The Beckham of botany

Joseph Banks remains Australia’s celebrity botanist, despite his undeserved removal from the $5 note in favour of a building, but the world’s unchallengeable celebrity botanist remains Carl Linnaeus.

Carl Linnaeus was born on May 13 1707 – so 2007 is the tercentenary of his birth. It is a significant year for all botanists, and specially for those of us at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, because the 300-year period is neatly bisected by the establishment of our gardens in 1857.

Linnaeus is remembered in Adelaide Botanic Gardens by a bust amongst the daisies, in the Classground on the northern side of the Gardens. There is a symbolic reason for this placement and one which may surprise many people. Daisies are historically considered to be the pinnacle of flowering-plant evolution.

Indeed, Linnaeus’s unique significance as a botanist is reflected in the fact that, of the many people to whom there are memorials in the garden, he is the only one remembered with a likeness. Even Elvis Presley is only remembered by a plaque in the Elvis Cupola.

Botanists have poured into Uppsala in Sweden, Linnaeus’s birthplace, for the week long celebrations over Festival Week culminating in a service in the Cathedral on May 27. That service will be attended by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia, who in 2005 graciously opened the Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ photographic exhibition Herbarium Amoris by Edvard Koinberg – celebrating Linnaeus.

Linnaeus is best remembered for his development of the binomial nomenclatural system that remains in use today – for example, Linnaeus provided enduring names for the coconut, Cocos nucifera, coffee; Coffea arabica and sugar, Saccharum officinarum. Linnaeus’s system imposed order on nature, resonating with the Age of Enlightenment’s search for universal truth. Linnaeus may also have been extraordinarily lucky in establishing a coherent system of classification which was amenable to the Age of Exploration and was also congenial, a century later, to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Linnaeus’s botanical monographs, Species Plantanun (1753) and Genera Plantanan (1754) provided the foundation for the ongoing classification of the world’s floras and began the ceaseless endeavour to establish the relationships of plants. However, Linnaeus’s achievement obliterated previous systems of cultural taxonomy established throughout the world. The adoption of Linnaeus’s system fundamentally changed the way we see nature and altered our relationship with the natural world. The adoption of Linnaeus’s system discounted native classification systems and rapidly extirpated competing cultural classification systems established over millennia. Few botanists honoured the various old and localised identification and classification systems while risking their lives to populate the new system with botanical trophies.

In South Australia, James Cronk arrived on the Africaine in 1836 and was one of the few early settlers to make a serious study of the Kauma language, allowing him a glimpse of the natural world through Kaurna eyes. A small plaque at the Balnaves Fountain in the SA Water Mediterranean Garden at the Adelaide Botanic Garden commemorates Cronk, but his work remains honoured – and rightly so – by linguists, rather than botanists.

The beauty of Linnaeus’s system was in its simplicity – a concise basis for classification with 24 classes, a clear exposition
of rules for describing plants and a simple binomial to identify a species – Rosa canina is clearly more straightforward than Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore, folio glabro (pinkish white woodland rose with smooth leaves).

The basis of Linnaeus’s classification is sexual. While it is a model of simplicity, such a system of classification was not without its detractors. Linnaeus casually described flower petals as the bridal bed, pistils as brides and stamens as husbands. The notion of describing Class XIII – Polyandria – as: ‘Twenty men or more in the same bridal chamber with one and the same woman’ was apparently of little moral consequence to Linnaeus, whose focus was that of a medical doctor and botanist. However, critics thought otherwise one noting, “the great concourse of husbands to one wife is so unsuitable to the laws and manners of our people.” Prof Johann Siegesbeck in Saint Petersburg went further and observed that God would never have based his system on such a ‘shameful whoredom’ and accused Linnaeus of “turning innocent flower gardens into beds of harlotry”. Linnaeus responded by naming a plant he considered of no consequence after Siegesbeck.

While Linnaeus established and popularised the binomial system, proselytising was the province of his students, including Daniel Solander who accompanied Sir Joseph Banks on Captain Cook’s Endeavour. Their zeal continued a botanical tradition about which even Linnaeus had exclaimed, “Good God! When I observe the fate of botanists, upon my word I doubt whether to call them sane or mad in their devotion to plants.”

Today we see nature through Linnaeus’s eyes, and through his eyes we see the world profoundly differently from those who came before him. Perhaps Linnaeans have contributed unwittingly to an erosion of our language about the natural world which, in turn, has both diminished our relationship with the natural world and led to the diminishment of our biodiversity. Nevertheless, Linnaeus’s utilitarian legacy endures and the scientific endeavour he began continues to challenge the world’s botanists.

Tantus amor flor un! was Linnaeus’s Latin motto – “Such a great love of flowers!”

Linnaeus’s sexual system of classification was morally challenging – Encyclopedia Britannica observed “A man would not naturally expect to meet with disgusting strokes of obscenity in a system of botany. But… obscenity is the very basis of the Linnaean system.” Accordingly, sanitised botanical texts were written, particularly for women, to make botany, “as healthful as it is innocent.”

Whether Linnaeus was a phlegmatic Swedish medical doctor oblivious of the prurient morality of his age, or whether he delighted in sexual allegory, is unclear. Linnaeus left no clear message on this issue beyond his system and some of his botanical names.

Any garden celebrating Linnaeus, in addition to the obligatory bust, perhaps requires a reminder of his salacious taxonomy. Linnaeus named Clitoria for the flowers’ resemblance to a clitoris, Phallus impudicus for the fungus’s resemblance to a penis and where the resemblance was less emphatic, as is the case for the Arum genus that includes the massive Titan Arum, Linnaeus chose Amorphophallus (the Gardens’ marvellous Amorphophallus titanum wiil make its debut on display when it flowers). Linnaeus named Adiantuin capillus-veneris allegedly for the similarity between the leaves of the Maidenhair fern and the mound of Venus (although the fern is more often delicately referred to as Venus hair) and Chenopodium vulvarium on the basis of leaves whose smell might be better described as rotting fish. Perhaps Clitorla ternatea (Butterfly Pea) is the easiest to obtain and most desirable for cultivation – easily grown from seed or cuttings as a cover for a fence, the Butterfly Pea has white or blue flowers to three or four centimetres across. Known as Milgarra and used as pasture plant in Queensland, Clitoria ternatea used to be grown under glass in the now demolished Schomburgk Range in Adelaide Botanic Gardens and outdoors in Adelaide will be best treated as an annual – plenty of sun, protected root-run and a rich soil.

Of course botanical names have the annoying capacity to change as botanists change their minds about the relationships of plants.” So it would be reasonable to plant the second most widely cultivated tree in the world, Amygdalus persica (now Prunus persica) – the peach, named by Linnaeus. It might even be reasonable to plant the most widely cultivated tree in the world, Pyrus malus (now commonly Malus domestica or Malus pumila) although the taxonomy of apples is rather more challenging (and I refer you to David Mabberley’s 2001 article on the name of the apple in Telopea published by the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney if you want to understand how challenging – Linnaeus may well have been right). But perhaps the mythology of peaches and apples is interesting enough!

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 25 May 2007.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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