Naming plants

Naming plants

Although Morison's classification system was all but ignored, subsequent botanists made use of the work as a source of names as more plants were discovered, for example, William Sherard (1659-1728), the Yorkshire naturalist Richard Richardson (1663-1741) and Robert Sibbald (1641-1722), co-founder of the botanic garden in Edinburgh (Sibbald, 1684; Turner, 1835; Harris, 2015).

Most importantly, for botany in the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) referred to Morison’s names in his Hortus Cliffortianus (1737) and two-volume Species Plantarum (1753), although in Linnaeus’s view Morison ‘followed the thread of nature, ties his own thread of Ariadne into Gordian knots, which can be untied only with the sword’ (Freer, 2003: 151). In an undated letter to the Swiss botanist Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), Linnaeus went further: ‘Morison was vain and puffed up with conceit, … yet he cannot be sufficiently praised for having revived system, which was half expiring. If you look over Tournefort's genera, you will readily admit how much he owes to Morison … All that is good in Morison is taken from Caesalpinus, from whose guidance he wanders in pursuit of natural affinities rather than of characters’ (Smith, 1821: 281).

The binomial scientific naming system, formalized by Linnaeus, is now used for all life on earth. It is an effective means of communicating knowledge about biological diversity. All organisms have scientific names. For example, all plants in this image of the western tip of Tenerife have binomial names, whether it is the plants in the background that are found nowhere else on earth or the cactus in the foreground, Dillenius’s opuntia, named after Morison’s successor as a professor of botany in Oxford, Johann Jakob Dillenius (1687-1747), which is an introduced invasive species.
By convention, the start date for binomial naming system is 1753 and all binomial names are associated with types. Whenever a new species is described, the specimen used by those responsible for the naming is deposited in a natural history collection – this is the type. Formerly, images were also sometimes used to described new species and therefore designated as types. Consequently, types are some of the most important objects in any scientific collection. Unsurprisingly, images in Morison’s Historia are types, for example, the Mediterranean coastal shrub silverbush, the Mediterranean and Caucasian bulb sea daffodil and southwest Asian knapweed sweetsultan.

Freer S 2003. Linnaeus’ Philosophia Botanica. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Harris SA 2015. William Sherard: his herbarium and his Pinax. Oxford Plant Systematics 21: 13-15.

Sibbald R 1684. Scotland Illustrated: Or, An Essay of Natural History. Edinburgh, Printed by J.K., J.S. and J.C.

Smith JE 1821. A selection of the correspondence of Linnaeus and other naturalists, from the original manuscripts. Vol. 2. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.

Turner, D 1835. Extracts from the literary and scientific correspondence of Richard Richardson, M.D., F.R.S., of Bierley, Yorkshire. Yarmouth; Printed by Charles Sloman, King-Street.