Apple tree

For Botany today we wander the apple orchard, examining the branches with their swelling fruit; then we sit beneath one of the trees and draw. Flies buzz overhead, birds sing in the woods nearby, and the dog stretches out on the grass for a rest. That’s what I call Natural Science.


Behold the apples’ rounded worlds:
juice-green of July rain,
the black polestar of flowers, the rind
mapped with its crimson stain.

The russet, crab and cottage red
burn to the sun’s hot brass,
then drop like sweat from every branch
and bubble in the grass.

They lie as wanton as they fall,
and where they fall and break,
the stallion clamps his crunching jaws,
the starling stabs his beak.

In each plump gourd the cidery bite
of boys’ teeth tears the skin;
the waltzing wasp consumes his share,
the bent worm enters in.

I, with as easy hunger, take
entire my season’s dole;
welcome the ripe, the sweet, the sour,
the hollow and the whole.

—Laurie Lee

CakeYellowRoses2Grandma Clarke

The Next Generation

If you have been following this blog for a while, you may recall that in April my daughter and I took a kidney bean from a big jar of kidney beans in our kitchen and set it in moist cotton, whereupon it sprouted, after which we planted it in the garden. Lo and behold, it grew into a bean plant, blossomed, and brought forth brand-new kidney beans. I realize that this is not a discovery original to us, but somehow it was just as thrilling as if it were.



River Farm


Our family spent a morning along the Potomac River at River Farm, the 25-acre headquarters of the American Horticultural Society. The AHS provides gardening information through programs for adults and children, and is a very lovely setting for a quiet stroll. River Farm itself has an interesting history, which I will cover in more detail in a later post.


Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 2

Continued from Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 1, May 23rd


Longing to expand his perspective, Linnaeus applied for and received a grant for a field expedition to Lapland, a rugged region above the Arctic Circle, where he expected to find many unrecorded species. Linnaeus spent five months exploring and studying rocks, plants, insects, animals, and people, and returned with thousands of specimens (no people though), filled with excitement. He returned to lecturing, and planned a series of books cataloguing species according to his new system.

Linnaeus DID actually long for a reproductive life of his own. He paid court to a young lady whose father, not taking a wandering botanist very seriously, insisted that Linnaeus wait three years and meanwhile establish some means of supporting a family. So Linnaeus went off to Holland, whose universities were better equipped than those of Sweden, to complete his medical degree. He also found work there managing and classifying the contents of Dutch zoological and botanical gardens.

THEN, in 1735, while still in Holland, he published his book Systema Naturae, which explained his concept of classification. Linnaeus grouped plants and animals into genera—groups whose members have something in common, usually structural or related to reproduction. (Linnaeus was the first to classify whales as mammals.) Then he subdivided each group into species. (His complete heirarchy, as you may recall from high school, is Kingdom, Class, Order, Genus, and Species.) And then he gave each member a two-part name based on these divisions, replacing all previously-used cumbersome lengthy descriptions. These two-part names were in Latin, which was, and still is, the universal language of science. I told you those Latin classes would come in handy.

Systema Naturae hit the botanical world like a bolt of lightning. The notion that PLANTS (seemingly so innocent!) had a Sexual Life, by which Linnaeus partly categorized them, was outrageous and horrifying to some naturalists, and Linnaeus was criticized for “nomenclatural wantonness.” But, despite objections on both theological and moral grounds, Linnaeus’ achievement launched him from obscurity to fame. A binomial concept had been proposed by Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin in 1623 but was never widely used. When Linnaeus combined it with his new categorization methods, the idea spread rapidly. Here was a practical tool: reasonable, memorable, universally applicable. Not only could scientists from different countries know they were communicating about the same species; it was even easy for amateurs to use, and it sparked a more widespread interest in natural history. Such is the effect of nomenclatural wantonness.

Now back in Sweden as an established botany professor, Linnaeus was able to marry his fiancée, although he spent so much time away on expeditions that she might have been happier with one of her other suitors. He lectured, wrote many works on botany, corresponded with other naturalists, revised and expanded Systema Naturae many times throughout his life (it eventually reached 2,300 pages), led collecting expeditions, and inspired his students to travel throughout the world as botanical and zoological explorers. One circumnavigated the world with Captain Cook. Others went to North America, Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, returning with specimens (or occasionally dying in a distant land; collecting could be dangerous work). Eventually he was knighted for his contributions to science and became Carl von Linné. So there, Mom and Dad.

Linnaeus himself gave scientific names to 4,200 animals and 7,700 plants, generally choosing names to reflect physical qualities, but occasionally to honor a friend or colleague, or, with a particularly ugly or toxic specimen, to insult someone who had annoyed him. Be wary of affronting a botanist. They are still lurking out there today…naming species.

With some modifications due to our modern understanding of evolution, Linnaeus’ system is still in use today, and pretty much taken for granted. But whenever you say Homo sapiens, or Boa constrictor, perhaps now you will think of Carolus Linnaeus, who made it possible, and you will celebrate his birthday every May 23rd. If you weren’t doing so already.

Throughout his life Linnaeus was a deeply religious fellow. He saw his work as clarifying for the world the underlying connections among living things and confirming the intelligence of a great Creator. Ironically, however, because his work made possible far greater understanding and communication among naturalists everywhere, it led to observations of surprising patterns and eventually to the shocking speculation by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace that species, instead of having been from their Day of Creation exactly as we know them now, had perhaps changed over time. Over a long, long time. We do not know the ultimate consequences of our life’s work.

Mystery Tree


One of the projects of our homeschooling Botany block, which we began just before the spring equinox (and which looks like it will continue for a year, if we want to get a rounded view of plant life) has been a Tree Study. My daughter chose a tree in its winter state, down the street on the grounds of the hotel, and we sketched its bare branches and made crayon bark rubbings. Spring arrived; we sketched other, now-budding, even flowering and leafing trees; did other bark rubbings. Our Chosen Tree remained mystifyingly and unashamedly bare in a forest of showy blossoms and new green leaves. Good grief! Was it even ALIVE? Yet the reddish branch tips were springy, not dry.

One day the tips seemed a bit longer. The next day more so. Still no green, but increasingly long. Finally each tip gently opened to reveal a glimpse of…GREEN! Then, long clusters of large, fresh leaves unrolled themselves day by day, impossibly, from the formerly slender twiggy tips. In a few days the tree bore a bright and bushy yellow-green crown wider than it was high, well worth the wait. We sketched it in its new glory. Some of you must be familiar with this type of tree, but I only recognize a handful of varieties. Our neighbor Jason, seeing the sketch, revealed its identity: it is a hornbeam.

Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 1

This is a drawing of Trifolium repens (Three leaves, creeping), otherwise known as white clover, from our Botany block. My daughter has been growing her very own patch of it in the garden, and it’s doing a lot better than the arugula.

I post this drawing because Trifolium repens was personally given its name by none other than…the Prince of Binomial Nomenclature.


Wouldn’t Prince of Binomial Nomenclature be an awesome title for a work of sophisticated tween fantasy literature? An unknown yet gifted Swedish youth—the future Prince—ventures forth into the wilderness, despite the objections of his parents, to make discoveries that change thenceforth the way we look at relationships among all living things on Earth, and founds the Grand Kingdom of Binomial Nomenclature.

This is actually a TRUE story. Today is the birthday of Carl, or Carolus, Linnaeus (1707-1778), who grew up in Stenbrohult, Sweden, in a village surrounded by farmland, woods, and mountains, a made-to-order environment for a future naturalist. But his father and grandfather were both country pastors, and they expected little Carl would follow in their footsteps, so his parents hired a tutor for his pastor-preparatory education.

Carl, however, showed from an early age a distinct inclination to wander off looking at plants. Exasperated, his family sent him away at age nine to a school in town, where classes ran from 6 am to 5 pm and consisted of studying Latin, Greek, and the Bible. Astonishingly, this did nothing to increase Linnaeus’ passion for school (although the Latin came in handy later, as we shall see). Often he skipped class to explore the fields, examining flowers. The only subjects he liked were logic and physics, taught by the town doctor, who lent him books and persuaded Linnaeus’ parents to let him become a doctor instead of a clergyman—this was an age when almost all medicines were plant-based, so knowledge of them was extremely useful—and offered him anatomy and physiology studies until he was ready for University. A doctor! What a crushing disappointment! But they reluctantly agreed.

Linnaeus enrolled first at Lund University, where his father had studied. No one there taught his real interest, botany, but he was befriended by a professor with botany books in his personal library, from which Linnaeus taught himself. When Linnaeus transferred to the University at Uppsala for its botanical gardens, his parents withdrew their financial support. You’re on your own, you little botanist.

So poor that he suffered from malnutrition and patched his shoes with paper, Linnaeus would have withdrawn from school if not for a fortunate meeting with a theology professor who was so taken with Linnaeus’ botanical knowledge that he offered him room and board and found him tutoring work. Grateful, Linnaeus thanked him with the gift of a paper he had written on pollination. Not your typical present (“Happy birthday! I wrote you a paper on pollination!”), but I guess he knew his recipient.

Why pollination? Well, Linnaeus was troubled by the popular methods of plant classification and had begun to ponder a new system. Classification of organisms was hardly a new concept, dating back at least to Aristotle, but naturalists differed on how it ought to be done, and several different systems existed. Was it to be by form? By function? By environment? (One system grouped beavers with fish, because both live in water. For a while the Catholic church permitted beaver to be eaten on fast days. That must have made the Jesuits’ work easier in North America.) What about the problem of naming? The same plant or animal was given a multitude of names in different countries. And what about the absolute flood of new, unfamiliar flora and fauna arriving from expeditions to the Americas? It was overwhelming.

Linnaeus’ paper explained a theory he had developed about the roles of stamens and pistils in plants. The professor, impressed, had it read at the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, and, although Linnaeus was still a student, he was offered a position as a botanical lecturer. His talks drew hundreds of listeners, many times the usual number. This was partly due to the controversial nature of the subject of plant reproduction (a new, hot topic) and partly due to Linnaeus’ unusually poetic and anthropomorphic descriptions of his plant subjects’ structure and habits. “The actual petals of the flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as bridal beds,” he said. And, “It is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and surrender his gifts to her.” That’s my kind of botany class! No wonder he brought in the crowds. Nowadays we can usually mention stamens in public without causing a shiver of excitement. (Correct me if I am wrong here.)

Please see Prince of Binomial Nomenclature: Part 2


Three years ago my daughter and I bought three little strawberry plants at a school fair. Each year they have multiplied, and now we have about fifteen pots full of plants on our tiny rooftop deck. This spring we are drawing them at their different stages of development for our Botany block, and the process, from bud to fruit, is pretty fascinating. The strawberries are terrific. Unfortunately this year a squirrel has discovered them and visits often. What’s so annoying is that he (she?) doesn’t simply eat an entire strawberry, but takes large bites out of several and then wanders off. One day I caught him trying to BURY one as if it were a nut.