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The Search for Order in the World of Plants

We have the need to bring order to everything. We are sense-making creatures.

When we confront the plant world, things are no different.

That is why for centuries certain people have struggled with their desire to find an order among plants.

In her book The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants Anna Pavord writes about the surgeons, doctors, and apothecaries who strugglbed to bring some order to the many plants that were coming into Europe between the mid-fifteenth century and the mid-sixteenth century.

She writes, “Twenty times as many plants entered Europe from the East as had arrived in the previous 2000 years together.”

One of the doctors who sought to bring some order to the naming of plants was Conrad Gesner (1516-1565). [below]

Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) [Engraving by Conrad Meyer, a hundred years later, 1662]

He named many plants, including two of my favorites, the tulip and the canna. The tulip from Turkey first appeared in the West as a coveted flower in 1559.

He would not live long enough however to see his monumental manuscript called Historia plantarum (The History of Plants) see the light of print.

He had worked on the volume for the last ten years of his life.

That calls attention to a theme throughout Pavord’s book. There were many people seeking to bring order to the world of plants, but it was the scientific naming of plants by Karl Linneaus (1707-1778) that won out in the late eighteenth century. That method of naming plants became official in 1905.

His work followed centuries of others trying to make sense of the plant world, especially as plants traveled from one country to another.

One might think that the process of naming plants began with Adam and Eve, according to the Bible. But we have no record of that.

We do have dates however for when the scientific naming of plants began.

The Greek biologist Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.) Pavord writes “was the first person to devote serious attention to the business of naming plants.”

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