Years ago, while living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, my partner and I made the acquaintance of a gentleman who was considered throughout the neighborhood to be a gardener of some skill. When we finally received an invitation to venture past the ten-foot privacy fencing into his little slice of paradise, we jumped at the chance to see what a Florida garden was supposed to look like.
As is often the case in that part of the world, the garden was more tropical rain forest than herbaceous border, but there were indeed some magnificent plants growing back there. One sprawling shrub in particular, ten feet tall and bristling with tubular red blossoms, caught my attention, because we had one just like it in our own back yard (albeit a fraction of the size), and had been curious as to what it was and what it might one day become.
“Firecracker Bush,” we were informed.
In a more formal planting in the front yard there was another red-flowered plant, neat, knee-high, dense and prim, sporting tall, graceful spikes of blooms attended by half-a-dozen hummingbirds. What was this one called?
Also “Firecracker Bush.”
During the course of the afternoon, two shrubs, two annuals, and a hanging basket plant, all unrelated to each other, were identified to us as “Firecracker Bush”.
Clearly, there was a problem.
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In the Linnaean system, every species has a type, an individual specimen or population that serves as the prime example of that species. For modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, the type, the model by which all other humans are judged, is not Johnny Depp or Scarlett Johanssen, but good old Carl Linnæus himself. Sometimes being the first one on the scene is all that really matters.
In the year 1758, Swedish naturalist Carl Nilsson Linnæus published the tenth edition of his book Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis — otherwise known simply as the Systema naturæ — in which he brought to final form a system for identifying and naming living things: not just a collection of labels, but a method of classification in which the names would also serve to define relationships between organisms.
The Linnæan system is usually referred to today as “binomial nomenclature” (“Two-name naming-system”) and serves to identify everything from aardvark (Orycteropus afer) to zebra (Equus quagga). No two organisms can share a name, and the name for a specific organism is the same no matter where you live, or what language you speak.
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I grow four or five different kinds of sage in my garden: Garden Sage; Pineapple Sage, also known as Scarlet Sage or Sweet Red Sage; Texas Sage, a.k.a. Scarlet Sage or Red Sage; Mealy Sage, a.k.a. Blue Sage; and Blue Sage, a.k.a. Purple Sage, not to be confused with a much larger shrub that grows in the Western badlands that isn’t actually a sage at all. Confused? Now throw in the fact that many of these plants are native to other countries, where they have names in the local languages, and you can see how the whole business can get very complicated, very quickly.
In the Linnæan system, those sages in my garden are called Salvia officinalis, Salvia elegans, Salvia gregii, Salvia farinacea, and Salvia nemorata. That’s it. Everywhere.
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Another, only distantly related achievement of Linnæus was the invention of the index card in about 1760. Obviously, organizing things was a bit of an obsession for our Carl.
In the Book of Genesis (2:19) Adam provides names for all the creatures with which he shares the garden. That story reflects a tendency common to us all — and by “us”, I mean human beings, regardless of race, creed or national origin — to want to identify the component parts of the reality that surrounds us, to impose order on a natural world that can often seem chaotic and dangerous; incomprehensible.
Names confer power: being able to refer to a plant or an animal by its name allows us to interact with it in the abstract, to talk to each other about the lions and tigers and bears, to model strategies, develop plans — in the comfort of the family cave — before we actually have to confront the flesh-and-blood beast, snarling and charging before us. Names allow us to separate ourselves from things, not just in space, but also in time — we can talk about hunting the buffalo tomorrow or the next day without having to have the buffalo standing there in the cave with us today.
But to be effective, to work their magic, names have to be understood: it doesn’t do me any good for you to tell me that I’m about to step on a rattlesnake if I don’t understand what that word means. Even by Linnæus’ time, naturalists realized that the barriers of language and culture were impeding their understanding, limiting their ability to build on the work of their predecessors and to leave a legacy for those who would follow.
I like to know the “common” names of things, because those names often carry great charm and cultural significance; at the same time, however, I always try to learn the binomial terms for the plants and animals around me, so that I can enjoy the common names without being limited by them. It’s not a matter of being more “intellectual” about my garden — or for that matter, about my world — but about being able to communicate. After all, we didn’t all grow up on the same mountain, and it’s useful for me to be able to tell, when you say “polecat”, whether you mean a type of weasel or a skunk.
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The name of the rose? The genus is Rosa, and the species of the rose in the photo above is multiflora, giving us Rosa multiflora, the Many-Flowered Rose. Why make things more complicated than they have to be?