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 Herbal Medicine: Botanical Taxonomy -- A Historical Summary  
The names of the plants, whether scientific or common are very ancient. Many times students have resistance to learning technical names, because they seem overly artificial, are foreign, or seem devoid of rootedness in the culture. All of these names came from cultures that we arose from, such as Gaelic, or Greek. An example is the Hawthorne, Crataegus. This plant was known and widely used by the Greeks and Romans. The name comes from the Greek Kratos, meaning strong or powerful, which alludes to the healing virtues.

These scientific names hold considerable power, as well as being a universal language with which to communicate about particular plants among different cultures.

The word taxonomy itself comes from the Greek taxo, to put in order, or arrange. Humans have had a strong desire to classify everything in the physical and for that matter astral and ethereal worlds. Rocks, stars, animals, plants, bacteria; all things are given a name, are related to other things of their kind. This orders the world, and makes sense out of chaos.

Lawrence (2) states: "Early man classified plants before he had a written language. Certainly he ate plants, or parts of them, used them for shelter, and from them fashioned weapons for slaughter and defense. For each use, some sorts were found to be superior and others inferior. Man talked about these plants. Names for them were a prerequisite to communication., and, since many kinds of plants were involved, he must have classified them as well as identified and named them".

According to Porter (1), "Plant taxonomy has two aims: 1. to identify all the kinds of plants; 2. to arrange the kinds of plants into a scheme of classification that will show their true relationships".

The first attempt to classify all the plants known was about 300 BC. by Theophrastus, the great student of Aristotle. He classified plants by their habit or form--the trees were grouped together, the shrubs, the undershrubs, herbs, and so forth. He also recognized more specific botanical characteristics such as ovary position. His work, History of Plants, is the oldest botanical work in existence. The system of Theophastus was refined only a little by other Greek botanists and herbalists. (At this time botanists and herbalists were one and the same.)

other notables were: Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D. a Roman naturalist and scholar who made a notable contribution to early botany, describing nearly 1,000 plants in his 37 volume work, Historia Naturalis.

Dioscorides (first century A.D.) was a military physician under Emperor Nero of Rome. The Codex, an herbal prepared in 512 A.D. from his work was still used until the 16th century.

Little botanical progress was made after the decline of the Roman and Greek civilizations, some of the ancient works being copied and recopied. In the early 16th century arose a period of intense herbal activity, stimulated by the reflowering of the arts, especially painting and wood cutting. This enabled plates of the herbs to be produced. The forerunners of the modern herbal were produced during this time, notably by the "German Fathers of Botany", Brunfels, Bock, Fuchs, and Cordus. The "doctrine of signatures" was popular during this time. Handed down by the ancient Greeks, its thesis was mainly relating a shape or color of a plant part to a part of the body that it was said to cure . Plants with red juice then, were considered beneficial for disorders of the blood or cardiovascular system. This feeling persists even today, and in many cultures traditional herbs are used on this basis. Same of these have been validated by both traditional medicine and scientific studies; for instance the Lungwort, Lobaria pulmonaria, looks like lung tissue, and also has demulcent and anti-bacterial properties, and a special affinity for the respiratory tract.

It was not until the 17th century that any taxonamic system of great impact or importance arose.

A few of the notable contributions include:

Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), an Italian physician, used the ancient grouping into herbs and trees, but recognized the importance of fruit and seed characters. His writing influenced later botanists, such as Turnefort and Linnaeus.

John Ray (1627-1705), wrote Historia Plantarum, in which appears one of the first indications of a natural system of classification. He also used the old groups of herbs and trees, but within these groups he recognized and named the Dicotyledons and Monocotyledons.

John Ray (1628-1705) was a renowned English naturalist that devised another system at about the same time. His system was even more refined in some ways, and he separated the dicots from the monocots.

Pierre Magnol (1638-1715) was a contemporary of John Ray. He found Ray s system too difficult, and divided plants into families. His name is commemorated by the Magnolia.

Joseph Pitton Tournefort (1656-1708), a Professor of Botany in France, followed Theophastus in dividing plant groups into herbs and trees, but greatly refined the system. He further divided these large, artificial groups into smaller ones based on the flowers being petal or non-petal bearing, regular or irregular, etc. He was the first to group plants by Genera (a distinction usually attributed to Linnaeus) as we know them today. Genera are natural groups under family, i.e., the Oaks, Roses, Maples.

Carolus Linnaeus is probably the single most dominant figure in systematic classification. He had a mind that was orderly to the extreme. People sent him plants from all over the world, and he would devise a way to relate them. At the age of thirty-two he was the author of fourteen botanical works. His two most famous were Genera Plantarum, developinq an art:ificial sexual system, and Species Plantarum, a famous work where he named and classified every plant known to him, and for the first timel gave each plant a binomial. The binomial consists of a Generic name (Rosa, for the Rose), and a specific epithet (rugosa) for a particular Rose.

This binamial system was a vast improvement over same of the old descriptive names for plants used formerlv. Before Linnaeus, Catnip was known as: "Nepeta floribus interrupte spicatis pedunculatis". which is a brief description of the plant. Linnaeus named it Nepeta cataria--cataria meaning "pertaining to cats". The binomial nomenclature is not only more precise and standardized, it also relates plants together, thus addinq much interest and information in the name. For instance, Solanum relates the potato, the tomato and the Nightshade.

Species Plantarum was the starting point for the svstem of binomial priority used in our present-day system of nomenclature. From that point, there were many botanists that contributed to the evolution of taxonomy.

Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748-1836) created many of the familv groups that we use today, and created a much more natural system than ever before.

Sir Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) contributed an outstanding svstem of classification in his Genera Plantarum, which described around 202 orders (now families), qrouped into cohorts (now orders). He was associated with the Royal Gardens at Kew in England.

Asa Gray (1810-1888) is the father of American Botany, and wrote several important botany texts and floras, which can still be found in used book stores today, and are useful for their clear explanation of plant morphology.

August Wilhelm Eichler (1839-1887), Adolf Engler (1844-1930), and Charles Bessey (1845-1915) helped refine previous schemes to make the system we have used until the last few Years, when even further refined, using modern research methods and equipment, such as chemotaxonomy and electron microscopy, by Dr. Armen Takhtajan, and Dr. Arthur Cronquist. These systems are similar, and are in current use in botany texts of the last few years.
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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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