May 2013: Botany and the Linnean imagination

Published on 6th May 2013

Botany and the Linnean imagination

mythical virgin Andromeda

Carl Linnaeus often celebrated the various associations of plants, poetic and otherwise. In the unpublished account of his Lapland Journey, there is a whimsical drawing juxtaposing the mythical virgin Andromeda – chained to a rock as a sacrifice for a dragon – with Bog Rosemary in a pond, which is assailed by a newt instead of a dragon. Next to the drawing, Linnaeus writes:

Ficta et vera [fictional and true], Mystica et genuina [mystical and genuine], 
Figurata et depicta [imagined and depicted]

In an act of poetic metamorphosis, the plant and the mythical woman become one, an act sealed by Linnaeus by bestowing on the plant genus the Latin name Andromeda.

plant genus the Latin name Andromeda

Sir James Edward Smith is known for his scientific meticulousness rather than his flights of fancy. We hold a manuscript of a scientific paper about the Andromeda family read at the Linnean Society in 1810, written by Olof Swartz and J.E. Smith. Smith took great interest in this paper, and added his own notes. The paper includes a monochrome watercolour drawing of the plant, which mirrors the plant in Linnaeus’ drawing, but none of its playful associations.
However, in a decidedly non-scientific take on the world of plants, Smith also uses poetic associations in one of his poems, comparing a beautiful woman to beautiful flowers. Here, the woman transcends all flowers, all nature, and all art, and the founder of the Linnean Society of London reveals his imaginative and romantic side:

"All that art or that nature can find
Not half so delightful would prove
Nor their scents all together combined
Half so sweet as the breath of my love."

(Commonplace book kept by Lady Pleasance Smith, containing original poems by James Edward Smith (MS 393 A-B))