A binomial name is composed of two Latin words, which indicate the genus and species, and which can describe, for example, botanical features or habitats, or can even be Latinized versions of surnames. Of the 4,400 animal and 7,700 plant species names introduced by Linnaeus, a surprising number are the Latinized surnames of people he knew, immortalizing his friends, patrons, and rivals. In a period where networking and professional friendships and contacts were crucial for naturalists to collect specimens, naming plants after associates was a clever way to ensure their continued support. For example, Linnaeus named a plant for Olof Rudbeck (1660–1740), a dear friend and early patron. The American flower Rudbeckia was
a noble plant in order to recall your merits and the services you have rendered, a tall one to give an idea of your stature; and I wanted it to be one which branched and which flowered and fruited freely, to show that you cultivated not only the sciences but also the humanities. Its rayed flowers will bear witness that you shone among savants like the sun among the stars; its perennial roots will remind us that each year sees you live again through new works.
It was also common to honor royal patrons or to seek royal favor by naming plants after monarchs, resulting in plant names such as Carolinea, Strelitzia, and Gustavia. George Clifford (1685–1760), the director of the Dutch East India Company and a wealthy horticulturist, became one of Linnaeus’s greatest benefactors. Linnaeus named a South African plant genus Cliffortia in his honor. In addition, Linnaeus named the American wildflower Claytonia virginica for John Clayton (1694–1773), whose work he respected. Other influential seventeenth- and eighteenth-century botanists memorialized with plant genera include Caspar and Jean Bauhin, Thomas Martyn, Joseph Banks, Hans Sloane, Johann Jacob Dillenius, Johann Frederik Gronovius, Peter Collinson, and Philip Miller.
When Linnaeus became a professor of botany at Uppsala University, he recruited promising students to travel overseas to investigate, illustrate, collect, and send back botanical specimens from distant lands. He had seventeen “apostles,” as he called them, and commemorated their efforts by naming plant genera after them. Kalmia, Ternstroemia, Osbeckia, Loeflingia, Alstroemeria, Solandra, and Sparmannia all honor men who embarked on exhilarating and dangerous journeys.
In addition to honoring friends or fellow naturalists, Linnaeus used plant names to spite critics. Johann Siegesbeck, a St. Petersburg academician, defamed Linnaeus’s classification system based on plant sex organs as vulgar, useless, and
loathsome harlotry. Not one to take criticism graciously, Linnaeus named a genus of small prickly weeds Sigesbeckia, after the man who had annoyed him.
Blunt, Wilfrid. The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New ed. London: Frances Lincoln, 2001.
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