Carl Linnaeus (1707- 1778)


2007 was the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). A Swedish naturalist, his fame lies in his consistent use of binomial nomenclature – his system of naming the whole natural world.

In 1753 he published his Species Plantarum in which every plant he knew was systematically given a name comprising of just two parts, the binomial. The two essential parts of this binomial system are the genus name and the species name (like a surname followed by a forename). Thus when Linnaeus named the garden plant Rudbeckia hirta L. (after his old teacher Olaf Rudbeck), Rudbeckia is the genus name, hirta is the species (L. is the abbreviation for Linnaeus, who first formally described the species although this authority usage was adopted much later). Until then the naming of plants had been complicated and confusing and was often expressed as polynomials eg Obeliscotheca integrifolia, radio aureo, umbone atro-rubente was one of the previous names for Rudbeckia hirta

Today this Species Plantarum is acknowledged as the starting point of modern plant names. Linnaeus estimated the world's flowering plant flora at 20,000 species (estimates today vary between 235,000 and 400,000). Usually the oldest validly published name is the one that is accepted (the principle of priority) and no names pre-date 1753. Furthermore, all names have to be supported by a type, which is usually a dried herbarium specimen defined when the plant was first described. The application of plant names is governed by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

Linnaeus, Dillenius and Oxford

Linnaeus visited the University of Oxford Botanic Garden in 1736 where he met Dillenius. John Jacob Dillenius (1684-1747), originally from Germany, became the first Sherardian Professor of Botany in 1734. Previously he had worked in James Sherard's garden at Eltham and published a two volume work of these plants Hortus Elthamensis in 1732, with 324 plates drawn and engraved by himself. A copy of this book is still held in Sherardian Library and original specimens are in Dillenius' herbarium in Oxford University Herbaria. The initial meeting of these two botanists (who did not share a common language) did not go well. However Dillenius soon became very impressed by Linnaeus and his new radical way of classifying the world's plants and they soon became the best of friends. When Linnaeus left after a week, Dillenius was in tears and offered Linnaeus half of his professorial stipend to remain in Oxford. They corresponded for the rest of their lives and exchanged dried plants and seeds. Many of the specimens Linnaeus sent to Dillenius had been cited in his Flora Lapponica, 1737. Dillenius sent Linnaeus copies of his own publication, the Hortus Elthamensis and the Historia Muscorum, 1741 which Linnaeus cites frequently in Species Plantarum.




Dillenius, J. J., Hortus Elthamensis. London, 1732, 2 vols.
Herbarium specimen: From the Dillenian Herbarium of Hortus Elthamensis


Dillenius, J. J., Hortus Elthamensis, 1732 showing (right) t. 162 f. 196 Lilio Narcissus jacobaeus, flore sanguineo nutante Dill. Alongside is the specimen collected by Dillenius from the garden at Eltham and preserved in the Oxford University Herbaria.




Linnaeus, C. Species plantarum. Holmiae, 1753, 2 vols.


Species Plantarum 1753 p 293 (top right) shows this same species originally described by Dillenius in his Hortus Elthamensis and cited by Linnaeus and then named by him as Amaryllis formosissima L. - see below:



This plant is now known as Sprekelia formosissima Herb.

So next time we go into a garden and read the name of a plant we should acknowledge Linnaeus' genius and legacy to every gardener.

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