Carl Linnaeus and plant names

Information sheet

Often called the father of taxonomy, Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) devised a system for classifying and ranking living organisms which is still in use today.

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The life of Carl Linnaeus

Born in southern Sweden in 1770, his father was a pastor and a keen gardener. Carl also shared his father’s love of plants and showed a fascination for their names at a young age. He began his university career in 1727 at Lund to study medicine, transferring to Uppsala a year later.

In the 1700’s doctors had to have a deep understanding of botany, as they often treated patients with drugs obtained from plants. Botanical gardens have often evolved from physic gardens attached to universities and medical institutions for research and teaching purposes.

In 1735 Linnaeus moved to the Netherlands to continue his studies at Harderwijk and Leiden. In this year he published his first work on classification Systema Naturae.  On completing his studies Linnaeus returned to Sweden to practise as a physician and lecture at Uppsala University as a professor in 1741. He restored the university's botanic garden and published works about the plants growing there. During this period he went on several plant hunting trips himself and encouraged his students to go on voyages of discovery around the world looking at plants themselves. 

After becoming physician to the royal family Carl Linnaeus became enobled in 1761. This meant his name was altered to Carl von Linne. He died in 1778.

Why is Linnaeus’s plant taxonomy so important?

Before Carl Linnaeus, plants were known by their local common name or a long descriptive name written in Latin by scientists. These methods were problematic as they varied from person to person and place to place; for example a Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in England is a different plant  to a Bluebell (Campanula rotundifolia) in Scotland.

Linnaeus based his system of nomenclature on the similarities of reproductive parts of a plant rather than their appearance as a whole. This was controversial to the scientific establishment at the time as it was against their sensibilities to discuss the sexual parts of a plant.

Simplifing the names for plants and animals by using the bi-nomial system means that living things are known by their genus and species name. This is written in Latin (the common language of science) but also includes Greek and words from other languages.

Species were grouped (or classified) into a higher group of living organisms and this grouping was collectively named as a genus. Genera were grouped into orders, orders into classes and classes into kingdoms. In the bi-nomial system a genus and species are enough to distinguish one organism from another and are always written in italics. Species names can be descriptive such as Salix lanata (woolly willow) or Crambe maritima (sea kale) to describe their habitat. Others can include a person's name or country of origin.

Using Linnaeus system means scientists, botanist and gardeners from around the world can all recognise the plant they are talking about. Modern plant taxonomists (specialists in plants and their names) use the DNA extracted from plants to classify family, genus and species, which has brought about name changes for some plants. The oldest plant names accepted today however come from Species Plantarum (1753) and for animals from Species Systema Naturae (1758).

 

Linnaean classification system (in ascending order)

  • Species
  • Genus
  • Family
  • Order
  • Class
  • Phyllum
  • Kingdom

All the names of plants and animals are written (or described) in Latin. This makes them recognisable to botanists and gardeners from around the world, without the confusion of local or common names.

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