Introduction and Historical Perspective

The Linnean Society of London

The Starting Point for the nomenclature of most groups of plants begins with the publication of Linnaeus's Species Plantarum, published in 1753 and containing nearly 6000 plant names at the rank of species and variety. The application of names is determined by the identity of their types - usually herbarium specimens but sometimes illustrations - so the typification of such important and widely known and used names can have a significant effect on their usage.

As they are among the earliest described, most of Linnaeus' names are likely to be senior to any later synonyms that have been described, so if typified incorrectly or without proper care, they can be a major threat to stability in botanical nomenclature. The names described by Linnaeus apply to most of the plants of major economic importance including food plants, many of the common plants of Europe as well as numerous ornamental plants familiar from cultivation, and many pantropical species.

The concept of types was unheard of in the eighteenth century, and was only adopted about a hundred years ago. Linnaeus frequently based his concept of a given species on a mixture of herbarium material and the published descriptions and illustrations of earlier authors, and sometimes on living material too. Consequently, there is rarely any single type specimen in existence, and typification involves identifying each of these original elements, before a choice is made. It is therefore vital that any designation of a type is carried out in the light of a thorough knowledge of the plant group concerned. For this reason, the Project seeks, wherever possible, to work in collaboration with specialists.

Although Linnaeus's own herbarium, now at the Linnean Society of London, is the single largest collection of the specimens seen and used by Linnaeus, there are a number of others which contain original material for the names he described. These include collections of specimens (e.g. those at H, MW, S, SBT, UPS) given away by Linnaeus to students and colleagues, but also other collections that he studied at some point but which never formed part of his own herbarium. The latter include the George Clifford, John Clayton and Paul Hermann herbaria (all at BM and all digitised and searchable on-line), as well as those of Joachim Burser (UPS) and Adriaan van Royen (L). Some species were known to Linnaeus only through the publications of other authors such as Hans Sloane, Charles Plumier, Johannes Burmann and many others. The relevant original elements from amongst these varied sources all need to be evaluated critically in reaching a choice of type.

Valid, published typifications are now known for more than 75 per cent of Linnaean plant names. These are scattered through the botanical literature, and have been traced through careful literature searches. In addition, by early 2005, the Project itself had published 170 papers containing hundreds of new typifications, and this process continues. The Project also provides information and assistance to scientists throughout the world who have themselves published typifications for Linnaean names. This assistance is often recognised by formal acknowledgement of the Project's role, and we are aware of some 470 papers where this help has been noted.

We are happy to provide information on particular Linnaean names on request, and to advise on nomenclatural issues which involve such names. Where feasible, we may be able to provide images of original elements for evaluation.

The aim of the Project is to produce a comprehensive catalogue of type designations for all Linnaean names, due for publication in 2007. In parallel, there is an online electronic version which will, where possible, provide good quality images of designated type specimens or illustrations.

Contact: Charlie Jarvis

Other Natural History Museum herbaria: