Historical botanical illustration of the day

Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturae, sexual system, Georg Dionysius Ehret, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell,

Magnolia grandiflora, commonly known as the southern magnolia or bull bay, is a tree of the family Magnoliaceae native to the southeastern United States.

It was one of the many species first described by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in his seminal work Systema Naturae, initially published in 1735.

botanical art, Methodus Plantarum Sexualis, Carl Linnaeus, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell,

The illustration above is dated 1743 and was painted by long-term Linnaean collaborator Georg Dionysius Ehret (right).

In Systema Naturae, Linnaeus had become the first scientist to classify plants not according to the way people used them, but rather by the physical similarities between their reproductive parts.

His ‘sexual system’ grouped species with the same number of male stamens together, with sub-groups determined by the number of female pistils.

Linnaeus believed he was classifying ‘God’s creation’. He is frequently quoted as having said “God created, Linnaeus organised.”

Ehret, a German artist, dominated the field of botanical illustration in the 18th century and is considered to be one of the finest plant illustrators of all time.

He met Linnaeus when the pair happened to be on a visit to Holland at the same time and the artist supplied the Swede with a ‘tabella’ for his new system of classification.

Carl Linnaeus, sexual system, Systema Naturae, Georg Dionysius Ehret, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell,Methodus Plantarum Sexualis depicts the 24 Linnaean categories, which remain the foundations of modern taxonomy today.

In Linnaeus’s time, only about 10,000 species of organisms were recognised by science –  about 6,000 species of plants and 4,236 species of animals.

Even in 1753, the naturalist believed the total number of plant species in the whole world would scarcely reach 10,000; in his whole career he named about 7,700 species of flowering plants.

Today, we know that around 18,000 new plant and animal species are discovered every year.

The influence of the new Linnaean system wasn’t only felt throughout the science, but in art as well. It was apparent in Ehret’s painting of Magnolia grandiflora. Whereas earlier illustrations had shown plants in their entirety, botanical artists were now beginning to privilege the reproductive elements – the flowers and the fruit – above other plant parts.

Linnaeus was so grateful to Ehret for his work that he rewarded him with very own genus called Ehretia, which contains around 50 species.

The above top illustration comes via the Victoria and Albert Museum. This article also draws on records from the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.


  1. Love these botanical illustrations of the day – not to mention all the other interesting bits and pieces! Great blog Natalie.

    • Hi Idlywild, thanks for your kinds comments and the follow. You happen to have found me just when I’m taking a break from writing new posts for a while but I’ll be back soon, hopefully with other things you’ll find interesting. 🙂 Natalie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: