A reminder from your Design Pundit: summer sessions at Barron Collier AdultEd begins soon; your DP will offer a design course focused on your garden and your issues, along with Plant ID and several Macintosh courses. Get the latest information on the website: www.msadesign.com.
And don’t forget that you can always email your DP with gardening or planting questions. Or questions about life, really: yourDP@msadesign.com.
Readers: This is part one of a two-part series about naming plants.
Imagine that you are living in 18th century Europe and that you have every plant in the world on the table before you, with hundreds of new ones arriving every year. It is your task to discover a useful way to name, organize, and categorize these plants.
What would you do? Would you group together plants based on how they look? Would you group them according to ... well, according to what? How would you group them, and why?
Before the late 19th century, generations of scientists confronted this problem, casting aside systems that, for whatever reason, were simply not usable. The issues complicating the problem included squabbling about how organisms were related.
Some felt that the very complexity of life doomed any sort of naming project. Nobody really understood what an organizational system would be expected to achieve. Or, indeed, could achieve.
This was a time of exhilarating scientific discovery in many different fields, and although some flirted with the ideas behind evolution, Darwin’s work was still more than a century in the future.
And of course the science of categorization was moving forward along with other scientific progress. A usable solution could not appear, for example, without a certain level of understanding about the role of evolution.
But there is more to this.
In my yoga classes, Suzie is fond of using the Sanskrit names for the poses. Why? Because they make her look smart? Well, she is, and her easy use of these unfamiliar words certainly makes her look smart. But those Sanskrit names not only name the pose; they also describe the pose. Downward Facing Dog Pose is Adho mukha svana.
By simply learning a few dozen Sanskrit words for body parts like hand, feet, toes, head, one knows the shape of the pose. When we hear “adho mukha,” we know the shape is upward facing. Simple. Similarly Adho mukha vrksa, the upward facing tree pose. The name of an object does more than identify the object.
Same thing with plants. “Beauty Berry” reveals very little about the plant, while “Callicarpa americana” identifies the plant, tells us that the plant grows in America, and says something about the botany of the plant.
There is more.
A New World
There was a time when the number of plants and animals in the world was thought to be quite limited — and, in fact, was quite limited, as far as western science knew. This all changed as the Age of Discovery saw hundreds of dangerous and expensive ocean voyages to parts of the world previously only imagined to have existed. These expeditions were very difficult and were often many years long. Exciting times? Sure. But a year on a 40-foot-long wooden boat in the South Atlantic?
It is true that these voyages of discovery were motivated mostly by politics or profits, but the scientific curiosity of our forefathers should not be underestimated. These lengthy voyages to the New World often included observers or scientists interested in the new plants and animals, all of which needed to be described and somehow understood in a greater sense. What was a biologist to do with all of this new material?
How does it work?
Send it to someone smart, that’s what, and in the 18th century, that smart person was Carolus Linnaeus, a highly regarded scientist who received thousands of plant and animal specimens from around the world. Samples crowded his laboratories in Sweden and in the Netherlands, each contributing mightily to our understanding of natural evolution in a changing world. Linnaeus was in the position of having before him thousands of specimens. He had the inclination and he had the talent to make some sense of them.
Next week: more about Linnaeus and about his methodology, especially his thinking on descriptive names. Largely through the efforts of Linnaeus, Darwin and others, we have a very useful way to understand how plants and animals are related.
I love this stuff.
Michael Spencer is a landscape architect who has been in business nearly 26 years. Visit his website, www.msadesign.com, Email: ms@msadesign.