Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Linnaean Taxonomy and Finding Oconee Bells

Linnaeus was the father of taxonomy, but his taxonomy was not our taxonomy. I had never given this concept much thought until Chris, Patrick and I got into the Michaux collections at the Jardin des Plantes this summer.

We photographed nearly 2900 specimens in this collection. They are carefully organized on their shelves in volumes and folders. The volumes are organized by Linnaean classes, the classification scheme Michaux used for his Flora Boreali Americana. Within those classes there are subdivisions by orders (I think they're orders), which are marked by bits of paper stuck in between folders. The genera are contained in individual manila folders, which can contain numerous specimens.

Linnaeus organized plants by numbers of sexual parts - nine male one female, five male three female - that kind of thing. That means his organizational scheme is NOT AT ALL the same as currently used schema (even allowing for the fact that taxonomy is currently in flux, and people are using all kinds of systems to organize their herbaria - Cronquist is still around, though the latest greatest is the APG III scheme, and it's pretty darn different.) Linnaean taxonomy is VERY different.

How different? Very very different. So different that Pinaceae, Cupressaceae, and Euphorbiaceae are in the same category - Monoecia Monadelphia. Gymnosperms grouped with eudicots is decidedly not what we do today.

This makes finding individual specimens a challenge. Say you want to find the specimen of Shortia galacifolia, the famous Oconee bells - a pretty important specimen in Michaux lore.

Oconee bells at South Carolina Botanical Garden

To find this in a modern herbarium, you'd figure out what family contains Shortia and then flip through the folders until you came upon Shortia. There it would be.

But Michaux didn't call this plant Shortia. He called it ... what? No one knew. We looked up the genus on the Jardin's database, but that was no help. So we were sort of stuck - didn't even know how to look it up.

We only found the darn thing because Chris and I photographed EVERY specimen in the Michaux collection. That is why, in the midst of Volume 9, we discovered a photocopy of the Shortia specimen, in the genus Pyrola.

Of course! Pyrola! Duh!

Never heard of it....

Finding the specimen then required following the photocopied clue into the Jussieu materials, where the thing had been refiled for safekeeping or something. (Jussieu 7545 is what you want if you go there.)

I've cataloged the Michaux images now according to volume, genus, and family. I discovered - after the fact, so now I am considerably more clued in than I was at the start of this project - that the herbarium is in fact very carefully organized according to this book. The first specimen in both is Hippuris, and it goes from there.

Once we get all this data together - there's so much! - it will be fascinating to put Linnaean classifications and modern families side by side to see how much they overlap. They do in many cases, just not all.

And my efforts have already proven useful to me. I wanted to find Linnaeus' description of Clethra in his Species Plantarum so that I could quote him for an article. But how to find Clethra? Well, I just pulled up my handy Michaux database in Bento (the late, lamented - how could you ditch us all, Filemaker?) and there it was - Decandria Monogynia, of course. (Ten men, one woman....)

That's what I'd figured....