An American Garden

By Anita Sanchez

Carolus Linnaeus
Car­o­lus Linnaeus

You could say he’s the father of all gar­den­ers — all mod­ern gar­den­ers, any­way. Karl Linne (or Car­o­lus Lin­naeus, to use the Latin form of his name, which he pre­ferred) had a gar­den with thou­sands of species of plants in it. And he named every one of them himself.

His life’s ambi­tion, in fact, was to name every liv­ing thing on earth. If he didn’t quite suc­ceed, it wasn’t for lack of try­ing. He named approx­i­mate­ly 15,000 liv­ing organ­isms. Homo sapi­ens. Can­is famil­iaris. Apis mel­lif­era. In the ear­ly 1700s, the young Lin­naeus came up with the idea that all liv­ing things should have only two names, in Latin (a lan­guage all edu­cat­ed peo­ple would have no trou­ble under­stand­ing, he thought). This was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary idea, using only two words instead of the ten or twelve-word names for plants and ani­mals that were com­mon at the time.

To this day, gar­den­ers use the names he chose. Often, he named par­tic­u­lar­ly beau­ti­ful plants after friends or peo­ple he admired. Rud­beck­ia, for exam­ple, more com­mon­ly known as Black-eyed Susan. Lin­naeus was so impressed by the beau­ty of this Amer­i­can flower, sent to him by a col­lec­tor, that he gave it the name of his men­tor and beloved pro­fes­sor, Olaf Rudbeck.

Linnaeus’s garden
Linnaeus’s gar­den.

I’ve just been vis­it­ing Linnaeus’s gar­den in Upp­sala, Swe­den, and I felt right at home. I rec­og­nized many famil­iar plants. Plan­ta­go major, also known as com­mon plan­tain, the ubiq­ui­tous lawn weed. There it was, care­ful­ly plant­ed and labelled in the gar­den. Zea mays. Or, to use its com­mon name, corn. Solanum tubero­sum, or pota­toes. In Linnaeus’s day, these plants were prized spec­i­mens, val­ued for their use as food or med­i­cine. The gar­den was pro­tect­ed by a low but dense hedge – passers-by could admire the plants from a dis­tance, but couldn’t steal any of them.

By far the most flam­boy­ant part of Linnaeus’s gar­den was the sec­tion devot­ed to Amer­i­can plants. We are grate­ful” Lin­naeus wrote, to the soil of Vir­ginia.” (Amer­i­ca was some­times referred to as Vir­ginia). Care­ful­ly arranged in neat plots were lux­u­ri­ant growths of rare New World spec­i­mens, excit­ing exotics in Linnaeus’s time: Black-eyed Susans. Poke­weed. New Eng­land aster. Joe-Pye weed. And espe­cial­ly gor­geous, sev­er­al species of tall and ele­gant gold­en­rod. (Which, as Lin­naeus knew, does not cause hay fever, as the pollen is not wind­borne, but car­ried by bees.)

Lin­naeus used all these plants to teach thou­sands of enthu­si­as­tic stu­dents about the won­ders of botany and his own new sys­tem of nam­ing and clas­si­fy­ing plants. He called the gar­den his liv­ing text­book.” Lin­naeus lived for thir­ty-five years in a cozy lit­tle house in a cor­ner of the gar­den, where he raised five chil­dren as well as thou­sands of species of plants. He had pets in the gar­den, too: mon­keys, par­rots, and a strange ani­mal from Amer­i­ca, called a rac­coun.” There was a glassed-in green­house for trop­i­cal plants, but the hardy Amer­i­cans could with­stand even Swedish win­ters. In my gar­den,” Lin­naeus wrote, I live hap­py as a king.”

Next time you walk the Arbore­tum trails, take a moment to appre­ci­ate the gold­en­rod, asters and black-eyed Susans – com­mon as mud to us, but rare import­ed spec­i­mens cher­ished by the Prince of Botanists” (Linnaeus’s descrip­tion of himself.)

Fall 2015

Volume 33 , Number 4

Share this

The Latest from Landis

Aug 06, 2022

Landis Forest 5K - August 6, 2022

A record turnout! Click here to view all the great photos from this event, and... read more

Jun 10, 2022 | Anne Donnelly

Don't Overlook Your Reciprocal Admissions Privilege

A sometimes overlooked benefit of your Landis Arboretum membership is the American Horticultural Society Reciprocal... read more

May 29, 2022

Scenes From the Spring Plant Sale

Thanks to our many wonderful volunteers, plant consignors, vendors, and customers, the Landis Signature Spring... read more

May 28, 2022 | Fred Breglia, Executive Director

From the Director’s Desk: Q&A, Part III

In this last Q&A session, I am focusing on leaf color change during the... read more

May 28, 2022 | Erin McKenna Breglia, Landis Gardener

From the Garden: Milkweeds for Monarchs!

Many people enjoy seeing butterflies in our Landis gardens. especially the monarch butterfly, Danaus... read more

May 28, 2022 | Anita Sanchez

Life and Death on the Lawn

It’s a beautiful summer day. You’ve finished your stack of books from the Landis... read more

News Archive