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, November 09, 2007

Paging Linnaeus

I saw a famous old book last night. It’s so old and so famous that it’s in a glass case in a windowless room at the top floor of an imposing building on the grounds of one of the world’s great meccas for people who love growing things.

The book itself is rare in every sense. It consists of only seven large-sized folio leaves bound with the pages folded vertically because the author found it easier to handle that way. It’s worth half-a-million dollars and oh yes, it changed scientific history. It was published almost 272 years ago, in December of 1735, by a Swedish minister’s son who grew up to be a naturalist and teacher with an ego as big as the plant and animal kingdoms he became famous for categorizing.

I’m talking about Systema Naturae by Carl Linnaeus – one of the most famous books in science by one of history’s true characters. A man who brought sex into botany and who is being celebrated around the globe this year on the tercentenary of his birth. There are only 43 known first editions of Systema Naturae in the world. And the one on display in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden is special because it’s the author’s personal, annotated copy. How could I not want to see it?

Okay, okay, I know that for gardeners everywhere who struggle with botanical Latin, the work that introduced the world to Linnaeus’ controversial sexual system of classifying plants and gave rise to his two-part naming convention for all living things may not seem like something to celebrate. But it is.

After all, Linnaeus simplified things. Before he introduced binomial nomenclature, plants were described according to a tongue-twisting system developed by Aristotle, which tacked a stream of distinguishing characteristics onto a plant’s genus name. If you think Convolvulus althaeoides is a mouthful for the vine commonly called morning glory, how about Convolvulus foliis palmatis cordatis sericeis, lobis repandis, pedunculis bifloris? That’s how it was B.L. – Before Linnaeus.

I wrote a column about all of this back in May to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth. But last night, standing in front of Linnaeus’ own copy of Systema Naturae, I was struck by the magnitude of it all. By the passage of time and the depth of the human mind. By the power of a single book.

Swedish diplomats and Linnaeus scholars attended the program in the library last night. And there were Power Point presentations and lectures by entomologist Edward O. Wilson and Katarina Andreasen, an evolutionary biologist with Uppsala University in Sweden, where Linnaeus taught. Linnaeus would have thought Wilson’s description of him – “The Great Man” – was only fitting.

But it was the book I’d come to see. The one that was discovered in 1977 to be Linnaeus’ own copy and is housed in the Hagstromer Medico-Historical Library in Stockholm. Linnaeus made corrections and notations in ink on the pages. In fact, he corrected a misspelling on a famous illustration that appeared in only five known copies of Systema Naturae. The illustration by Georg Dionysius Ehret, one of the great botanical painters of the 18th century, depicts the 24 classes of Linnaeus’ Sexual System for Plants – with the stamens and pistils colored by hand. Linnaeus changed the letter “I” in SISTEMATE to a “Y.”

He was, clearly, a man who wanted – and usually got – things his own way. I’m sure Linnaeus loved his family and his work, but I think he loved himself most of all. Robbin Moran, a fern expert at NYBG who is a Linnaeus buff, showed me an allegorical frontispiece for a 1737 folio written by the man known as the Father of Taxonomy. It shows Mother Earth at the center, with the god Apollo by her side stomping on a dragon that represents ignorance. If you look closely, the buff and almost bare body of Apollo has the unmistakable features of the young Carl Linnaeus. And this was centuries before PhotoShop.

The Baroque artwork also glorifies Linnaeus’ many achievements. I didn’t know that he invented the centigrade thermometer to use in his greenhouses and was the first European to coax a banana plant into bloom. He sent the fruit to the king and queen of Sweden, who were the only people in that country to taste a banana until after World War 2. Linnaeus traveled to Lappland, where he studied plants and minerals, and came home with a traditional costume and drum that he wore when he lectured about his adventures.

Carl Linnaeus was 28 years old when he wrote Systema Naturae. I suspect he figured he was destined for greatness. He was made a nobleman at the age of 54 and became known as Carl von Linne –which is how he’s known in his homeland. As a renowned and charismatic professor, he sent students whom he called his “apostles” across the globe in search of plants. And he led excursions of as many as 300 into the countryside, returning to the sounds of kettle drums and hunting horns and crowds shouting “Long Live Linnaeus.” He ate it up.

In her talk, Katarina said that at the end of his life, Linnaeus was senile and couldn’t remember his own name – or the names of his beloved plants. But he wrote them all down. And we remember.

Systema Naturae is on display at the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden until Nov. 10, with guided tours and lectures.
Photos of Systema Naturae are courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden
Photos of Carl Linnaeus are copyright KVA, courtesy of Linnaeus2007

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