Born in a small cottage in Råshult on May 23, 1707, young Carl soon manifested his interest in plants. His mother Christina found that he preferred flowers to toys as an infant and would cry when flowers were taken from his crib. As a young boy, Carl learned that every plant had a different name. His father Nils, exasperated with Carl’s constant questioning, told him that he would refuse to tell him any more plant names if he asked about the same plant twice. The little boy quietly determined to remember every plant name he ever heard.
By the time he had graduated from secondary school in Växjö, he had collected and identified all of the plants near his home. A brief year in medical school at Lund University convinced him that he did not want to be a doctor, and so, with holes in his shoes and only a bit of pocket money to sustain him, he made his way to Uppsala University. In the Uppsala system garden, while sitting on a bench, Linnaeus was approached by an older gentleman—Olof Celsius. Intrigued by the young Linnaeus’ enthusiasm for plants, Celsius was stunned when he learned that Linnaeus had already amassed a collection of 600 plants. Seeing his tattered clothes and gaunt waistline, Celsius invited Linnaeus to live in his own home. In gratitude, the 21 year-old Linnaeus wrote an essay for Celsius that electrified the botanical world, entitled “Sponsalia Plantarum.” Linnaeus stunned his mentors by suggesting that plants have sex: Yes, love comes even to the plants. Males, females, even hermaphrodites hold their nuptials, by showing their sexual organs. Soon samzidat copies (informally published manuscripts) of the essay, with the male and female plants of the dioecious Mercurialis annua (Euphorbiaceae) pictured on the cover, were circulating around Uppsala. (An image of M. annua and Linnaeus still appears on the Swedish 100 Kroner note.) One copy found its way to the renowned botanist Olaf Rudbeck, who was so impressed that he asked Linnaeus to teach his lectures. Soon Linnaeus boarded with the Rudbeck family at the Uppsala botanical garden. Instead of the 70 or so botany students who customarily attended the lectures, over 400 would crowd into the garden to hear the young man from Råshult speak about flowers.
A small stipend from the Swedish crown led Linnaeus to leave on his birthday in 1733 at the ripe age of 25 for distant Lappland. Traveling over 5000 km by foot, horse, and canoe, Linnaeus explored Lappland for over four months, living with the Lappish reindeer herders for much of the time. On July 4, 1732, Linnaeus made the first direct interview of a native healer ever conducted by a trained botanist. His record of herbal remedies, which were told to him by the healer, laid the foundation of ethnobotany and my own subdiscipline, ethnomedicine, the study of how indigenous peoples use plants for medicine.
The techniques Linnaeus used—journeying alone with minimal gear, living with the indigenous people, making copious sketches in his journal, and carefully preparing voucher specimens of his plant collections—continue to be employed by ethnobotanists today. During his trip, Linnaeus not only laid the foundations for evolutionary theory, confiding to his diary that human beings and great apes must somehow be related, he also invented binomial nomenclature, the use of two words to name any organism from a beetle to an oak tree. Linnaeus’ urge to simplify and unify biological nomenclature sprung, in part, from his attempt to find the name of a small fish he collected in Lappland—“the name is longer than the fish!” Linnaeus lamented in his diary.
Wearing Lappish garb on his return to Uppsala on October 10, 1732, Linnaeus was received with the adoration now reserved for astronauts or rock stars. Crowds thronged into Uppsala’s lecture halls to hear Linnaeus. Nearly two decades later, Linnaeus wrote Species Plantarum, unquestionably the most important book ever published on plants. Today, any name published prior to the publication date of Species Plantarum is regarded as invalid by the botanical community.
As Professor of Botany in Uppsala, Linnaeus raised botany to a high art. Taking students on field trips to the Uppsala forest, Linnaeus hired trumpeters to lead the procession and provided elegant picnics for the occasion. In the lecture hall, he was magical, and soon attracted a large group of devotees—known as his “apostles”—which he dispatched to the four corners of the world. Daniel Solander was sent on Captain Cook’s first voyage of discovery to Tahiti in 1768; Pehr Kalm was dispatched to North America where he became a friend of Benjamin Franklin and the great American botanist John Bartram; and Carl Thunberg was sent to Japan (by way of three years in Capetown so he could pass himself off as Dutch). Thunberg wrote an early account of Japan’s flora and fauna. Because of the historical connection forged by Thunberg between Sweden and Japan, I found it very appropriate that the tricentenary of Linnaeus’ birth was graced by the royal families of both countries.
My own observance of Linnaeus’ 300th birthday actually began the day before. Together with Thomas Elmqvist (professor at Stockholm University) and Swedish actor Hans Odöö, I flew to southern Sweden the night before so we could greet the sunrise at the little Råshult cottage where Linnaeus was born. Hans brought his Linnaeus costume so I could take some photos. When we arrived at our little country inn, we found the Bishop of Växjö and all of the local Lutheran clergy having dinner. The entire congregation joined us in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” in Swedish.
Sunrise was early—4:31 a.m.—and for some strange reason, the three of us were the only ones present at Råshult to celebrate, although we could see the preparations for a celebration later in the day. After seeing the first light reflect off the morning dew, we rushed to the Växjö airport for our 6:25 a.m. return flight to Stockholm. Hans (in costume) and I (in a suit and tie) made it to our places in the Uppsala cathedral in time for the 10:00 a.m. memorial service. Linnaeus was properly eulogized, the King of Sweden placed a blue and yellow wreath (the colors of Sweden) on his grave, and a choir sang a stunning chorale piece accompanied by four trumpeters. After 45 minutes, we followed King Carl XVI Gustaf, Queen Sylvia, and the Crown Princess of Sweden, and Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan in a solemn procession out of the cathedral past 1,500 onlookers to the Uppsala University Hall. There, the Uppsala Symphony premiered a chorale with the libretto taken from Linnaeus’ Lapland journey, and the Emperor was given an Uppsala university medal. Medals were also awarded to other Swedish and foreign dignitaries, including James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix.
Later at a press conference, Dr. Watson said his discovery of the double helix was but an extension of the study of nature launched by Carl Linnaeus so many years before. Dr. Watson told the group that within a week, he would become the first human being to have his complete DNA genome published. After the press conference, I rushed to Thomas Elmqvist’s home to change into coats and tails for a gala dinner at the Uppsala castle. Since my wife Barbara was stuck in the United States due to the US immigration passport backlog, I was accompanied to dinner by Thomas Elmqvists’ wife, distinguished Karolinska surgeon Dr. Eva Pontén. In the castle, Emperor Akihito, an accomplished icthyologist, gave a short but moving speech about how his own study of fish has been helped by Linnaeus’ creation of binomial nomenclature. The Emperor said the work of Linnaeus has facilitated international scientific collaboration. Following the Emperor, King Carl Gustaf—former head of the World Wildlife Fund—rose to speak. Although the life and work of Linnaeus have made him the most famous of Swedes, the King said that Linnaeus belonged to the entire world. He hoped his example would lead to greater emphasis on biodiversity conservation. The King asked all of us to rise to toast the 300th birthday of Linnaeus.
My evening concluded at midnight by giving a lecture on Linnaeus via phone link, complete with slides, to a group of students assembled at the National Tropical Botanical Gardens on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. In Hawaii, it was still noon on May 23, so Carl Linnaeus’ birthday celebration, for me at least, stretched for nearly 36 hours.
As we continue to face crises of global climate change, loss of biodiversity, and loss of indigenous plant lore, I take much comfort in the example of Carl Linnaeus. He showed us all how a single person, even an impoverished 25-year-old college student, can use the power of plants to change the world. He wrote of the dignity and sophisticated knowledge of indigenous people. He showed us how plants can bring people together, and highlighted the importance of systematics in allowing us to explore all of nature. With a great deal of prescience, Linnaeus even foresaw our era of species extinctions. “I do not know how the world could persist gracefully if but a single species were to vanish from it,” he wrote.
One of the most moving tributes for his 300th birthday came from the citizens of Uppsala. Rather than lay down a red carpet for the man they term “the Flower King,” they carpeted the streets of Uppsala in grass. For all who love and value plants, I, like the Swedish King, propose a toast: “Grattis Carl Linnaeus—happy 300th birthday to the King of Flowers.”
Ethnobotanist Paul Alan Cox, PhD, wrote the introduction to Linnaeus’ Philosophia Botanica, translated by S. Freer (Oxford University Press, 2003). He is a member of the American Botanical Council Advisory Board, founder and chairman of Seacology (an island conservation foundation), and currently serves as executive director of the Institute for Ethnomedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.