When I was a teenager, my two scientific passions were astronomy and botany.  However, at my school in the early 1960s, one could either do A-levels in Mathematics - Physics - Chemistry (Science A) or Chemistry – Botany - Zoology (Science B).  I chose the former option, being very much put off by medicine which was more or less entailed with the latter.  Botany still is a scientific passion – if I were time-transported back to the Jurassic I would be eager to investigate the flora, leaving others of the party to keep a watch-out for dinosaurs.

So I was happy when along comes another BBC series, this time running on BBC4 [1], a history of botany by Timothy Walker who heads the University of Oxford Botanic Garden with the imposing title of Horti Praefectus.  The series is entitled

Botany: A Blooming History

[2] and comes in three parts, the first of which is entitled

1. A Confusion of Names

The BBC having only allowed him one hour per episode, there was not enough time to start with Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC), the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school, whose two large botanical treatises, Enquiry into Plants, and On the Causes of Plants, were the most important contribution to botanical science in Europe [3] for nearly 2000 years, being the first systemization of the botanical world.  On the strength of these works some call him the “father of botany”.

The illustration is from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. 

Things had not changed much by the time of Nicholas Culpeper (1616 –1654), whose Complete Herbal also includes astrology, classifying medicinal plants as Herbs of Venus, Mars, Saturn, etc.

But almost contemporary with him was John Ray (1627 –1705), who should have changed all that.  Up to 1661, he followed an illustrious career at Trinity College, Cambridge, being at times Professor of Greek and Mathematics, with a deep interest in Natural History.  This had been during the Protectorate (republic) formed as a result of the English Civil War [4].  Then the Monarchy was restored.  Ray had taken holy orders in the Church of England, but successive monarchs had sought to impose their idea of correct doctrine on the church, which had been the cause of the Civil War in the first place.  Following the Act of Uniformity 1661–2 which prescribed the form of religion, Ray, feeling that he could not commit his conscience in the matter, refused to take the required oath, so he had to resign his fellowship.

He moved to Middleton Hall in Warwickshire, home of his pupil Francis Willughby, who supported him.  There he began his famous botanical work.

He discovered the fundamental division in flowering plants, between the dicots and monocots, which is based on the “seed leaves” or cotyledons.  In this Wikipedia picture of two seedlings, we see the monocot (perhaps an onion) on the left.  The cotyledon remains in the seed, and what we see emerging is the first true leaf.  On the right, we see the dicot (which I can’t even begin to guess.)  Here the pair of cotyledons has been pushed out of the seed, and the first main stem will grow from between them.

But he also realized that one should really consider the whole plant in classification, taking into account differences in the flowers, the stems, the roots, the first leaves to emerge, and the mature leaves. 

Ray wrote apologetic prefaces to all his books, along the lines of “does the world really need a book like this?”  Perhaps his humility (almost of the Melinda Doolittle School [5]) meant that his system did not get widespread acceptance, or was it simply that people weren’t ready for it?  Anyway, over the years Ray’s reputation has recovered, and he is now highly regarded.

In contrast, Carl Linnaeus (1707 –1778), from Sweden, appears to be been a master of self-promotion.  Linnaeus believed he could order the vast diversity of plants by their sexual parts alone.  In 1735, he published his Systema Naturæ, subtitled (English translation) “System of nature through the three kingdoms of nature, according to classes, orders, genera and species, with characters, differences, synonyms, places”.  This is, of course, the celebrated Linnaean taxonomy, though it took until 1753 for his systematic binomial nomenclature [6] to be established.  This replaced clumsy polynomial names like

Physalis annua ramosissima, ramis angulosis glabris, foliis dentato-serratis

with much easier names such as Physalis angulata

  These “trivial” names, as he called them, did not even have to be descriptive – often a person’s name might be used, as in Silene hookeri, one of many plants named after Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker OM, GCSI, CB, MD, FRS, one of the greatest British botanists and explorers of the 19th century.  That plant is found in California: there are few if any “hookeri’s” in Europe because most of the plants there had been already classified by his time.

He came to England in 1736, where he encountered the formidable Philip Miller FRS, Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden.  Accounts differ as to how well they got on, and Miller was certainly slow to adopt the Linnaean system on classification in the Chelsea Physic Garden.  Perhaps Linnaeus’s use of a sexual system offended 18th century sensibilities (though IMHO that may be looking at it though the window of Victorian prudery), or maybe people found his self-promotion rather abrasive, but his moment came with meeting Johann Jakob Dillen (Dillenius), a German botanist who had moved to Oxford.  He became a firm friend of Linnaeus, and with Oxford behind him Linnaeus was more or less ‘made’ when he returned to Sweden shortly after.  In such regard was he held that he was ennobled with the title Carl von Linné in 1761.

This is getting formidably long, so I’m going to have to write it in two parts.  There doesn’t seem to be a YouTube of ithe programme yet, but we Brits can watch it for a while on iPlayer using the link provided.  One caveat: I don’t go along with the view of science-and-religion presented there, but that may be down to the BBC world view [7] rather than the presenter’s own interpretation.

[1] something of a demotion compared to “Machines of Loving Grace”.  Perhaps the BBC doesn’t consider botany as so important.

[2] “Blooming” was a very mild substitute for a swear word when I was young, and the double meaning may be implied in the title.

[3] Other civilizations had their own systems.  In China, Li Shizhen published a massive work on medicinal plants in the 16th century, which remained the standard pharmaceutical Materia Medica for China until 1959.

[4] Scotland had not yet been merged with England and Wales to form the United Kingdom, although the same monarchs were ruling in both.

[5] Melinda Doolittle School of Humility (YouTube)

[6] Some moves towards this had been made in the 16th century by the Bauhins, a botanical family who moved from France to Switzerland when the father converted to Protestantism.  Bauhinia, a genus of trees with lovely flowers is named after them, and one hybrid species is the floral emblem of Hong Kong.

[7] I mustn’t use the German version or Hank may fine me 1$.