Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Happy Birthday, Carl Linnaeus

This week's birthday boy is Carl Linnaeus -- who came up with the binomial system for naming plants. It's his 300th on Wednesday and botanists across the globe are celebrating it from the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx to his native Sweden and even Japan.

As you know, each plant gets two official Latin names -- the first denoting genus, the second signifying species. Before that plant names were a linguistic gobbledygook. I explain this in my column on him in Sunday's Newsday, but thought I'd tell you a little more about his racier side. Or at least the side that made some goody-goodies gasp.

In his time, Linnaeus was, to some degree , X-rated. He came along at a time when plant life was deemed as pure as the Disney channel. The prevailing approach had been set centuries before by Aristotle who decided that because plants stayed in one spot they couldn't possibly have sex. In his personal life, Linnaeus was a devout Lutheran and by our standards something of a sexist. Listen, he didn't want his daughters to learn French because he thought it would ruin them for housekeeping. And when it came to human behavior, he had no patience with promiscuity.

But where plants were concerned, it was another matter. He knew a lot was going on in garden beds and he wasn't afraid to say so.

The Swedish pastor's son set up a new system of classifying flowers -- he did it according to the number of their male stamens and female pistils. His fellow scientists probably applauded Linnaeus' insistence that the stamens were more important than the pistils, but most of them were turned off by his use of human terms to describe plant behavior. He likened the anthers to testes, the pollen to sperm, and the stigma to the vulva. And he went so far as to compare a plant's style to a woman's vagina. In those days, you didn't go around giving monologues about vaginas. My heavens, botany was considered so pristine that it was even thought of as a fit subject for women.

He even talked about polygamy and incest -- describing flowers with multiple stamens as possessisng "twenty males or more in the same bed as the female." This was wild stuff, causing one of his critics to wonder "Who would have thought that bluebells, lilies and onions could be up to such immorality?"

For more about Linnaeus, you can check out my column.

(photo credit: Krafft, 1774; copyright KVA)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

How funny, this fellow seemed better in the plant world. Thanks for this interesting blog!

I love reading your articles!


6/14/2007 6:02 AM  

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