After a few weeks of perusing countless plant catalogues in Dumbarton Oaks Rare Books Collection, I’ve developed an appreciation for the significance of plant names. Before my Rare Book internship, I had not really given the Latin names of plants any real thought, other than that they were usually impossible to pronounce and spell. Although binomial nomenclature is made of two Latin words to describe the genus and species, the words can be Latinized versions of English names. Linnaeus coined binomial nomenclature for about 4,400 animal species and 7,700 plant species, with a surprising amount of names Latinized from surnames of people he knew. In creating a standardized natural history classification system, Carl Linnaeus also immortalized his friends, patrons, and rivals by occasionally turning their names into plant names.
When Linnaeus was a student at Uppsala University, his adviser Olof Rudbeck (1660-1740) encouraged him to take the Lapland trip that helped establish his botanical reputation. Rudbeck was a dear friend and patron of Linnaeus, appointing him as botanical demonstrator in the Uppsala Botanical Garden over learned teachers. In addition to professional and educational support, Rudbeck even aided Linnaeus financially by having him tutor three of his sons and board at his house. Linnaeus expressed his appreciation a few years later by naming an American flower Rudbeckia. In a 1731 letter to Rudbeck, Linnaeus explained his careful thought process behind the decision:
“I had chosen a noble plant in order to recall your merits and the services you have rendered, a tall one to give an idea of your stature; and I wanted it to be one which branched and which flowered and fruited freely, to show that you cultivated not only the sciences but also the humanities. Its rayed flowers will bear witness that you shone among savants like the sun among the stars; its perennial roots will remind us that each year sees you live again through new works. Pride of our gardens, the Rudbeckia will be cultivated throughout Europe and in distant lands where your revered name must long have been known. Accept this plant, not for what it is but for what it will become when it bears your name…”
Linnaeus honored many renowned botanists and naturalists, from those he had close relationships with to those he admired from afar. George Clifford (1685-1760), Director of the Dutch East India Company and wealthy horticulturist, became Linnaeus’s greatest benefactor. Clifford hired Linnaeus to be his house physician and head gardener from 1736 to 1738, during which Linnaeus prepared an account of his herbarium, later published as Hortus Cliffortianus (1738). Linnaeus dedicated the book to Clifford, but also named a South African plant genus Cliffortia in his honor. Both Linnaeus and Clifford studied the plant specimens of Virginia colonist John Clayton (1694-1773). Although Linnaeus did not, to my knowledge, correspond with Clayton, he respected this botanist’s work and named the American wildflower, the spring beauty, Claytonia virginica after him.
In addition to honoring friends or fellow naturalists, Linnaeus used plant names to spite critics. Johann Siegesbeck, a St. Petersburg academician, defamed Linnaeus’s classification system based on plant sex organs as vulgar, useless and “loathsome harlotry.” Never one to take criticism graciously, Linnaeus named a genus of small prickly weeds Sigesbeckia, after the man who had annoyed him so. Friend, foe, or benefactor, Linnaeus and other botanists memorialized people within history and botany by incorporating their names into plant binomial names. Nature guidebooks, textbooks, seed packets, phylogenetic trees, and so on all bear the names of people Linnaeus and other early botanists chose to immortalize. These and other stories of 18th century botany are ones Deirdre and I are framing for the Botany of Empire symposium in October.