had his head turned by them.
Linnaeus’s other major innovation was a system of naming, binomial nomenclature, consisting of a two-word name: genus and species. For example, the barren strawberry is Fragaria sterilis, with Fragaria the genus name (always capitalized), and sterilis the species (always lowercase). Binomial nomenclature is still used worldwide to create a universal register of biodiversity. The system's widespread adoption made it possible to standardize, organize, and better understand the plant specimens coming from across the world as explorers and naturalists returned to Europe.
Although a practical method, ultimately the sexual system of classification did not stand the test of time. However, the widespread dissemination of Linnaeus’s work by his many students and correspondents led to the international acceptance of binomial nomenclature in the 1750s. Linnaeus’s Species plantarum (1753) became his crowning achievement, arranging almost 6,000 species in 1,098 genera according to the sexual system, including binomial nomenclature and past synonyms. This book, along with his Genera plantarum (1754), became internationally accepted by botanists in the mid-eighteenth century as the starting point of modern botanical nomenclature. For zoologists, Linnaeus’s 10th edition of Systema naturae, published in 1758, served the same purpose.
The drastic change in botanical naming and organization that Linnaeus initiated is evident in Miller’s early and late editions of The Gardeners Dictionary. Philip Miller (1691–1771), chief gardener of Chelsea Garden, was a close friend of Tournefort and thus did not use the Linnaean system eagerly. Yet, as more and more people accepted Linnaeus’s system, Miller adopted it incompletely (and reluctantly) in his 1759 seventh edition and completely in the 1768 eighth edition. The ninth edition contains charts of different leaf, root, and flower types, alphabetical lists of herbaceous, perennial, and tree species, and illustrations of the various appearance of plant sexual organs. A side-by-side comparison of early and late editions of the Gardeners Dictionary showcases both the utility of Linnaeus’s classification and the enormity of botanical information making its way to Europe in this era. Within about 70 years, the one-volume dictionary expanded into four volumes, and incorporated both binomial nomenclature and the organizational lists and diagrams that explained Linnaeus’s sexual system.
Bailey, Liberty H. How Plants Get Their Names. New York: Macmillan, 1933. Reprint, Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1975.
Blunt, Wilfrid. The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New ed. London: Frances Lincoln, 2001.
Pavord, Anna. The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005.
Petersen, Ronald H. New World Botany: Columbus to Darwin. Ruggell [Liechtenstein]: A. R. G. Gantner Verlag, 2001.