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