Searching for Order

David Mabberley looks at a book on the history of plant classification

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Reviewed by: David Mabberley
Author: Anna Pavord
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price (RRP): £14.99

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This book is an erudite if racy history of plant classification and nomenclature from Theophrastus to John Ray (d1705). With Ray the study of plants became a scientific discipline, which he named botany. Ray is also the last of the author’s heroes in bringing order and a system to accommodate the world’s flora as it was then understood. He had microscopes and these led to plant anatomy, in turn to plant chemistry and then today’s DNA studies that have revolutionised understanding of the relationships of plants. 

To many, the name of Linnaeus would seem to be the one to celebrate, but Pavord says, “we have to nod, however grudgingly” to him, the man who “had the good fortune to publish the right book at the right time”, his Species Plantarum of 1753, from which publication stems modern plant nomenclature with the two-bit names (not his invention) familiar to all, and in which he described some 6,000 species. Today we believe there are perhaps 300,000, of which each year some 2,000 are described as new to science. 

Pavord enjoys cutting down to size this ‘tall poppy’ and rightly stresses the importance of workers in Italy and then the Low Countries – and eventually Great Britain – who prepared the ground for him. She relies heavily on Greene’s almost unreadable Landmarks in Botanical History (1909), stressing how in embracing an artificial system of classification, based on the numbers of stamens and carpels in flowers, Linnaeus effectively undid much that came before. He held back an understanding of the true relationships of plants which Ray and his predecessors had reached, an understanding that was to be revived after him by the French. They at least scarcely succumbed to the Linnaean bulldozer. 

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Prof David Mabberley, keeper of the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew