Sunday, January 10, 2010

To Honor A Rock Star

On this day 232 years ago, botany, and science in general, lost a real rock star. Carl von Linné (aka Carl Linnaeus or Carolus Linnaeus), the father of modern taxonomy, passed away at the age of 71 on 10 January 1778. The painting below (from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carolus_Linnaeus_by_Hendrik_Hollander_1853.jpg) depicts a young Linnaeus on a collecting trip.


So what is that in Linnaeus' right hand? If you guessed a plant with a genus that bears his name, you are correct.


This is Linnaea borealis, Twinflower. In 1732, Linnaeus explored Lapland, a northern province of Sweeden, and collected 537 specimens during a season that he described as one of the most fruitful of his life. Over 100 of the plants that he collected on this trip were new to science. One of the specimens that he collected was a plant known as Campanula serpyllifolia. Thought to be rare before the Lapland excursion, Linnaeus found an abundance of this species on the foray. About this discovery, he wrote: "I tied my horse to an ancient Runic monumental stone, and, accompanied by a guide, climbed the mountain on the left side. Here were many uncommon plants, as Fumaria bulbosa minima, Campanula serpyllifolia, Adoxa moschatellina, &c., all in greater perfection than ever I saw them before." Campanula serpyllifolia was said to be Linnaeus' favorite plant. The Dutch botanist J.F. Gronovius later renamed the genus of this plant Linnaea in honor of Linnaeus. About this honor, Linnaeus self-mockingly wrote: "Linnaea was named by the celebrated Gronovius and is a plant of Lapland, lowly, insignificant and disregarded, flowering but for a brief space - from Linnaeus who resembles it." Linnaeus gave Twinflower the specific epithet borealis, meaning "of northern regions." Many paintings of Linnaeus, including his wedding picture, portray him holding a specimen of Twinflower. (http://www.plantbiology.siu.edu/PLB304/Lecture03HistTax/HistoryTaxon.html; http://www.linnean.org/index.php?id=381; http://www.linnaeus.uu.se/online/animal/1_16.html)

For more information on Linnaea borealis, see my recent post at Through Handlens and Binoculars.

Incidentally, some people say that Linnaeus has come back to life and is masquerading as a Japanese hibachi chef...


... but those claims are just "wild."

7 comments:

Brad said...

Jesus...where did that hat come from? You will be happy to know I, Linnaeus, still wear that shirt, and twinflower is still among my favorite plants.

Justin Thomas said...

First a twelve-pack box and now this. Is there anything this guy won't put on his head?

Brad said...

Justin, we'll find out in AR, I am sure...

James C. Trager said...

Justin: Consider the cheeseheads of Wisconsin!

Keith said...

Linnaeus was naming things even before he came up with the binomial system. Plants could have as many as twelve descriptive terms as a part of their name, so the plant we know as Tradescantia virginiana was "Tradescantia ephemerum phalangoides tripetalum non repens virginianum gramineum." That wasn't its description - that was its name!

Scott said...

Yeah... I'm pretty happy with the binomial system, though if you look at the USDA Plants database names for some plants (i.e. the plant we in the Chicago Region used to simply call Aster simplex), it seems we're approaching early-Linnaean nomenclature for some species!

Justin Thomas said...

I am also content with the current nomenclatural system. Aside from some inherently difficult definitions of ranks, it works wonderfully. However, there is a growing threat coming out of the molecular camp: Phylocode (shudder).

I fear this is the direction systematics is taking. Basically, by this new system there would be no ranks; just groups assigned by clades that are determined solely by molecular techniques. A species would be defined by molecular relationship (assumed and/or misconstrued as evolutionary relationship). You can read all about it here (make sure you take a shower afterward):

http://www.ohio.edu/phylocode/

My dislike for this system, and molecular taxonomy in general, is not because I am stuck in my ways or too lazy to learn a new system. I have read the research, and I genuinely disagree with the philosophy adopted by the followers of phylogentic taxonomy. I call it philosophy instead of science because it is based on the philosophical principles of Occam's Razor and the idea of parsimony. This is not science.