Plant Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Learn about the creation of the useful system we use to classify and categorize plants.

  • Methods of building a system of categorization focused more on name designation than description, making it easy to remember and study the plants.
    Illustration by Dave Hopkins
  • “The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations” by Abigail Willis taps into the history of gardening through the eyes of the botanists and explorers who cultivated it.
    Cover courtesy of Laurence King Publishing

The Compendium of Gardening Innovations (Laurence King Publishing, 2018) by Abigail Willis explores the history of gardening and the ingenious discoveries that shaped it into the productive past-time, passion, and livelihood that it is today. Willis is a qualified gardener through the Royal Horticulture Society in the UK. She writes for the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, and has authored another book called The London Garden Book A-Z. The illustrations are by Dave Hopkins whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Economist and Mojo. The following excerpt details the creation of classifying and categorizing plants.

Although the word ‘taxonomy’ (meaning the science of classification) was first coined in the nineteenth century, mankind has been trying to categorize the natural world since antiquity. Aristotle came up with a rudimentary system that separated the animal and plant kingdoms, and his pupil Theophrastus (‘The Father of Botany’) identified around 500 named plants, dividing them into trees, shrubs, sub-shrubs and herbs.

In the seventeenth century, John Ray developed a taxonomic system using the physical characteristics of plants as a way of determining their relationships to each other and dividing them for the first time into monocots and dicots. Ray’s Historia Plantarum, published in three volumes between 1686 and 1704, is regarded as the first textbook of modern botany and earned him the title of ‘the English Linnaeus’.

By the eighteenth century, the huge influx of newly discovered plants to the Western world was making life tricky for botanists – not least in the matter of knowing what to call them all. Latin, the universal language of learning, imposed some discipline, but with no international standard, plants acquired numerous synonyms. To add to the confusion, names included lengthy descriptions of defining characteristics, saddling even a commonplace plant like the briar rose with the cumbersome title of Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore, folio glabro. Common names offered no more clarity, being specific to particular countries or even regions.

It was left to the actual, Swedish, Linnaeus to rationalize scientific nomenclature in the eighteenth century. Linnaeus’s masterstroke was realizing that plants did not need to be described, but could be simply designated using just two Latin words to denote a plant’s genus, and its unique species. Thus the briar rose became the easy-to-remember, perfectly distinguishable Rosa canina.

As professor of botany at Uppsala University, Linnaeus made taxonomy his life’s work, dispatching his students (known as ‘apostles’) to procure specimens from around the world, and promoting his ideas in books, such as his 1753 Species Plantarum, in which he named and categorized some 1,000 genera and 6,000 plant species. No wonder he felt able to boast, with characteristic immodesty, ‘God created, but Linnaeus organized’.



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