It is too much to hope for that my work and my words will be relevant and useful in 300 years. Perhaps it is egotistical to even pose the question, but on the anniversary of a wordsmithing botanist’s birth, I am thinking about persistence.
Not, as often is the case in this column, the persistence (and pestilence) of invasive species (but I digress), rather the longevity of scientific nomenclature and the durability of a classification system.
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that he “knows of no greater man.” German writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe noted that “with the exception of Shakespeare . . . I know no one among the no longer living who has influenced me more strongly.” Not to be outdone in the love fest, another author called him not a naturalist, but a poet.
Carl Linnaeus was the man, the myth, and the scientific legend of whom we all speak. This year, it is the tercentenary of the birth of Linnaeus who would grow up to be known as the father of modern scientific classification and the binomial nomenclature (two-part naming) system (think genus and species here). This system set out to separate and organize all life. This immense undertaking led to an effective and still-used organization of the natural world.
Born in Sweden in 1707, Carl Linnaeus is said to have had an interest in plants since childhood. While his father hoped that he would follow in his footsteps and enter the religious life, Carl showed neither the aptitude nor the interest. Where his passions lay were in the natural world, specifically among the plants. His love of plants led to a life in the scientific community and a legacy of the organization and naming of all things natural.
Linnaeus believed that “if you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too.” So began his life work. His Systema Naturae was published in 1735 and set out to categorize all life into distinct groups.
With plants as his specialty, he devised a system based on sex, or rather the number and arrangement of reproductive organs in plants. This idea was quite racy in his time and some castigated him. Another botanist, Johann Siegesbeck called this system “loathsome harlotry.” Linnaeus, not to be outdone, humorously responded to this criticism by naming a small, worthless European weed, Siegesbeckia, after Johann.
It seems that Linnaeus was not the only taxonomist with a sense of humor. Consider these scientific names of animals (some of which should be said out loud): Ba humbugi (a snail), Pison eu (a wasp), Enema pan (scarab), Agra vation and Ytu brutus (both beetles), and Heerz lukenatcha and Heerz tooya (more wasps).
I have my own favorites. The beetlebung tree is Nyssa sylvatica that loosely translates into nymph of the woods. Another good one is Symplocarpus foetidus, the scientific name of skunk cabbage that means, “bad smelling fused fruit.” And another that states the obvious, Toxicodendron radicans, for poison ivy is a “poison tree with rooting stems.” I love the simplicity and creativity of it all.
Living at a time when some people believed that birds wintered on the moon, Linnaeus created a system that was useful, accurate, and has stood the test of time. Thanks Carl — and happy birthday.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.