Friday, January 18, 2013

In the Spring, one's fancy turns to...botanical notation?

Well, of course, it's not spring yet. But my seed catalogues have arrived, and so I'm hoping that, on schedule, the snow will melt and things will grow again. Meanwhile I'm poring over the catalogues deciding what to try to grow this year from seed, and reading all the botanical, Latin names of popular flowers.

James Edward Smith 1759-1828
Those Latin names--so useful when a plant has ten popular names--would not have existed but for people like James Edward Smith. He was born in 1759, and began his studies in natural history--his lifelong love--in the 1780s. His leanings toward botany were strengthened by a European trip to visit botanists and herbaria, and a friendship with Sir Joseph Banks.

Joseph Banks (1743-1820) was the adventurer of the botanical world--traveling the globe and returning with fantastic examples of plant growth from newly discovered countries. By contrast Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was the interpreter of the natural world--classifying, organizing and naming the discoveries being made.

James Edward Smith, on the other hand, was to aid in the dissemination of all the information being amassed by a busy group of naturalists including Samuel Curtis, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, William Roscoe and David Douglas. In the 1780's Smith purchased the entire collection of Carl Linnaeus for £1000, and in 1788 he founded the Linnean Society of London. He then collected an impressive library and constantly added to his botanical collections.

By 1790 Smith was beginning to write on botany, and he spent the rest of his life making botanical knowledge available to the world. His great work, the Flora Britannica, a classification of English plants, entirely in Latin and utilizing Linnaeus' work, was balanced by  English Botany, a more accessible and popular book. Although Smith's name is not mentioned on this title page, he provided all the descriptions in the book, and was credited as its author. He and James Sowerby collaborated several times on publications.
Sea Bind-Weed by Sowerby
 The beauty of Sowerby's illustrations made English Botany a popular series of volumes in the growing body of work appealing to a general public with increasing nineteenth century leisure to devote to their gardens.

Smith contributed over three thousand articles to Rees's Cyclopedia, an important nineteenth century encyclopedia. He was instrumental in bringing to publication the Flora Graeca begun by his acquaintance John Sibthorp. Smith published a book on American insects in 1797, translated Linnaeus' book on Lapland, wrote An introduction to physiological & systematical botany and A Grammar of Botany. Today his plant collections form the basis of the Smith Herbarium at the Liverpool Botanic Garden.
Embothrium speciosissimum by Sowerby
Without James Edward Smith, Regency gentleman, the world of botanical knowledge would be much the poorer. And my seed catalogues would not be nearly as interesting as they are. In fact, I must go and make some decisions from them...

'Til next time,

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