Children's Stories of the Great Scientiests - H. C. Wright

Charles Linnaeus and the Story of the Flowers


In the days when all things in nature were symbols to man of some force for good or evil, trees and flowers played an important part in his belief, and the old poems of those times are full of allusions to certain plants which were supposed to typify some hidden power. And the effect of this belief was seen not only in the concerns of daily life, but in things that were held most solemn and sacred, and flowers were gathered and cherished not only for their beauty and fragrance, but because their presence was felt to be a bond between man and those strange secrets of nature which were to him such a great mystery.

All the nations of antiquity shared this belief alike, and we find that flowers and fruits were constantly used in all religious ceremonials and in the decoration of the temples. Solomon's temple had doors and pillars of fir and cedar and olive wood, while around the walls were carved opening flowers and drooping palms; the curving brim of its molten sea was wrought with lily-work, and the tops of the pillars were circled with golden pomegranates, while cherubim, carved of olive wood and covered with gold, stretched their mighty wings across the holy place until they met above the sacred ark; and during their solemn festivals the priests, clad in the sacred robes the hems of which were wrought in blue and purple and scarlet pomegranates, and hung with golden bells, passed to and fro before the altar, waving boughs of palm and boughs of willow and sheaves of grain, and offered the first-fruits of the harvest in thanksgiving.

On the pillars of temples in Chaldea and Egypt we find carved the lotos, the flower of the resurrection, and in the oldest religious song of the Hindoos we read that sheaves of grain were offered to the God above all gods, the Beautiful-winged, who upheld the spheres. In Persia, the king sat upon a golden throne under a canopy of grape-vines whose leaves were of gold and fruit of priceless gems, while the priests offered grain and fruits to Ormuzd, the Spiritual One, of whom Zoroaster—golden splendor—was the interpreter. In Greece the worship of nature was carried to a still greater extent. At the great religious festivals the altars were twined with roses, and every feast was deemed incomplete till the guests had been crowned with wreaths of flowers. In the spring there were special songs sung in honor of the awakening earth, and in the autumn, at the grape-harvest, a dirge was chanted for the falling leaves and dying flowers. And we find that the study of plants has interested mankind from the earliest times, and in the oldest histories are recorded the works of those who spent their lives in learning something of the beauty and mystery of the vegetable world.

Kings, philosophers, and priests alike devoted themselves to this study, and every country had its wise men, who sought good to the race and honor to the nation by the discovery of some secret of nature as shown in the laws of plant-life.

At first these researches were carried on chiefly as an aid to the study of medicine, which was practised principally by the priests, who mixed with their discoveries many crude theories of vegetable life, and the change of plants into animals. But later on, great attention was given to the subject by men who were interested in knowledge of all kinds, and the priestly caste ceased to be alone the interpreters of the mysteries of the vegetable world.

Aristotle, the greatest naturalist of antiquity, was familiar with the laws of plant-life, and his pupil, Theophrastus, wrote a history of plants in which he described five hundred kinds; and three hundred years later was born Pliny (23 A.D.), the great Roman naturalist, who devoted seventeen books of his history to botany.

In these books Pliny gives an account of all the trees, shrubs, and plants that were then known, and describes their cultivation and their uses in medicine and the arts. The products of the East, incense, spices, gems, and perfumes, were all noted, and fruit-trees of all kinds, the sugar-cane, the vine and the different kinds of wine made from its purple clusters, flowers, herbs, vegetables, shrubs and trees of every kind, are described with great care, and their medicinal value noticed.

But although the study of botany thus received the attention of the wise of all ages, it was long before any successful attempt was made by which plants could be arranged into different classes, and until this was done botany could never take its proper place among the sciences.

Occasionally a naturalist would suggest some plan of classification, but it would be lacking in so many necessary particulars that it could only fail; to be followed by another that would also fail, and so on, until at last the great Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, succeeded in solving the question which had perplexed the minds, of all preceding botanists, and offered a plan which, if not perfect, was at least complete enough to enable naturalists to follow their studies with much greater ease than had ever been possible before.

Linnaeus, so called from the Latinized form of the family name, Linne, was born at Rashult, in the Province of Smaland in Sweden, in the year 1707. His father was the pastor of the village, and had a fine taste for flowers, which he cultivated successfully, introducing so many rare exotics in his collection that the little garden soon became famous even far beyond the limits of the parish. All the Linne family were passionately fond of botany, taking their name, even, from the great linden-tree which towered far above the houses of their native village; and Carl, the minister's little son, was no exception to the rule, and the little garden sloping down to the lake, stocked with rare and beautiful plants, and visited by admiring friends who listened respectfully while the pastor talked learnedly about this flower or that, was one of the boy's first recollections.

Later on he had a garden of his own given him, and then, besides the collection from the home plot, all the neighboring country was laid under contribution, and wood and meadow and hillside had all to give up their treasures to the brown-eyed boy who sought them with such untiring zeal. Very strange things found their way into the little garden, the commonest wild-flowers and poisonous weeds being alike cherished with the roses and lilies, and, had it not been for the father's intervention, even colonies of wild bees and wasps would have been domiciled there; but, as these threatened the safety of the hive-bees, Carl was forced to allow them to depart to their wild haunts again.

The boy studied the secrets of bud and leaf and perfect flower with such eagerness that, before he was eight years old, all the four hundred different plants in his father's collection were perfectly familiar to him, and he could understand the interesting talks about their nature and properties; and the father took care that the knowledge thus gained should be of the most accurate and practical character; Carl had memory-exercises given him in which he was required to describe the composition and properties of certain plants, and this careful training of eye and ear was no doubt the foundation of that wonderful power of observation for which he was so celebrated later on.

At first this intelligent love for flowers brought only pleasure to his parents, who looked with pride upon a son so likely to keep up the traditions of the Linne family, but, as time passed, they became anxious that he should show an equal interest in other branches of knowledge.

But this Carl refused to do, and the first trouble of his life began with his school-days, when he was forced to learn weary lessons in arithmetic and grammar, instead of roaming through the woods and meadows of Stenbrohult gathering specimens for his herbarium and learning fresh secrets of the great world of nature around him.

But his father and mother were ambitious for Carl; they wished him to become a famous minister and succeed his father in the rectorship, or even perhaps be greater still and gain a name that would resound through Sweden. And so his dislike for his school-studies was frowned down by both parents, and, when the boy was ten years of age, it was decided that he should be sent to the Latin school at Wexio, to begin the usual course of study necessary for the training of a clergyman.

It cost some denial on the part of the pastor to furnish the money for the boy's outfit, but in time all things were ready, and, one pleasant spring morning, just as the Stenbrohult meadows were turning green again, and the buds were swelling with the rich life of the new year, Carl and his father started for Wexio, where great things were expected.

And to the boy the whole world seemed as full of promise as the opening year, and he did not doubt that at Wexio he should unravel all the mysteries that had ever puzzled him, and that all the secrets that had hitherto lain hidden in the hearts of his loved flowers would disclose themselves to his eyes, just as the lilies in his little garden unfolded their dazzling petals and showed their golden hearts when warmed by the June sun.

But great was the disappointment of the Linne family when it became known that Carl was not showing himself such a clever boy, after all, and that grammar and theology and Latin were still odious to him, and that he preferred a ramble through the country-lanes to all the books in the school-library, unless they were books on botany. Other boys were praised, and delighted their friends by winning honors in their classes, but Carl had only censure, and the highest honor he ever received was that of being called the "Little Botanist" by his good-natured companions; and so poor was his record at Wexio that, when he was seventeen, his father decided to apprentice him to a shoemaker; for he thought him a hopeless dunce, and that all his self-denying efforts to give him an education had been made in vain.

But, in spite of his stupidity in regard to Latin grammar, Carl had made one friend in Wexio in the person of Dr. Rothman, the principal physician of the town, who had been attracted to the boy by his love of botany, and who now offered to take Carl into his house while he finished his course at Wexio, provided he should be allowed to study medicine instead of theology.

The discouraged father readily agreed to this, and thus Carl was saved from being a shoemaker, a calling he would doubtless have disliked as much as the ministry, and happier days began at once, for he was allowed to follow his favorite pursuits without offending his father, and received encouragement and advice where before he had only met with disapproval or ridicule.

This was the decisive period in the boy's career, and it was while he was with this kind friend that his life-work was decided upon, for here he came across the writings of Tournefort, the greatest botanist of his time, and was so impressed by these works that he decided to devote his life to the study of botany. All his energies, therefore, were bent in this direction, and he studied to such good purpose that when he left Wexio, at the end of three years from the time he entered Dr. Rothman's house, he had already laid the foundations of that vast knowledge for which he afterward became famous.

But his studies in other directions had been so unsatisfactory to his teachers that, in place of the usual certificate from the school, he bore one which stated that he was regarded as an unpromising plant which had not flourished in Wexio but which might possibly blossom and bear fruit in some more congenial soil.

But notwithstanding this discouragement, Linnaeus entered the University of Upsala a year afterward, with his hopes higher than ever, for the magnificent library and fine botanic garden presented unusual advantages for his favorite study. But now began troublesome times for Linnaeus. He had entered Upsala with very little money, hoping to obtain private pupils, which would help him meet his expenses; but without influence or friends, what could be expected for a young student who scorned the regular course of study and threw his whole soul into the fascinating subject of natural history? His money rapidly disappeared, and no friend came to offer a helping hand. The professors in the university did not particularly notice the poorly dressed young man who plainly showed that he thought more of the commonest plant in the botanical garden than of all their learned lectures; and, had it not been for the society and encouragement of his friend Artedi, a fellow-student, who like him was poor and unknown, the brave heart of Linnaeus might have failed him at this critical period.

Artedi, like Linnaeus, was devoted to natural science, and was consequently very unpopular at Upsala, where the study of the classics was considered of more consequence than anything else, and the two friends were thus drawn together by something more than the ordinary bonds of friendship. And so the two unknown students joined their forces against poverty and unpopularity, and even then found the battle going against them.

They wore the poorest clothing, patched and darned with their own hands, and were hungry and cold many a time as they sat in their humble rooms, for which at last they could not even pay the rent. Linnaeus mended his shoes with paper, and Artedi picked berries for their breakfast when they went botanizing, and their only comfort lay in the hope that Celsius, a professor who was then absent, might return and take notice of them because of his own love for natural history.

But nearly two years passed before this hope was realized, and the friends suffered all the discomforts of poverty, and Linnaeus was just on the point of leaving Upsala in despair when Celsius did at last come back, and bring hope with him. Linnaeus saw him first in the same botanical garden which had been the means of bringing him into such disgrace with the professors, and from the first moment of their meeting a new life began for the poor and obscure young student. Celsius was surprised and delighted with his unusual knowledge of botany, and, finding out his poverty readily enough, took him into his own house to live.

And then Upsala awoke at last and found out that Linnaeus was there, for Celsius was one of the most celebrated men in Sweden, and did not hesitate to show his opinion of his protege's talents. He gave Linnaeus every possible opportunity for study, and it was while he was at Celsius' house, assisting him in preparing a work on the plants mentioned in the Bible, that the idea of his own great system first came into his mind.

The modern world had improved very little upon the plan of the old Greeks for the study of botany, and up to the time of Linnaeus no system had been successfully introduced by which new and strange plants could be classified. One naturalist offered a system based upon the nature of the fruit; another separated the whole vegetable world into flowering and flowerless plants; a third declared that the flower and the fruit must both be considered; and a fourth classified according to the form of the flower.

Each system had something to recommend it, and yet all were sadly deficient, and botanists were far from satisfied.

At the time of Linnaeus the system in vogue was that of Tournefort, who established his principles according to the form of the flower or blossom. But although this system was generally accepted throughout Europe as being as perfect as any that had been offered, it did not by any means fully satisfy the scientific world. New plants were being constantly brought from abroad, owing to the better travelling facilities, and many of these foreign specimens found no place in the system of Tournefort.

It seemed that the time had come when a new basis of classification must be found which would not only dispose more satisfactorily of the families of plants then known, but also include those strange blossoms that began to find their way from remote places in Asia, and from America and the islands of the sea.

And just at this time Linnaeus appeared with a theory that revolutionized botanical science, and was destined in a few years to make his name renowned over the civilized world.

At first it did not seem possible to the professors at Upsala that they had been mistaken in the abilities of the young student from Stenbrohult, whose poverty and lack of friends had kept him in the greatest obscurity, and whose stubborn pursuit of botany had offended them; but Celsius soon showed them their error, and Linnaeus proved worthy the faith of his good friend. He was but twenty-three years old when the idea which formed the basis of his new system flashed upon him, and his youth and obscurity might have stood greatly in his way but for the high opinion that Celsius held of his talents.

But, sure of the favor and appreciation of his new friend, Linnaeus went on developing his new thought and bringing it to perfection until it was perfectly clear and distinct in his own mind, and he was furnished with sufficient proofs to make it plain to others. Then he prepared a paper stating his views, which met with the warmest approval from Celsius. A public discussion was just then being carried on in the university, and Linnaeus took this opportunity of reading his paper and bringing his new theory into notice. Upsala was at first astounded, and then delighted, and before long all Sweden was ringing with the name of the young student whose talent was to confer immortal honor upon his country.

He was appointed Assistant Professor of Botany in the university, and his lectures at once became famous and attracted large numbers of students to Upsala, and thus, in less than three years from his entrance to the university, he had been advanced to a position and received honors that were undreamed of when he first entered its inhospitable walls.

The Linnaean system, which made such progress as to rapidly supersede all others, is founded upon the number, situation, and proportion of the stamens and pistils of flowers. It divides the vegetable world into twenty-four classes, distinguished by their stamens, and these classes are again divided into orders, which are generally marked by the number of pistils.

This system was the most perfect that had yet been offered, and the surprise and delight of naturalists who found classification thus easily simplified at once brought it into popular favor. It had, of course, many imperfections, which were regretted by none more than by Linnaeus himself, and he never spoke of it as a perfected system but always considered it only as a leading toward truer ways of classification.

The idea which Linnaeus made use of was not original with him, for it was hinted at by more than one old Greek, and had lain dormant in the minds of naturalists for centuries, but Linnaeus was the first to think of using it as a basis for a system of classification, and it must thus be forever associated with his name.

This system is called the artificial system, because it merely furnished a convenient method of finding the name and place of a plant, without regard to its relationship.

The natural system, which is based upon the relationship of one family of plants with another, in time superseded the Linnaean system, which owes its chief interest now to the fact that it was the first classification which made it possible to reduce the study of botany to a science, and that its establishment led to the development of the natural system, which Linnaeus himself declared to be the only true way of classifying, and which his system only embraced in part.

After his appointment as professor at = Upsala, other honors rapidly followed. The next year he was commissioned by the Royal Academy of Sciences to travel through Lapland and examine its natural curiosities and productions, and this trip was a source of great pleasure to him, though travelling was often dangerous in those remote regions, where rocks and marshes obstructed the way, and roads were almost unknown. It was while on this trip that he found a little unknown plant growing in shady places which he immortalized by giving it his own name, the Linnaea borealis, and which, he said, typified his own "neglected fate and early maturity."

The journey was a success, and raised him still higher in the estimation of Upsala, but his honors could not shield him from the jealousy of enemies who prevented his obtaining the position at the university that he expected to receive, and, disappointed in this, Linnaeus left Upsala and undertook a journey into Norway under a commission from the Governor of Dalecarlia; and with this trip he began those extensive travels which lasted through so many years and in which he gained the experience that enabled him to go on with his work and add more and more to his fame.

From Dalecarlia he proceeded to Holland, where he wished to obtain his degree, going by the way of Hamburg, whose honest burghers he insulted by revealing the fact that their wonderful hydra, or seven-headed serpent, was nothing more than a clever fraud, with its seven heads all made of the jaw-bones of weasels, and this made him so unpopular that some friends actually advised him to shorten his stay in the city.

He took his degree as Doctor of Medicine at Harderwyk (1735), and immediately after went to Leyden, where he formed the acquaintance of the celebrated naturalist Gronovius, who was so astonished when Linnaeus showed him his Systema Naturae that he offered to publish it at his own expense.

The publication of this work immediately brought Linnaeus to the notice of all the eminent naturalists of Europe, and procured for him great attention wherever he appeared; and during the three years he spent in Holland, France, and England he received the most distinguished favors.

All this, however, could not prevent a longing for home, whither he returned in 1738, and four years after was appointed Professor of Botany at Upsala, a position he had long desired.

And now life, at last, seemed only pleasant to him. Occupying the proud position of the first naturalist in Europe, and with means at his hand to command whatever resources he desired, he devoted his time more diligently than ever to study, and gained new honors year by year. The number of students in the university increased from five hundred to fifteen hundred, all attracted by the fame of Linnaeus, and the collection of plants in the botanical gardens soon became unrivalled.

Rare specimens were sent to him from the most distant places, and his pupils were soon scattered all over the globe, carrying his name and fame with them, and thinking themselves well repaid for all their trouble if they were able to bring some new or rare plant to their beloved master. Many important discoveries were made at this time by Linnacus, not the least interesting being that of the sleep of flowers, which was first brought to his notice by the closing of the petals of a lotos in the evening.

From this circumstance he formed the theory, and proved that flowers have regular periods of sleep, and he made a little calendar in which the hours of the day were marked off by the closing of the different blossoms.

In these congenial pursuits time passed pleasantly enough, and Linnaeus almost forgot the hardships and struggles of his early youth. Sweden, ever ready to do him honor, offered him one mark of distinction after another, until there seemed nothing left to offer. In 1761 the king made him a noble, and the family was thenceforth called Von Linne, an honor little dreamed of by its peasant-founder. And thus, with the years full of content, life went happily on, and when old age came to Linnaeus he could reflect on years that had been well spent and full of good to his fellow-men.

During the last years of his life he suffered much from disease and mental weakness, but still kept his serene and cheerful spirit, and never lost his keen interest in his beloved studies.

And when death came to him at last one day as he lay quietly sleeping, it seemed but as the folding of the perfect flower which closes its petals when its time of expansion is over, and becomes a fragrant memory, full of a sweetness and grace as enduring as the immortal beauty of which it was a part.