Click here to read about the sources of Common Names of Wildflowers
Beyond the local charm of Common Names, as official parts of the plant world, wildflowers are precisely
classified. It’s all in order to make sense and keep track of the widely diverse group of plants
involved. It sometimes seems complicated, but it really isn’t. A basic understanding of classification
is really helpful to gardeners or even interested observers of the plant world.
The naming system used in scientific classification is known as taxonomy and plant taxonomy
is divided into four essential components:
1. Description - Using words and pictures to describe plants
2. Classification - Simply putting plants into broad categories.
3. Identification - Process of putting described plant units into
4. Naming - The systematic nomenclature that assigns a name to
Plant taxonomy today is the result of various advances made in plant classifications that began
in ancient times. Each time ad advance was made it was based on:
A. The needs of the historical period,
B. The level of knowledge that existed during each period, and
C. The philosophical concepts and technology available during the
How it all began. Archaeological evidence supports the fact that preliterate humans
knew plants out of necessity. They had to distinguish poison plants from non-poisonous plants,
for example, in order to survive. So actually these earliest humans used all four parts of the
They described certain plants so others could recognize them.
They classified plants, for example, poisonous vs. non-poisonous
They identified plants as belonging to one ‘family’ or category
They named plants and categories, so they could be properly referenced.
The Ancient Greeks. The earliest people of well-known civilizations to begin the process
of plant classification were the ancient Greeks, and like most endeavors, there were important
pioneers we know today by name:
Theophrastus (370-275B.C.E.) is foremost among the Greeks for plant study. He was a
student of Aristotle and Plato who eventually became the head of the gardens at Athens. His most
famous works are Enquiry into Plants and the Causes of Plants in which he named
about 480 plant species classified into 4 groups: Trees, Shrubs, Undershrubs, and Herbs.
Theophrastus is the first credited with recognizing the differences among annuals, perennials
and biennials. This early Greek botanist became so well known, that Alexander the Great is reputed
to have sent him many plants from his travels.
Dioscorides (1st c. AD) was another Greek plant expert. He was a physician in the Roman
army, so it’s not surprising that he was an early expert on medicinal plants. His most
famous writing is called Materia Medica which described the medicinal properties of over 600 species.
This ground-breaking work was used extensively for the next 1,000 years.
The Middle Ages. During medieval times, very little was added to the science of plant
taxonomy since the ancients were largely considered to have possessed all
such knowledge. However, there were advances. One of the most important was the recognition of
vast differences between vascular and nonvascular plant forms.
The Herbalists. The 15 th and 16 th Centuries are considered to be the prime time of
the herbalists. It was a time of great belief in mystery, magic and superstitions, which naturally
gave rise to curiosity and often wildly incorrect conclusions about the properties and values
of certain plants. Medieval and Renaissance European herbalists identified approximately 6,000
plants, many of them brought for study from the many explorations of the period. Four famous herbalists
and their major works are:
Otto Brunfels (1464-1534) Herbarum vivae Eicones
Jerome Bock (1469-1554) Neu Kretuerbuck
Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) De historia stirpium
Caspar Bauhin (1560-1631) Pinax theatric botanici
“Modern Science” arrives. As superstition and magic subsided with the advance
of education in Europe, various scholars began more modern studies of the plant world. Two important
men who advanced the study are:
J. Ray (1628-1705) An Englishman who clearly drew the line between monocots and dicots.
J. P. Tournafort (1656-1708) A Frenchman who traveled widely throughout Europe and into
Asia Minor and Africa, collecting and then introducing over 1300 new plants.
The man who organized it, once and for all: Linnaeus. The average person, if he or she
knows anything about taxonomy at all, probably knows this name. Linnaeus is deservedly known as “The
Father of Plant Taxonomy.” It is his endlessly expandable system we all use today.
Linnaeus was born in southern Sweden in 1707, the son of a Swedish
minister. It was his father who had taken the Latin name of Linnaeus in keeping with the
fashion of the day for scholarly or important people to choose a classical
name, or to “Latinize the patronymic.” He
had chosen the name in honor of the linden or lime trees which graced the family homestead. Linnaeus’ real
family name had been Ingermarsson. Beyond his Latinized name, Linnaeus was also known during his
life as Carl von Linne’. But forget all that. To the plant world, he is Linnaeus.
By the time he was a very young man, Linnaeus had distinguished himself as an authority in the
natural sciences where he focused on the study of plants, animals, and minerals.
Of the three, his greatest interest was in botany where he concentrated on not only identifying
various plant species but also on their natural history and distribution.
While plant identification had been accumulating for centuries as we have seen, Linnaeus realized
that the current knowledge lacked clearly defined systemization. There was no consistent plan
of either arrangement or nomenclature.
The last attempts at combining the acquired knowledge of the past had been made by Ray in England
and Tournefort in France, shortly before Linnaeus advanced his scheme. Ray
and Tournefort had basically divided plants into trees and herbs along the
lines of Theophrastus and then sub-divided them into groups that bore petals and those that did
not and further sub-divided them yet according to the shape of the corolla.
In the process Tournefort is given credit for establishing the “concept of genus” in
his landmark work, Institutiones Rei Herbariae.
Linnaeus developed his system of classification based on a plant’s sexuality, organizing
them into groups called Classes and Orders. These divisions are based on pistil and stamen structure.
He wrote about this in two of his most important books: Genera Plantarum in 1737 and Species
Plantarum in 1753.
In the Genera Linnaeus accepts and defines the genus according to Tournefort. In the Plantarum, he
meticulously describes each species within its appropriate genus going on to further describe
varieties within the species, all formulating the basis of his system of classification.
Click here to see a simple explanation of the System Linnaeus created.
Click here to see examples of Botanical Names and how they work.