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Statue of Carl Linnaeus (Carl Johan Dyfverman, 1890, bronze)

Statue of Carl Linnaeus (Carl Johan Dyfverman, 1890, bronze)

The University where I went to school had many remarkable statues, but the most spectacular was an immense heroic bronze statue of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, biologist, and zoologist who invented the binomial nomenclature we still use to scientifically name and classify living organisms. Including its base, the statue was 20 feet tall and Linnaeus was splendidly dressed in both a Roman toga and an 18th century frock coat (which would probably excessive in most places but not in his native Sweden nor in Chicago).


Linnaeus is kind of grinning in every picture of him!

Linnaeus is kind of grinning in every likeness of him!

The statue of Linnaeus is remarkable not just for its size but for the wry look of scarcely contained mirth on the great natural philosopher’s countenance. I had always interpreted this expression as an artistic flourish, but last week, when I was writing about the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), I found reason to wonder whether the look was actually appropriate.

Balaenoptera musculus

Balaenoptera musculus

As I explained in that post, the blue whale is a creature of extraordinary size—an otherworldly giant which dwarfs every other animal ever known. Linnaeus knew this when he gave the whale its binomial scientific name “Balaenoptera musculus” and indeed the name is most appropriate. “Balaenoptera” is from Latin and means “fin whale” an appropriate name for the great rorquals. “Musculus” is also Latin and it means “muscle” an appropriate designation for the most powerful creature on earth. Yet “musculus” is a homonym in Latin: it also can be translated as “little mouse”. Linnaeus was a gifted scholar in both Greek and Latin. He surely knew the ironic double meaning. It must have been a stroke of humor which made him name the largest animal ever after a tiny mouse.




The Heath Pea (Lathyrus linifolius)

Last week Mark Goff, an alert reader with a deep knowledge of botany and herblore, informed me of a mistake in my column concerning the bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). Apparently a second plant goes by this common name and I accidentally reported on it as though it was Vicia ervilia. This second bitter vetch is Lathyrus linifolius, aka the “heath pea” (which is the name I’m going to use for it here on out). I have edited my earlier article and purged it of information and photos of the heath pea. Suffice to say, Vicia ervilia is indeed the Neolithic founder crop known for its bitterness. Please note that the seeds of Vicia ervilia are edible only if prepared properly (not that I imagine anyone running out to feast on the ancient legume). Vicia ervilia must be blanched and the water must be then be dumped out over and over again and again to ensure that the final dish is not toxic.

The heath pea (Lathyrus linifolius) is a fascinating plant in its own right. Native to the Highlands of Scotland it is a delicate fern-like plant with purple flowers. I had used photos of its lovely flowers in the Vicia ervilia article. I have replaced those images–and now I get to show the pretty heath pea once again (properly labeled this time). The heath pea produces a bitter tuber in its roots which was apparently consumed by higlanders in times of scarcity and famine to suppress hunger. Charles II is said to have given it to his mistress Nell Gwyn to help her lose weight (although I make it a practice not to believe everything I read about the restoration court). Mark Goff, who is brave as well as learned, reports that he has been eating the tubers and has noticed no side effects other than weight loss. Since obesity and weight-related health problems are becoming more pervasive in today’s world, contemporary scientists are studying the plant and analytically assessing the claims about it. Contemporary business people are close behind, trying to determine if they can make a fortune from Scottish weight-loss tubers.


Lathyrus linifolius

Whatever the end results of theses studies and hopes, I wish to apologize for conflating the two plants and offer my thanks to Mr. Goff. All of this is a massive vindication for Linnaeus who established binomial nomenclature to avoid precisely this sort of misunderstanding. To wrap up this article, here is a statue of the great taxonomist which was given to my alma mater by the king of Sweden!


A statue of Carl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus), Founder of Binomial Taxonomy...

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

March 2023