Linnaeus: The Man Behind the System

Words by
Luke Quinn
| May 20, 2016

A shameless erection. That’s what Karl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, thought would be a wonderful name for a mushroom that had dozens of colloquial names and was spread throughout Europe. It seems reasonable enough. It looks like an erect penis and, when mature, has a moist brown head that smells like faeces. Sitting out in a park or forest like that would, I believe, require shamelessness.

The fungus in question is Phallus impudicus, of the genus Phallus, and family Phallaceae. You could contrast this shameless fungus with a shameful little plant, Mimosa pudica, which basically translates to ‘resembling shame’. The pea family (Fabaceae) plant, commonly known in English as shame plant or shy plant, reacts to touch or heat by folding its leaves along the stem seemingly in shame – making it less visible and protecting it from being grazed upon.

This, as well as being thorny, has helped elevate the South American native to the notable position of ‘pan-tropical weed’.

The system of naming plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and all other living things is called taxonomy. When referring to the organism, we use the binomial form Genus species, and the broader categories like Family and Kingdom are usually only referred to when necessary.

‘But why use Latin names when we have a perfectly good world-dominating language like English?’ I hear you ask. Well, to answer that question you need to know a bit about Karl Linnaeus, a Swedish fella born at the dawn of the 18th century.

Linnaeus brought together the work of naturalists, taxonomists and philosophers who had come before him in standardising the naming system, and creating the Linnaean system which allowed his contemporaries and future taxonomists to classify living things. At the time Latin was still the dominant language throughout Europe in academia, diplomatic relations and the Church. It was therefore Latin that Linnaeus chose as the language to communicate his system of taxonomy. But Linnaeus didn’t design the system from bottom up. He basically put order to the accumulated knowledge of the past.

Broadly speaking, systematic taxonomy is a natural process and not unique to our species. It is purely identifying distinguishing features of species, which even bacteria can do. Aristotle divided all living things into plants and animals, and used terms we still use in taxonomy today, like vertebrate and invertebrate. At the beginning of the common era, Pliny the Elder extended taxonomy in his publication Naturalis Historiae, or Natural History. Although it covered more than natural history – and included the occasional mystical beast – this publication included an exhaustive documentation of life, as known to the old world.

Various texts came out throughout the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, furthering the descriptions and taxonomy of plants. Often these were in reference to the uses of the plants. Many species named officinalis or officinale were coined at this time, in reference to the officina, the storeroom of a monastery where medicines and useful herbs were kept. Herbs such as rosemary and sage were named Rosmarinus officinalis and Salvia officinalis, respectively.

It is important to mention that while the dominance of Latin as the language of botany applies to western botany, other cultures were pushing ahead with their knowledge (in distinct languages) before or concurrently with the western knowledge. The Chinese Huangdi Neijing and the Indian Athara veda, are just two such examples.

Effectively, what our man Karl Linnaeus did was to bring together the knowledge of the western world into a standardised system. He formulated rules and conventions that are followed in the naming and classifying of species. What we use today is essentially a string of names with increasing specificity until we get to the species or subspecies.

Good ol’ parsley goes by the Latin name Petroselinum crispum, which translates directly as moon-rock-curliness. See? It all makes perfect sense!

Parsley belongs to the family Apiaceae, which Pliny the Elder coined to describe a celery-like plant, bringing together carrots, hemlock, dill, fennel, parsnips, lovage, coriander, asafetida, sea holly and yes, celery.

Some, more recently named plants follow a modern-day logic. Banksia serrata was named by the eternally modest Joseph Banks, after himself, and it has serrated leaves. The river she-oak, Casuarina cunninghamiana, was named by and after English botanist Allan Cunningham. Allan’s choice of ‘cunninghamiana’ is transparent enough, but ‘Casuarina’? He took the name from a Malay word, kasuari, alluding to the idea that the form of the tree looked like large flightless birds from north Queensland and Papua New Guinea – cassowaries – and named them accordingly. More than giving an accurate description of the plant (or the bird for that matter), it gives us insight into the botanists world and era. The closely related Casuarina equisetifolia was named for the (somewhat imaginative) resemblance of its foliage to a horse’s tail.

Other imaginative names came out of the Spanish colonies. Passionflower or passionfruit, depending on the appeal the plant has to you, was given its Latin name by Spanish missionaries in the 15th and 16th centuries, on the basis of their number one obsession, Jesus (and specifically, the story of his crucifixion). Perhaps in an attempt to feel the presence of Christ in a far off place, or to try and convince the savages that the Lord had always been around them even thought they were unaware of it, the Passiflora genus was named after the passion of the Christ. Every element of the flower and plant was given a special meaning, from the tendrils used to whip Jesus to the three stigma representing the nails used to affix him to the cross. A bit dreary, but necessary perhaps to get the locals on board for what was to come.

Many other plant names indicate structural features, and when broken down make a lot more sense than even common names. Hispida and hirsutum refer to hairy plants, the Latin of the latter being the base of the infrequently used English word, ‘hirsute’. And so Angophora hispida is what taxonomists call the dwarf apple, referring to the urn-like shape of the fruit and the hairy leaves of this Australian native. The common name ‘dwarf apple’ arose when the first Anglo-Europeans in Australia looked at the tree and declared its resemblance to a small apple – which I’d say is more revealing of their feelings of alienation and homesickness at the time, and less so of the plant’s true identity.

Latin does prove to be a useful language in botany, where descriptions can be used as building blocks for naming plants. The yellow gum extracted from the grass tree was used by indigenous Australians to patch water containers and in spear making. The plant is first burnt and then the yellow resin tapped from the base. This wasn’t missed by early naturalists, naming the genus Xanthorrhoea, in Latin ‘yellow flow’.

Other species names are so obvious you could convince yourself you speak Latin, like floribunda (gosh, what and abundance of flora!) and grandis (wow, that’s big).

There are lots of anecdotes to uncover about Latin names, but why should we care today? Well, I think the thrill of taxonomy is in discovering the relationships between plants. I get so excited finding out what family a plant belongs to and then building up some context for the family by seeing who’s related to who, how closely, and what makes them similar. Then there’s the surprise when the concept of ‘family’ gets blown out of the water by a species you never thought could be included. Food is a fun one. Take sorrel, Vietnamese mint, buckwheat and rhubarb, for instance. All from the family Polygonaceae. The mint isn’t a mint (Lamiaceae family). And buckwheat isn’t a grass (Poaceae) like real wheat, or even a true grain. But all these plants are related to the level of Family. They may seem disparate, but they all have morphological similarities, and share common ancestry.

Latin became the language of taxonomy because it still dominated formal life and language in Europe in the 18th century when Linnaeus was alive. By then the Mother Country had started claiming resource-rich lands in far-off places (like Australia) for its own, but wasn’t dominant enough to influence the language of science. Latin was the lofty language de jour for our man Karl Linnaeus, and today it remains as the building blocks used to describe and name species. Although some species seem to have been named by clueless colonials and self-righteous, self-described botanists, 300 years of naming species has given us a reasonably functional system and an insight into the historical peculiarities of botanical nomenclature.

So the next time you come across the genus Silybum, I want you to hold back your snickery giggles and think, ‘Oh yes, gosh I remember this one, Silybum, that’s the milk thistle genus. It refers to its tassel-like appearance. It’s not hilarious and I should grow up’.