Botany – a blooming good history


The BBC ran a season of programmes recently about botany, one of which was a three-part series called Botany – A Blooming History.

Timothy Walker, director of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, told the story of how we came to understand the natural order of the plant world and how the quest to discover how plants grow uncovered the secret to life on the planet.

The first episode revealed how the breakthroughs of the English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) and the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) moved the variation in plants from a matter of religious faith to a scientific discipline.

Ray discovered the fundamental division in flowering plants, between dicots – those whose seeds typically have two embryonic ‘leaves’ or cotyledons – and monocots, which typically have one.

His work influenced that of Linnaeus, who went on to develop the sexual system of classifying plants according to the number of their stamens (the male parts) and pistils (female parts).

Linnaeus came to England to present his theories to Philip Miller (1691-1771), the curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, but he struggled at first to gain acceptance, perhaps because his ideas offended 18th century sensibilities.

The programme also told the story of Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729), a nurseryman and florist in Hoxton, Shoreditch, who corresponded with Linnaeus, and whose experiments helped establish the existence of sex in plants.

Fairchild was responsible for creating the world’s first artificial hybrid flower – Dianthus Caryophyllus barbatus – a cross between a Sweet William (above, picture care of Céréales Killer) and a Pink Carnation.

The series is unfortunately no longer available online but there’s a nice summary here and a BBC radio programme exploring Linnaeus’ enduring legacy, called Linnaeus and the Immorality of Bluebells, which is available to listen to here until 2099.

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