From Weeds to Names to Linnaeus

I was brought up in the years not only before World War II, but also B. P., that is, before pesticides were widely used. As a youngster I would probably have been a strong proponent for the use of herbicides on lawns, because one of the tasks to which I was regularly assigned was weeding.

"Do the front yard tomorrow," my father would say on a Friday evening. That meant that I had to get out the two long rolls of string and anchor them at each end of the lawn with stone weights about a yard apart. This formed a lane along which I had to work on hands and knees, cutting out weeds with a penknife and a longer chisel-like instrument that drove deeper to cut the larger roots. This tool was quite reasonably called a weeder.

I recall that such weeders also came at the end of cane-like handles so that you could weed standing up, but my dad was not into gardening comfort. I know now that my father derived a genuine solace and release from his nine-to-five office job in that large yard. He arose at dawn each morning to spend an hour or two there, urging me at that twilight hour to join him – not always successfully. Then my dad rushed home in the afternoon to spend an hour before supper in the garden and another t wo or three hours there after the meal. Only darkness brought him inside to nod over old issues of "Time" and "Life" – even then out-of-date because he was always behind and refused ever to skip one.

Back out on that Saturday morning lawn: when I had finished weeding one of those sixty foot lanes, I would dump the peck of weeds collected into the wheelbarrow, move one of the strings beyond the other, and commence weeding the next row. With my thoughts on baseball and kick-the-can and the state of the serial at the seldom allowed 10 movie, those Saturday hours were far from a solace to me. They were instead a deep sacrifice, draining away important hours that could never be replaced.

But I did learn something in those hours. I was taught by my father and mother to identify the common weeds that grew in our lawn – my enemies. There were dandelions, of course, but there were also broad-leafed and narrow-leafed plantains an d chicory. When we first moved to this Rochester suburb, there were even thistles. Interestingly I don’t recall other invaders like the butter and eggs that I see along the edges of the broad university lawns. Nor was quack grass the problem that it is occasionally in our yard today. Clover was not considered a weed then and was instead encouraged: I was all for that decision and I often wasted time searching for the elusive and luck providing four-leafed pattern among the threes.

In any case that was my introduction to wildflowers. It was at the time not a very happy one, but of course today I reminisce with a quite different attitude. I would willingly roll back the clock to those hours and just as willingly suffer sore knees again to recapture a little of that innocent and carefree youth.

And I do recall those days each time I see a plantain. Our widespread use of weed killers keeps them at bay in lawns today, but they remain common in open fields and occasionally one sneaks back into our lawn. In contrast with my experiences with them in my youth, I now consider them a kind of old friend.

I expect that today few people can identify those weeds. There is nothing about them to call them to your attention. Neither enjoys even an attractive flower like the dandelion or the chicory. They are unprepossessing plants with, in the case of broad-leafed plantain, a blunt green flower spike only a few inches tall. The narrow-leafed variety is not much better with its little green knob atop a six inch stem. Of course, in both cases those greens would be stippled with tiny white blossoms whe n the flowers matured, but my dad seldom let them get that far and indeed I seldom see them that way even now.

One of the pleasantest side benefits of my newspaper writing is receiving review copies of newly published natural history books. A very attractive book that came to me recently is by Rick Imes and has the rather imposing title, "Wildflowers: How to Identify Flowers in the Wild and How to Grow Them in Your Garden." I mention this book now because, in a section entitled "Wildflower Classification and Names" it pictures my old friend the broad-leafed plantain.

Next to that picture is the following text: "Plantago major is a prime example of the confusion that can be wrought by common names. Frequently known as broad-leafed plantain in English, this species is also reported to have at least 45 other English names, 106 German names, 75 Dutch names, 11 French names, and perhaps several hundred names in other languages. Like all other known plant species, however, it has only one recognized botanical name."

Many of those common names retain the word plantain, like seaside plantain and rippleseed plantain, but others are more exotic: goosetongue, cart-track plant, Indian wheat, snake weed, cuckoo’s bread, ribwort, and soldier’s herb, for exam ple.

This recitation of differing representations for the same plant struck a chord with me. My experience as very much a Johnnie-come-lately to the study of wildflowers has been complicated by this problem of differing names. Even the plantains, for example, are not listed under the names by which I know them in either of my wildflower field guides. In both books narrow-leafed plantain is replaced by English plantain and broad-leafed plantain by common plantain.

Now that is not so much a problem, because there aren’t that many plantains. But sometimes the flowers are designated by entirely different common names in different books and that creates more significant problems.

In that excellent single-text resource for identification, the Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife, there appears the flower aptly named stinking Benjamin for its strong unattractive scent. This name does not appear in the index of either of those other wildflower guides. In them this flower enjoys the more attractive names associated with its appearance rather than its smell: red trillium, purple trillium, and wakerobin. Newcomb even adds to these names, birthroot. Other texts tell us that this last name derives from use of the root first by Native Americans and later by Shakers. A tonic made from the rhizome was believed to reduce new mothers’ hemorrhaging.

But as Imes says, each plant has but one Latin name. My old friends are: Plantago major for broad-leafed plantain and Plantago lanceolata for narrow-leafed plantain. And that deep woods flower of our springtime forests, the red trillium-purple trillium-wake robin-birthroot-stinking Benjamin is once and for all, here, there, and everywhere, Trillium erectum.

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At the time I ran across that section on plant classification in the Imes’ book, I was already worrying about what I would say to anyone who misidentified me as a naturalist and invited me to speak on nature. I hardly know a delphinium from a dahlia – in fact, as soon as I wrote that, I had to call out to my wife in another room to ask if they are indeed different. I needed to get my act together.

What made me especially nervous was the fact that I once appeared before a garden club and was not all that successful. That was about 35 years ago when I gave a talk on birds to a Rochester area group. Things seemed to be going reasonably well as I showed some slides I had made of beautiful Fuertes paintings and commented on different bird species he depicted, but in the question period that followed my talk I responded positively to a question about using fertilizer and that suddenly turned my audience against me: I hadn't realized that it was an association of organic gardeners. I note here that I would be very much on their side now; I am sorry that my position wasn’t closer to theirs then in those pre-Silent Spring times.

Returning to the Imes article, it went on to credit the Swedish botanist and taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus, with this Latin system of naming plants and animals. I thought that you might well be like the rest of us who take such things as scientific no menclature for granted, and I decided that I might talk to you this noon about this man’s life and a little about his contributions to biology as well.

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I had heard very little about Linnaeus in high school and college biology courses, and in fact much of what I had heard was negative. One of those negatives was the fact that he attached his own name to so many plants and animals discovered by oth ers. Another was the fact that as a young man he expanded his personal vita beyond the true facts. Those are not of course cardinal sins, and I was intrigued about what I would find.

At any rate I did what any college professor would do: I turned to the library and read about this man. I found this experience most interesting and its subject fascinating. My mother would have loved my choice of this subject and I therefore dedicate this talk to her. Like so many Scandinavian immigrants, my mother was fiercely loyal to the United States: she was a defining example of chauvinism. Swedish was never spoken in our home, even when her relatives visited. But she did retain her affection for her homeland – in her final months she retreated into her childhood language, incomprehensible to us – and she would have been delighted at my appreciation of Linnaeus.

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Carl Linnaeus was born almost 300 years ago, in 1707, in the small Swedish town of Rashult. His father was a Lutheran clergyman who, like my dad, spent every spare moment in his garden. (That is, unfortunately, as closely as our paths approach.) Clearly in Linnaeus’ case, the father’s interest was passed on to the son. As one story has it, Carl followed his father about as the older man worked among the flowers and trees, the boy constantly asking what each was called. But soon the fa ther discovered that his child wasn’t remembering the names: he would ask to have the same plants identified over and over. The minister sternly rebuked his son, and the boy took the lesson to heart. The young Linnaeus’ increasing interest soo n led family friends to refer to him as "the little botanist."

But Carl was not a good student at the local school. He responded poorly to one tutor, whom Carl described later as "better calculated for extinguishing a youth’s talents than for improving them," and he was rated poor in standard h igh school work. His father wanted Carl trained for the clergy but the boy’s interests lay in the plant life of the countryside where he spent every minute of free time. He was, however, blessed with a fine personality: he enjoyed enthusiasm, a qui ck mind, and high spirits. These would serve him all his life and would contribute to what could easily be seen otherwise as the extraordinary luck of his later associations.

The first of those associations came now. A grammar school teacher, a gardener himself and therefore interested in young Linnaeus, recommended the boy to Carl Rothman, a senior regional medical doctor, fellow amateur botanist, and – more to t he point – senior master at the nearby academic Wexio High School.

Rothman not only sponsored the young boy at Wexio, but he supported young Linnaeus’ interest in botany, opening his library to him. He also turned the boy’s interest to medicine, convincing Carl’s father that the young man should re direct his interests away from the ministry to that subject.

Off Linnaeus went to pursue this new direction, medical studies, first for a year to the University of Lund and then to Uppsala University. Neither school served him particularly well, but at each he found a patron who supported his botanical inte rests. At Uppsala, for example, Carl was wandering through the university garden when a stranger approached him and began to question him about his knowledge of plants. When Linnaeus answered that he had collected about 600 of them, the older man invite d the youngster to visit him at his home. It turned out that Linnaeus had met Olav Celsius, a botanist of fine reputation who was then preparing a book on the plants that are mentioned in the Bible. Linnaeus became Celsius’ assistant and helped him write this book.

Now the young man’s botanical interests matured rapidly. He became interested in plant reproduction, something that was poorly understood at the time. As a Christmas gift to Celsius, Carl wrote and delivered to him a paper on this subject. Recognized even today as good science, it was well researched, and with a stylistic flair. The paper was happily received not only by his mentor but by the university community at large. Linnaeus became a substitute lecturer at the university botanical garden, a task at which he was a great success. His reputation was on the rise.

During a university vacation back with his family, Linnaeus wrote to the Uppsala Scientific Society to ask for their support to explore Lapland, the northernmost reaches of Sweden. As one part of his application he gave as a necessary qualification: "Tireless even in difficulties, for he may find himself short of food; he must be on foot, stooping, and suffering heat and thirst and many difficulties, since this is no pleasure trip for a pampered gentleman."

How little the 25 year old may have understood the accuracy of this requirement. His solitary journey, recorded in his book A Tour of Lapland, is one of those great early naturalists’ travel narratives. It belongs on the same shelf wi th Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Poorly protected from the elements, Linnaeus suffered mightily. It was a back-stiffening voyage of personal growth as well as scientific discovery, but he brought back a remarkable record of the plants, anim als, and people of this northern land. He was later to draw upon these experiences to lead other expeditions, often with his students assisting him and learning at the same time under his tutelage.

To complete his medical degree at a quality university, Linnaeus, now 28 years old, traveled to Holland. There he not only finished his studies rapidly and published and defended his thesis, but he also fell into additional associations with conti nental botanists and sponsors for his activities and –– most important –– he published the first editions of the books that were to establish his reputation.

Shortly after he arrived in Holland he showed his manuscript Systema Naturae, which outlined his classification system for animals, to another physician. Dr. Gronovius was so impressed that he had the book published at his own expense. It was this book, together with another, Genera Plantarum, organizing the plant kingdom, that form the basis of first, the binomial names, and second, the subdivisions of modern taxonomy: kingdom, class, order, family, genus, and species. These remar kable achievements were accomplished by a young man not yet 30 years old.

Much of Linnaeus general classification scheme, the second of these achievements, has been changed significantly. In fact, the very simplification of the Linnaean system was so widely accepted that it was difficult to make these changes, so in one sense he blocked subsequent advances. But his contributions were very important to the growing field of biology and they came at a perfect time. The world was still being explored and wide tracts of geography were only now being opened up by empire bui lders and missionaries. These people could apply Linnaeus’ extremely straightforward classification schemes to what they found and add thousands of species to the ever growing lists of flora and fauna.

To place a plant in his classification scheme, for example, all you had to do was count the number of stamens and pistils and determine their association. Any amateur in the field could carry this out. And amateurs certainly did. Extending and m odifying Linnaeus’ system, by the middle of the 20th century over 1,000,000 plant and animal species had been classified and that number has probably already been at least doubled. For example, today over 750,000 insects alone have been described.

Once they were fit into this larger classification system, newly discovered species were named by two Latin words and the describer’s name forever associated with that species in the compilations of taxonomists. Others had tried this kind of systemization before Linnaeus, but their Latin names were far more cumbersome and impossible to commit to memory. For example, one botanist had designated the common plantain, Plantago media incana virginiana, ferrata foliis, annua. Recall that to Linnaeus and to us today this species became simply Plantago major.

I won’t take you too far into the last half of Linnaeus’ life, but it is certainly worth noting that he did not carry his international fame back to Sweden with him. Upon his return he met and fell in love with a Swedish girl. Her father, a physician, demanded that Linnaeus accomplish something before he would agree to his daughter’s marriage. So Linnaeus turned his energies back to medicine, established his reputation in that field, and was even appointed to the chair of medicine at the University of Uppsala. But once he was happily married he traded that professorial chair with a colleague for the chair of botany – what to me seems a quite remarkable feat of academic legerdemain – and spent his remaining years in the field to which he contributed so much.


Of course this matter of assigning names, this important aspect of biology, has not been left to the whims of individuals. Since 1901 the International Zoological Congress has supervised this listing for the Animal Kingdom, not an insignificant task when you think about the tens of thousands of species of animals. The Congress has published an International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, a document one author calls "as clear and the instructions for filing an income tax statement."

Despite this supervision and the regular publication of guidelines and opinions, a few odd names do sneak in, however. For example, one entomologist was criticized for unobtrusively assigning to a series of bugs the generic names Ochisme, Polyc hisme, Nanichisme, Marichisme, Dolichisme, and Florichisme. Those names were presumably not read aloud for eight years. Only after that time was their author critized for frivolity by the Zoological Society of London.

Another name that slipped by the censors is the wasp genus Lalapa, whose sole species was named Lalapa lusa. Another insect genus was named Aha with its species Aha ha. Interestingly, there is also an extinct species named Sinclairoceros haha. We can wonder if that is a paleontologist’s way of putting down the poor beast that didn’t make it. But perhaps the best of these submissions was the genus named in honor of H. G. Dyar: we can question whether it really honors a man when that genus is Dyaria.

For any of you who like those Japanese horror films, there is even a family of giant Bahaman crustaceans named Godzilliidae with one genus Godzillius and another Pleomothra. For those who don’t watch late shows on television, "pleo" is Greek for swim and Mothra was another of those Japanese monstors, it having swum in caterpillar form from Monster Island to Tokyo.

Two final examples. First, there is the fly species Dicrotendipes thanatogratus. We focus on the species name: "thanatos" meaning death, and "gratus" meaning thankful. Here is a fly named in honor of the musical group, the Grateful Dead. And then there is the spider which pitches at insect prey a blob of sticky silk on the end of a silken tether. The arachnologist who named this spider was so impressed with its throwing ability that he designated it Mastophora dizzydeani.

Thus we see that even in that world of serious scientific investigation, a few wags – interestingly almost all of them entomologists – still manage to liven up the activities.

Why are these names so important anyway? It turns out that – like so much in science – the timing of this more careful recording of species provided a basis for much that followed. Without this systemization, it is doubtful, for example, that Darwin could have developed the theories related to evolution that have proved so central to our thinking since his time.

The search for new species and the naming of new species continues today, but systematics and taxonomy are not nearly so central the activities of science as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries. They remain, however, cornerstones of our thinking about the natural world around us.

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I have taken those of you who have stayed with me this evening on a rather tortuous course from weeding all the way through the life of a Swedish botanist to systematics. I hope that I have been able to share with you some of the pleasures that course has given me, and I thank you not only for having me but also for forcing me to undertake this most pleasant task. -- Gerry Rising