The Buzz

A rose, by any other name, still smells as Swede. (Guest post by Eron Raines)


In your schooldays, prior or present, most of you reading this made acquaintance with the noble structure of taxonomic nomenclature, the system of using scientific names that are associated with most everything alive now or sometime in the past. Perhaps you remember, less fondly but with more respect, the father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, who is attributed with the reformation of the natural sciences into what they are today. Linnaeus brought order to what was a massive compilation of information detailing life and life forms from all over the planet.  

This information, at the time, was jumbled to say the least. The naturalists and scientists would describe nature using different terms, methods, and structures that made it hard to effectively communicate. For instance, sometimes the same creature might be given different names by 5 different scientists because they couldn’t understand what the other was talking about and didn’t know that the creature had already been described. Needless to say, the natural science world at the time prior to Linnaeus’s innovations was, quite seriously, a hot mess. That was the scene at the time.

Now to answer your question: “Who cares? I call a donkey a donkey not an Equus africanus asinus. Where is the usefulness in these silly names? ”

First, note africanus, which is the rank of species in the donkey’s scientific name. It indicates that the donkey originated in Africa. The rank of genus in the donkey’s name is Equus which means horse and describes the physical characteristics of the donkey; that it looks like a horse. The rank of subspecies, asinus, literally means "blockhead," and anyone who has ever had to deal with a donkey knows that they can be quite stubborn, and that "blockhead" is the nice word used for describing such behavior. Now, note that in the scientific name, we have successfully described the physical and behavioral aspects of the donkey as well as its historical place of origin. The description of the organism is its name, and its name is in either Latin or Greek.

There are two main reasons for naming in Latin or Greek. The first is that not many people speak either language fluently so the description is more easily interpreted as being a name. The second is that, since scientists and naturalists come from all over the world, there has to be a way for them to effectively communicate regardless the language barrier. Limiting scientific discourse to two languages vastly simplifies the translation process.
  Now, I know what you are thinking...that Carl Linnaeus must have been a seriously boring person...but I intend to show you otherwise. Granted, taxonomy (the system of organization) and nomenclature (the system of naming) are both vital to our understanding of nature and its histories, however, they are still dry, dull, and tedious topics even to those very interested.

Keep in mind, then, that Albert Einstein, a very interesting person no doubt, would develop mathematical proofs for theorems, that is define equations as existing by using other equations to prove that they ‘work’ and he did this for fun. Now that’s seriously dull, and if we were to define Einstein by this hobby, most would agree that he would be just as boring as Linnaeus.

Like Einstein, Carl Linnaeus was a multifaceted character. As a child his interest in the natural world was obvious. When upset as a very young boy, his father would give him a flower which would serve to pacify the young Linnaeus, and was perhaps an omen for his future work. At the age of 17, Linnaeus was enrolled at a theological institute where he was told he would be no academic; that he just wasn’t smart enough. Five years later, when he was 22, Linnaeus published his first manuscript, Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum. In this manuscript is described a method for identifying plants based on the structure of their flower. This method for plant identification is still the most widely used method some 270 years later.


After publishing his manuscript, Linnaeus traveled throughout his native Sweden identifying plants, animals, and rocks, giving them their proper names and developing what was to be called Linnaean Taxonomy. Linnaean Taxonomy divides all life into different ranks, with each rank then being further divided into different ranks. Put more simply, Linnaeus divided all life into the following: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.

It is through these divisions that relationships between organisms could more easily be determined and because of this organization that thinkers like Charles Darwin were able to come up with theories that further revolutionized science.

After developing the definitive method for identifying plants and the most effective means for organizing everything that is alive to date, Linnaeus decided to get a real job and went back to school at 28, receiving a medical degree with his dissertation on the origin of malaria within two weeks of enrollment. He then went on to open a very successful medical practice. Later in life, he decided to teach and continued writing on systematics (the study of the diversification of life.) He is known as the father of biological classification, plant systematics, evolutionary anthropology, and ecology. As it turns out, he was quite the scholar. 

Eron Raines is a student at University of Memphis and Horticulture Intern at Memphis Botanic Garden. Eron developed educational content and signage for the Garden's Visitors Center spring planting, a display of Swedish-inspired plants and flowers with interpretive signage describing a variety of plants, as well as Sweden's own horticultural "celebrity" Carl Linnaeus.
Posted by Memphis Botanic Garden at 2:59 PM


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