Botanical Taxonomy — A Historical Summary

The names of the plants, whether scientific or common are very ancient.
Many times students have resistance to learning technical names, because
they seem overly artificial, are foreign, or seem devoid of rootedness in
the culture. All of these names came from cultures that we arose from, such
as Gaelic, or Greek. An example is the Hawthorne, Crataegus. This
plant was known and widely used by the Greeks and Romans. The name comes
from the Greek Kratos, meaning strong or powerful, which alludes to the
healing virtues.

These scientific names hold considerable power, as well as being a universal
language with which to communicate about particular plants among different

The word taxonomy itself comes from the Greek taxo, to put in order, or
arrange. Humans have had a strong desire to classify everything in the physical
and for that matter astral and ethereal worlds. Rocks, stars, animals, plants,
bacteria; all things are given a name, are related to other things of their
kind. This orders the world, and makes sense out of chaos.

Lawrence (2) states: “Early man classified plants before he had a written
language. Certainly he ate plants, or parts of them, used them for shelter,
and from them fashioned weapons for slaughter and defense. For each use,
some sorts were found to be superior and others inferior. Man talked about
these plants. Names for them were a prerequisite to communication., and,
since many kinds of plants were involved, he must have classified them as
well as identified and named them”.

According to Porter (1), “Plant taxonomy has two aims: 1. to identify
all the kinds of plants; 2. to arrange the kinds of plants into a scheme
of classification that will show their true relationships”.


The first attempt to classify all the plants known was about 300 BC. by
Theophrastus, the great student of Aristotle. He classified plants by their
habit or form–the trees were grouped together, the shrubs, the undershrubs,
herbs, and so forth. He also recognized more specific botanical characteristics
such as ovary position. His work, History of Plants, is the oldest
botanical work in existence. The system of Theophastus was refined only
a little by other Greek botanists and herbalists. (At this time botanists
and herbalists were one and the same.)

other notables were: Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D. a Roman naturalist and
scholar who made a notable contribution to early botany, describing nearly
1,000 plants in his 37 volume work, Historia Naturalis.

Dioscorides (first century A.D.) was a military physician under Emperor
Nero of Rome. The Codex, an herbal prepared in 512 A.D. from his
work was still used until the 16th century.

Little botanical progress was made after the decline of the Roman and Greek
civilizations, some of the ancient works being copied and recopied. In the
early 16th century arose a period of intense herbal activity, stimulated
by the reflowering of the arts, especially painting and wood cutting. This
enabled plates of the herbs to be produced. The forerunners of the modern
herbal were produced during this time, notably by the “German Fathers
of Botany”, Brunfels, Bock, Fuchs, and Cordus. The “doctrine of
signatures” was popular during this time. Handed down by the ancient
Greeks, its thesis was mainly relating a shape or color of a plant part
to a part of the body that it was said to cure . Plants with red juice then,
were considered beneficial for disorders of the blood or cardiovascular
system. This feeling persists even today, and in many cultures traditional
herbs are used on this basis. Same of these have been validated by both
traditional medicine and scientific studies; for instance the Lungwort,
Lobaria pulmonaria, looks like lung tissue, and also has demulcent
and anti-bacterial properties, and a special affinity for the respiratory

It was not until the 17th century that any taxonamic system of great impact
or importance arose.

A few of the notable contributions include:

Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), an Italian physician, used the ancient grouping
into herbs and trees, but recognized the importance of fruit and seed characters.
His writing influenced later botanists, such as Turnefort and Linnaeus.

John Ray (1627-1705), wrote Historia Plantarum, in which appears
one of the first indications of a natural system of classification. He also
used the old groups of herbs and trees, but within these groups he recognized
and named the Dicotyledons and Monocotyledons.

John Ray (1628-1705) was a renowned English naturalist that devised another
system at about the same time. His system was even more refined in some
ways, and he separated the dicots from the monocots.

Pierre Magnol (1638-1715) was a contemporary of John Ray. He found Ray s
system too difficult, and divided plants into families. His name is commemorated
by the Magnolia.

Joseph Pitton Tournefort (1656-1708), a Professor of Botany in France, followed
Theophastus in dividing plant groups into herbs and trees, but greatly refined
the system. He further divided these large, artificial groups into smaller
ones based on the flowers being petal or non-petal bearing, regular or irregular,
etc. He was the first to group plants by Genera (a distinction usually attributed
to Linnaeus) as we know them today. Genera are natural groups under family,
i.e., the Oaks, Roses, Maples.


Carolus Linnaeus is probably the single most dominant figure in systematic
classification. He had a mind that was orderly to the extreme. People sent
him plants from all over the world, and he would devise a way to relate
them. At the age of thirty-two he was the author of fourteen botanical works.
His two most famous were Genera Plantarum, developinq an art:ificial
sexual system, and Species Plantarum, a famous work where
he named and classified every plant known to him, and for the first timel
gave each plant a binomial. The binomial consists of a Generic name
(Rosa, for the Rose), and a specific epithet (rugosa) for a particular Rose.

This binamial system was a vast improvement over same of the old descriptive
names for plants used formerlv. Before Linnaeus, Catnip was known as: “Nepeta
floribus interrupte spicatis pedunculatis
“. which is a brief description
of the plant. Linnaeus named it Nepeta cataria–cataria meaning “pertaining
to cats”. The binomial nomenclature is not only more precise and standardized,
it also relates plants together, thus addinq much interest and information
in the name. For instance, Solanum relates the potato, the tomato and the

Species Plantarum was the starting point for the svstem of binomial
priority used in our present-day system of nomenclature. From that point,
there were many botanists that contributed to the evolution of taxonomy.

Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748-1836) created many of the familv groups
that we use today, and created a much more natural system than ever before.

Sir Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) contributed an outstanding svstem of classification
in his Genera Plantarum, which described around 202 orders (now families),
qrouped into cohorts (now orders). He was associated with the Royal Gardens
at Kew in England.

Asa Gray (1810-1888) is the father of American Botany, and wrote several
important botany texts and floras, which can still be found in used book
stores today, and are useful for their clear explanation of plant morphology.

August Wilhelm Eichler (1839-1887), Adolf Engler (1844-1930), and Charles
Bessey (1845-1915) helped refine previous schemes to make the system we
have used until the last few Years, when even further refined, using modern
research methods and equipment, such as chemotaxonomy and electron microscopy,
by Dr. Armen Takhtajan, and Dr. Arthur Cronquist. These systems are similar,
and are in current use in botany texts of the last few years.

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Written by Christopher Hobbs LAc AHG

Explore Wellness in 2021