"Botanical pornography"

2 minute read

Not the work of Georgia O'Keefe, but of Carl Linnaeus according to this NY Times article observing the 300 years since his birth. The birthday was last week, May 23, (taking into account the eighteenth-century shift to the new calendar). So I've put together a few Linnaeus sources:

First, the Times article (by James Barron) reviews a meeting at the New York Botanical Garden:

The man who mentioned "botanical pornography" was Robbin C. Moran, a Linnaeus expert and the garden's curator of ferns. He described Linnaeus as an egotist who once declared, "God creates, Linnaeus arranges."
Linnaeus is known for some firsts of his own, besides introducing his system of nomenclature for living things. He was the first to use a centigrade thermometer the way it is used today. (Anders Celsius was the first to divide the range between the freezing point and boiling point of water into 100 units, but made zero the boiling point and 100 the freezing point.)
Linnaeus was also the first person who figured out how to grow bananas in Europe. (Imitating the monsoon climates of Asia, he let the soil dry out, then bombarded it with water.)

If you're having trouble figuring out the name thing (Linnaeus, Carolus, Carl von Linné, etc.), Wikipedia straightens it all out. And they have this great engraving of Linnaeus decked out in Lapp tucker after a trip to the north:

That's much more interesting than the usual wigged-out portrait:

Although he does look like a kindly old fellow there. Bora Zivkovic has a bit more on the lighter side of Linnaeus, pointing out that he was the first to come up with the idea for a floral clock -- a garden arrangement with flowers that open or close at specified times of the day, hence providing a rough (and pretty) timepiece.

The article in the current National Geographic on Linnaeus, by writer David Quammen, explains a bit more about the "pornography" reference:

His classification of the vegetable kingdom was more innovative, more comprehensive, and more orderly. It became known as the "sexual system" because he recognized that flowers are sexual structures, and he used their male and female organs — their stamens and pistils — to characterize his groups. He defined 23 classes, into which he placed all the flowering plants (with a 24th class for cryptogams, those that don't flower), based on teh number, size and arrangement of their stamens. Then he broke each class into orders, based on their pistils. To the classes, he gave names suhc as Monandria, Diandria, Triandria (meaning: one husband, two husbands, three husbands) and, within each, ordinal names such as Monogynia, Digynia, Trigynia, therby evoking all sorts of scandalous ménages (a plant of the Monogynia order within the Tetrandria class: one wife with four husbands) that caused lewd smirks and disapproving scowls among some of his contemporaries. Linnaeus himself seems to have enjoyed the sexy subtext (Quammen 2007:84).

I originally wrote this up last week as part of a much longer post on Linnaeus, and I've decided to break it up into a short series. All the posts will be available here as they appear, but as I write this, this is the only one.


Quammen D. 2007. A passion for order. National Geographic. June, 2007, pp. 73-87.