Order out of Chaos: Linnaean Plant Names and their Types

Lee Poulsen wpoulsen@pacbell.net
Mon, 27 Aug 2007 09:57:57 PDT
Since we discuss the scientific names of species a lot, I thought some 
here might be interested in this review of a new book just published in 
this 300th birth year of Linnaeus.

--Lee Poulsen
Pasadena, California, USDA Zone 10a

Nature 448, 868-869 (23 August 2007) | doi:///10.1038/448868b;  Published 
online 22 August 2007

Linnaeus lives on

Pamela S. Soltis

Order out of Chaos: Linnaean Plant Names and their Types
by C. Jarvis
The Linnean Society of London: 2007. 1,016 pp. £80

The relevance of taxonomy in our genomic era is greater than ever. 
Correct naming is crucial for developing new foods and medicines, and 
for understanding our changing environment. Amazingly, we do not even 
know how many species of flowering plant currently exist. Estimates 
range from about 250,000 to more than 400,000, and every day species 
are lost to human activities. Conservation, in natural habitats or 
botanical gardens, relies on scientific names, as does the rest of 

Before Carl Linnaeus, species names ranged from cumbersome to unwieldy. 
For example, Arbutus caule erecto, foliis glabris serratis, baccis 
polyspermis was as good as it got for 'Arbutus with upright stems, 
hairless, saw-toothed leaves, and many-seeded berries'. Linnaeus's 
binomial system of nomenclature changed all that. Species could now 
have a genus name plus a specific epithet. 'The father of taxonomy' 
applied his revolutionary system to plants in Species Plantarum, 
published in 1753, and to animals in the tenth edition of Systema 
Naturae in 1758. More than 250 years later, the name of a species 
remains the key that unlocks all that is known about it.

In honour of Linnaeus's 300th birthday, Charlie Jarvis's handsome new 
book, Order out of Chaos, gives us a glimpse into pre-linnaean botany, 
Linnaeus's life and work, and the reception and impact of his ideas in 
eighteenth-century Europe.

Linnaeus was an avid collector and classifier of 'animals, vegetables 
and minerals'. He named and described his collections and the many 
specimens that were returned to Europe from exploration of other parts 
of the globe. His plant names are the starting point for valid names 
that follow botanical nomenclature. To be valid, a species name must be 
attached to one reference or 'type' specimen. This concept was 
implemented 150 years after Species Plantarum, so — ironically — most 
of the names assigned by Linnaeus himself do not have clearly 
associated specimens.

Enter the Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project, launched in 1981 at 
the London Natural History Museum to match Linnaeus's thousands of 
designations with the specimens and illustrations in his work. Jarvis's 
book chronicles this project and presents nearly 700 pages of names and 
their types — from Abrus precatorius L. to Zygophyllum spinosum L. 
Jarvis and his colleagues scoured museums and private collections to 
create this wonderful reference for all those involved in taxonomy.

The book is a work of art. Even non-botanists will be seduced by this 
inviting package. The text is peppered with photographs and 
illustrations of spectacular examples of plant diversity and linnaean 
memorabilia. Figures range from a photograph of Linnaeus's signature 
and seal from 1734, to an illustration of the wild woodland twinflower 
(Linnaea borealis), to Georg Dionysius Ehret's (1736) illustration of 
Linnaeus's 'Sexual System' of plant classification.

The appreciation for history in plant systematics is evident in this 
book and in the attention being paid to Linnaeus during 2007. Even the 
controversy between those who favour the continued use of linnaean 
classification and advocates of the PhyloCode (the system that relies 
on evolutionary history) does not diminish Linnaeus's contribution. 
This book is a timely homage to linnaean names and the efforts of 
Jarvis's team, as systematists look for new ways to provide the richest 
classification systems.

More information about the pbs mailing list