Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ulex europaeus -- Part 2

Many years ago I visited near Uppsala in Sweden the home of the great 18th-century botanist Karl von Linne, better known to history by his Latinized name, Linneaus.

It was a charming place, filled and surrounded by nature's beauty. Butterflies flitted in the dooryard. The interior walls were papered with marvelous drawings of plants. In this rural Eden, Linneaus discarded the common names of plants and animals -- names according to tradition bestowed by Adam -- and proposed a system of Latin binomials. Thus the plant we know as gorse, or furze, or whins became Ulex europaeus.

Linneaus knew that nothing is well described unless well named, and that nothing is well named until well described. Naming and exact description go hand and hand, and, if carefully done, reveal the patterns of order implicit in nature. Without a Linneaus, there might not have been a Darwin.

And yet, and yet, the common names of plants have their own cultural and historical significance. Loosestrife and selfheal. Devil's-bit scabious and Saint Patrick's cabbage. Honeysuckle and meadowsweet. Cuckooflower and ragged-robin. To name just a few local plants. The common names perhaps tell us more about ourselves than about the plants, but that too is knowledge worth having.