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The Linnaean Plant Typification Project

The Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project has been working to establish type specimens retroactively for the 9,000 plant names of species coined by Linnaeus, so that the names can be correctly used.

The importance of names

Delphinium

It is essential for anyone studying and working with living organisms to know their correct scientific names.

In day-to-day life, using common or vernacular names to communicate about organisms can often work well enough between people who share the same language, and who are familiar with the same geographical area.

However, there can be pitfalls. For example, use of the name “bluebell” in the United Kingdom can, depending on area, risk confusing the blue-flowered bulbous plant of deciduous woods (Hyacinthoides non-scripta (L.) Rothm.) with the low-growing bellflower of open ground (Campanula rotundifolia L.). These problems are only compounded when many different languages are involved, over a wide geographical area.

Linnaean names

Ginko biloba

Hence the vital role of the binomial naming system introduced for plants by the Swedish physician, Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), in 1753. Still in use today, it provides a fundamental framework for the scientific naming of plants. Consisting of a genus name (e.g. Ginkgo) and a species name (e.g. biloba) in Latin form, these binomials are used according to an internationally agreed set of rules which are laid out in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN).

Before Linnaeus’ introduction of binomials, organisms were given descriptive Latin names, which not only acted as a tag, but also described their features. These names were initially fairly brief, but, as more species became known, names became longer and more difficult to remember. For example, what was known as Arbutus folio serrato (Arbutus with saw-toothed leaves) in 1623 had become Arbutus caule erecto, foliis glabris serratis, baccis polyspermis (Arbutus with upright stems, hairless, saw-toothed leaves and many-seeded berries) 130 years later. Linnaeus’ corresponding binomial (now cited followed by an abbreviation of the author’s name, in this case “L.”) was Arbutus unedo L.

This idea proved so simple and useful that others started to coin their own names for species they were describing for the first time.

By the 1770s, most biologists had adopted them and the majority are still in use today. Linnaeus named more than 9,000 plants, including most major crop and medicinal plants and many commercially important ornamentals, as well as numerous common tropical species, and most of the common wild plants of Europe. His landmark work, Species Plantarum (1753), provides the starting point for the use of these names.

Linnaeus himself wrote in Philosophia Botanica (1751), “If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too”. Today, stability in plant naming is established by what is known as the type method – when a new species is identified, a dried, pressed specimen of the plant, demonstrating its typical characters, is preserved and designated as the “type” of the name that is published for it. The type specimen provides a permanent reference point for everyone and establishes the name’s use. Any name can be checked against its type specimen and, if two names are found to apply to the same species, the earlier of them becomes the correct name to use.

Importance of the Project

The Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project, led by Dr Charlie Jarvis and based at the Natural History Museum in London, has been working to establish type specimens retroactively for the 9,000 plant names of species (and a small number of varieties) coined by Linnaeus, so that the names can be correctly used. When the Project was set up in 1981, information on Linnaean typifications was widely scattered and it was not known how many names had been typified. Many choices (typifications) had been published piecemeal over the years, and in a wide variety of publications, so a major part of the Project’s work has involved making a huge literature search in order to draw this information together.

Linnaeus and his sources of information

When Linnaeus described and classified plants, he was drawing on a very wide range of sources of information, and his notion of what constituted a species could be very broad, taking in under a single name what we would regard today as a number of different species. Because the 18th-century Swede did not work according to our modern type concept, only very rarely can we be sure that he based his concept of a particular species on a single specimen (a “holotype”). For names other than these, it is necessary to choose a type (a “lectotype”) from among the specimens and illustrations that Linnaeus used in arriving at his concept of the species in question.

Working in close collaboration with botanists around the world, the Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project (with generous financial support from the Natural History Museum, the Linnean Society of London, and numerous other bodies) has helped coordinate the publication of type specimens for well over 2,500 of Linnaeus’ names, designated by nearly 200 specialists from 34 different countries. Although type specimens can be found in a number of different herbarium collections, about half of Linnaeus’ names have, as their types, specimens from his own personal herbarium, which the Linnean Society of London is proud to hold. The history of this collection shows five stages of development:

  • 1727–1752: At the age of 20, in 1727, Linnaeus began to assemble his herbarium, initially from specimens that he himself had collected but later also from others sent to him by friends and students. This period lasted until 1752, when Linnaeus completed his manuscript for Species Plantarum.
  • 1753–1778: This second period continued steady acquisition of material, such as Linnaeus’ purchase of the Jamaican herbarium of the Irish physician and botanist Patrick Browne (1720–1790). Also in this period we see Linnaeus beginning to discard some of his duplicate specimens, either getting rid of them altogether or giving them to friends and colleagues in Sweden. Those that survived are now housed mainly in either the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm, or in the University of Uppsala.
  • 1778–1783: The third period extends from Linnaeus’ death in 1778 to that of his son, Linnaeus filius, late in 1783. The collections were left by Linnaeus to his wife, Sara Lisa, with strict instructions barring his son from having access to them. However, after failing to sell them, Sara Lisa allowed her son to move them to Uppsala where he attempted to ameliorate the damage they sustained in the damp conditions in which they had been stored at Hammarby.
  • 1783–1828: During this period (which starts with Linnaeus filius’ sudden death in 1783 and ends with that of James Edward Smith in 1828), Sara Lisa once again tried to sell the Linnaean collection, firstly to Joseph Banks (1743–1820), who had shown an earlier interest and then, at Banks’ suggestion, to J.E. Smith. After some difficulty obtaining funds, Smith purchased the collection and, in 1788, founded the Linnean Society of London, with himself as its first President.
  • 1828– : During his lifetime, Smith moved the collections to his home in Norwich where they were not readily accessible for study by others. However, after his death in 1828, the Linnean Society purchased them and brought them back them to London, since when they have been extensively studied by many scholars.

Linnaean Collections and Plant Typification Project Online

High-resolution images of this important collection are now freely available online as part of the Society’s Online Collections.

Order out of chaos

Together with the Project’s database, the recently published Linnaean Project book, Order out of Chaos (in which the types of all Linnaeus’ plant names are listed), these images are an invaluable resource for the botanical community.

Download a poster about the Project: Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project Poster