Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes

The Linnaean system in action

The essence of Linnaeus’ achievement is that he succeeded in regularizing the way plants and animals were studied. He did this by developing a system of uniform description, classification and naming, which in turn simplified and facilitated the work of identifying plants and animals. He also brought together the work of previous generations and unraveled complicated descriptions in their writings to sort out what was known and to arrange it all in his new system. Others before him had done similar work, but not on such a grand scale, and not so comprehensively. His classification system generally fell out of use within a century of its creation, but his system of naming plants and animals is still in use today and has provided the world with what became, in effect, a universal scientific language. He also developed a standard order to be followed in writing descriptions, so that the parts of a description would be used consistently in every description in which they were needed. Several features of his system can be seen in this sample entry from page 878 of Species Plantarum (below).


Linnaeus designated 24 classes into which to group plants initially and then divided those groups into orders, then genera. He put the genus Solidago in class 19, Syngenesia. There may be one or more species in a genus; the entry shown here is for the species Solidago sempervirens.
Diagnostic polynomial

Linnaeus referred to this longer, descriptive name (diagnosing how this species differs from other species in the same genus) as the legitimate species name, for which the shorter binomial was merely a convenient short-hand reference.

Binomial or scientific name

Each species will have its genus name (here repeating the genus name in capital letters, SOLIDAGO) as the first part of its scientific name, and then a unique "specific epithet" (here in italics in the margin) as the second part. Together these form the scientific name that identifies that species. This system was perfected and comprehensively applied by Linnaeus and is still used in both botany and zoology to this day.

One or more additional diagnostic names, as cited in other literature, are listed for each species, and Linnaeus treats these as synonyms of the legitimate species name (the first diagnostic name in each entry).
These italicized abbreviations refer to titles of previous publications by Linnaeus and others, and the numbers refer to page or plate numbers; together they show where that diagnostic name, a description, and/or an illustration were previously published.
Geographic note

This note tells where the plant grows naturally (as opposed to where it grows in gardens, as garden plants might be imported from their native habitats).
Additional description

Occasionally, Linnaeus gave further descriptive information at the end of an entry if he felt it was needed.

Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Systema Naturae (Leyden, 1735). [Shown here, a facsimile reprint of the first edition, published in 1964.]

Systema Naturae was among Linnaeus’ first publications and shows his early classification of "the three realms of nature": animal, vegetable and mineral. This book was published during Linnaeus’ sojourn in Holland with the help of Johann Friedrich Gronovius (1690–1760), who was highly impressed with the work of the young naturalist and paid for the publication himself.

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Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Critica Botanica, ed. 1 (Leyden, 1737).

Critica Botanica, written at the time when Linnaeus was cataloguing George Clifford’s garden, is an elaboration on the nomenclatural chapters of his Fundamenta Botanica (Amsterdam, 1736). As a sample of his nomenclatural rules, entry no. 257 states that the name of a species should distinguish the plant from all others of the genus. Compare it to the entry of the same number in his later Philosophia Botanica, also displayed here.

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Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Hortus Cliffortianus (Amsterdam, 1737).

In 1735 Linnaeus travelled to Holland, and while there he worked for George Clifford, a wealthy merchant with an extensive private botanical garden. This exposure to a wide range of exotic plants aided Linnaeus in developing his ideas about classification. A catalogue of plants in Clifford’s garden was published as Hortus Cliffortianus.

Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Philosophia Botanica (Stockholm, 1751).

Philosophia Botanica is another elaboration of Linnaeus’ Fundamenta Botanica, with commentary. In a sample entry for this book, which takes a different form than in Fundamenta Botanica and Critica Botanica, Linnaeus discusses true names and trivial names. He was separating the descriptive or diagnostic function of plant names (his "true names") from their designating function ("trivial names").

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Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Species Plantarum (Stockholm, 1753).

Species Plantarum is the landmark work in which Linnaeus applied his integrated system of classifying, naming and describing plants to account for all plants then known to western science. His system of binomial nomenclature was first used comprehensively here. He analyzed much of the previous botanical literature and linked references from previously published descriptions to his own treatments of plants, providing a synthesis of botanical knowledge on an unprecedented scale.

Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Genera Plantarum, ed. 5 (Stockholm, 1754).

Genera Plantarum was first published in Leyden in 1737. The fifth edition, shown here, was revised by Linnaeus and published shortly after Species Plantarum. It accounts for 1,105 genera. Genera Plantarum acts as a complementary volume to Species Plantarum for genera, and they are consulted together in questions of botanical nomenclature.

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Caroli Linnaei Classes S. Literae, plate by Georg Dionysius Ehret depicting the characters used in Linnaeus’ classification system for Genera Plantarum (Lieden, 1737).
Linnaeus divided the plant kingdom into 24 classes, each of which he named according to the number of stamens and their arrangement in the flowers. In Ehret’s engraved plate these classes are represented by the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet. In Ehret’s original drawing for the plate, preserved in the Natural History Museum in London, he has written the name of the plant he had chosen as an example of each particular class, but only for the first ten and last four classes. Each of the first ten classes (A–K) are named according to the number of stamens, beginning with Monandria (one stamen), Diandria (two stamens), etc. up to Decandria (ten stamens). The flowers in the eleventh (L) class, Dodecandria, have 12–19 stamens. The following four classes (M–P) are characterized not only by the number of stamens but also by their position; the four classes (Q–T) have stamens united in a bundle or phalanx, the next three classes (V–Y) have stamens and pistils in separate flowers. The whole is completed with Cryptogamia (Z), which are plants without proper flowers. For this class Ehret chose the fig as an example.

Linnaeus included Ehret’s Tabella in his Genera Plantarum without credit to the artist, provoking the response, "When he was a beginner [Linnaeus] appropriated everything for himself which he heard of, to make himself famous" (Blunt, The Compleat Naturalist, New York, 1971, p. 107). Nevertheless, Ehret probably met Linnaeus again when the latter visited London for a month.

Carolus Linnaeus, portrait by J. H. Scheffel, 1739. This portrait is known as the "bridegroom portrait"; Scheffel also painted a portrait of Sara Lisa Moraea as Linnaeus' bride in the same year. HI Archives portrait no. 47c.