Before Linnaeus devised the simple system for naming plants and animals that we use today, natural historians used a phrase of several words to name a particular species. For instance the Dog Violet was named Viola caule demum adscendente, foliis oblongo-cordatis. This way of naming things became very cumbersome and made classification difficult. It was replaced by Linnaeus' system in the mid 18th century In this new system the plant is called just Viola canina.
The science of discovering, describing, naming and classifying living and fossil organisms and discovering their evolutionary relationships. Taxonomy underpins all biology, providing unambiguous systems of names for organisms that ensure that scientists worldwide are clear which species are under discussion (also see type specimens and polynomials). Taxonomy also provides identification guides to species of living things and fossils and allows predictions to be made as to their properties - for instance what chemicals they produce or how tolerant they are of pollutants. You can find out about the work of taxonomists at The Natural History Museum on the Botany page and other Natural History Museum pages.
When a scientist describes and gives a scientific name to a plant or animal for the first time, the actual specimen that he was working from is known as the 'type'. For example the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus based his description of bread wheat on a specimen from the plant collections of George Clifford for whom he worked for a period, and gave the plant the name Triticum aestivum. This name can only be used for a species that includes the 300 year old type specimen - an important reference point regularly consulted by scientists. A set of Clifford's specimens, including this type, is held at The Natural History Museum, and images and a database are available (see Clifford Herbarium).