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The Living Legacy of Linnaeus

May 21, 2021

By Dr. Jim Pringle, Plant Taxonomist, Royal Botanical Gardens.

Carolus Linnaeus in Lappish dress holding a plant

The plant held by Linnaeus in the attached portrait is the circumpolar species, Linnaea borealis L. The initial “L.” behind the species name indicates that the name was originally proposed by Linnaeus.

May 23 is the 314th birthday of Carl Linnaeus, the man who created the flexible “binomial” naming system we still use for plant and animal species. In recent years, I’ve occasionally seen sentimental notes saying that Linnaeus’s system of plant classification had been universally accepted by botanists ever since 1753, but that it had now been rejected in favour of a new system based on sequences of DNA. This isn’t true. Linnaeus’s great contribution to plant taxonomy was his system of binomial nomenclature. Plant scientists, including those who engage in today’s molecular phylogenetic research, continue to use it, with no likelihood of its abandonment foreseen.

Linnaeus’s system of classification, as distinguished from nomenclature, was a stage in a continuum with its origins in prehistory. One needn’t be a taxonomist to recognize not only that Red Oak and White Oak are different species, but also that both are oaks, whereas beeches and chestnuts, much less wheat or marigolds, are not oaks. In academic parlance, Red Oaks and White Oaks, respectively, are species; oaks, collectively, are a genus.

One of Linnaeus’s predecessors, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, had firmed up the concept of a genus, and had given each genus a one-word name, but the species were distinguished by descriptive phrases which differed from one author’s work to another’s. Linnaeus thought of providing abbreviated references to these phrase-names, but he and others soon realized that he was “onto something.” The abbreviations themselves became names, each name of a species consisting of a noun representing the genus (as Quercus for the oaks) followed by one word, an adjective or a word used as an adjective, to designate a species within that genus (as Quercus rubra for the Red Oak, Quercus alba for the White Oak). This is the binomial system of nomenclature devised by Linnaeus and still followed by plant scientists 268 years later. Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum, ed. 1, published in 1753, is accepted as the “starting point” for botanical nomenclature.

Another great contribution by Linnaeus was his effort to name, in this binomial form, all species of plants of which he could obtain specimens. He lived in an age of exploration and empire-building, and he obtained specimens from many parts of the world. It is now estimated that there are about 400,000 species of plants in the world, and while Linnaeus came nowhere near naming all of them, he did name an extraordinary number.

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)

Jan Frederik Gronovius, a Dutch botanist who collaborated with Linnaeus, proposed the name Linnaea for the genus of the Twinflower, which Linnaeus said was his favourite flower. The genus is still known as Linnaea today.

Linnaeus grouped his genera according to the number of stamens and pistils, or the component parts of a compound pistil, in each flower. Later botanists have proposed new or revised systems for the classification of genera into higher-ranked groups, but rather than rejecting Linnaeus’s system in its entirety, they have built upon it. New ranks were added above that of genus, and eventually many changes were incorporated. Some of the genera that Linnaeus recognized have been divided, and many more characters of plants are now considered in their descriptions and classification, including nucleic acids, but Linnaeus’s legacy is still evident. Of the 17 genera for which I have provided treatments for the Flora of North America, six bear the names given to them by Linnaeus, and 16 of the species described in these treatments have the same botanical names—the same binomials—that Linnaeus gave them so long ago.

Image Sources:

Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) in Lappish dress. Oil painting after Martin Hoffmann. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), via Wikimedia Commons.

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