Plant Classification Before Darwin

The urge to classify the natural world is an old one and apparently an essential human characteristic. In a famous instance of the primeval nature of this impulse, during his field work in New Guinea in the 1940s ornithologist Ernst Mayr discovered the tribal people had identified the 137 species of birds in detail that equaled and in at least one instance exceeded that of modern science. The sexual dimorphism among birds of Paradise is striking, but the hunters and gatherers almost unfailingly were able to pair dissimilar looking birds under one name.


The Greeks, the Romans and most Europeans until the Renaissance, assumed that species were static. I.e., one did not evolve from another to produce “family trees.” Rather, the similarities among taxa were thought to be due to variations in the proverbial molds for the creation of “types” in the divine forge. Beginning in the early Hellenic period in Greece (300 B.C.) plants were divided up into taxa based on their habit or life form, grouping vines, shrubs, trees and herbaceous species.

Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, is often designated as the “father of botany.” He recognized determinate versus indeterminate growth patterns. Determinate growth refers to a plant that attains a particular size and gets no larger, but produces flowers and fruit before dying. Indeterminate growth refers to the habit of growing continually until killed by frost or other means. Theophrastus also grouped plants together according to shared traits, including the fusion of various elements of the flower (and other parts of the plant).


Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 A.D.) was a Greek pharmacologist and botanist from Asia Minor (modern Turkey, who practiced in Rome at the time of Nero. He assembled a directory of ~600 plants with medicinal uses into the Materia Medica. The reference was used continually throughout Europe until the 17th century. Dioscorides preserved the names of plants in the Dacian language of southeastern Europe. The true identification of all the plants he listed is not settled unambiguously.

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder was a better-known, older (23-79 A.D.) Roman contemporary of Discorides. His Naturalis Historia is a compendium of the entire natural world, as it was known in his time. Although regarded as generally accurate, it makes no consistent distinction between real and fantastic phenomena. Pliny drew upon the work of Theophrastus for his chapter on botany.

Otto Brunfels

After the Middle Ages, herbalists like Otto Brunfels (~1488-1534) began to publish botanical works that were based almost entirely on personal observation rather than hearsay, which was the primary source of information for the naturalists of the Greek and Roman periods. The herbalist texts included illustrations that reach a new level of accuracy and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439 assured the wider distribution of accurate botanical information. Multiple schemes of classification persisted throughout the Renaissance and into the Age of Enlightenment.

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort

Andrea Caesalpino (1519-1603), a Tuscan physician and botanist, grouped plants together based on the morphology and arrangement of their fruits and seeds. The herbalists had usually ordered plants in their texts alphabetically and grouped them by medicinal properties. Caesalpino became the director of the botanical garden in Pisa in 1555. In the 16th century period these grounds for growing, displaying and doing research on plants began to be built, first in the wealthy Italian peninsular states and then through the rest of western Europe.

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) invented the concept of “genus” as a way of organizing plant species. He assembled over 7000 taxa into 700 genera. His criteria were the shared features among flowers. The post-medieval trend toward field work expanded in the 17th century; de Tounefort traveled and collected extensively in the Pyrennes, throughout the islands of the Mediterranean and much of western Europe.

The work of de Tournefort paved the way for Carl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus) to develop the system of binomial nomenclature. His Species Plantarum (1753) is the basis for much of modern systematics and for the rules of priority. The earliest genus name applied to a plant will generally stay with it forever, unless it can be shown that the plant should be more properly assigned to another genus.


Dead Flowers

Take me down little Susie, take me down
I know you think you’re the Queen of the Underground
And you can send me dead flowers every morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Send me dead flowers to my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave

Sticky Fingers cover
Sticky Fingers cover

This song from the Rolling Stones‘ 1971 album Sticky Fingers has a sinister appeal. The initial image conjured by lyrics is of actual dead flowers being delivered through the mail and a withered bouquet arriving at a wedding. But the narrator is entreating “little Suzie” to “take him down,” and he is sardonically observing that this bourgeois woman (in the first verse she is referred to as sitting in a “silk upholstered chair”) thinks of herself as a rough customer (i.e., “the Queen of the Underground”).

It would seem that the narrator is in fact referring to a woman with whom he in the past he regularly enjoyed heroin, and now while he has succumbed to the habit, she has moved on.

Well, you’re sitting back
In your pink Cadillac
Making bets on Kentucky Derby Day
I’ll be in my basement room
With a needle and a spoon
And another girl can take my pain away

The song is the track after “Sister Morphine” on Sticky Fingers, which is in a certain sense a less chilling song because it is so explicitly about sinking down, while “Dead Flowers” has a jaunty swagger to it that belies the delusion represented by the lyrics and the euphemistic name given to the drug.

Undead flowers

Heroin is, after all, made from ground-up dead poppy flowers. Morphine, from which heroin (diacetylmorphine) is derived, is processed from “poppy straw,” the dried seed pods and stems of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum).

Opium has been collected from the latex of unripe seed pods and used medicinal since the Neolithic Period, but morphine was not isolated from the plant until 1803 in Germany. It did not become widely used in medicine until 1853, when the hypodermic needle was invented.

Heroin was synthesized from morphine in 1874 in a London hospital, but was rediscovered independently in 1897 in the laboratories of the Bayer pharmaceutical company in Germany.

Bayer marketed it as a non-addictive cough suppressant and pain killer until 1910, when it was realized that heroin quickly metabolized into morphine, and was therefore essentially a quicker acting version of morphine and one-and-a-half to two times as powerful. (Not to mention very addictive.)

Latex from scored pod
Latex from scored pod

The opium poppies that enter the heroin trade are historically from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Golden Triangle region of Burma, Thailand and southern China, and the Sinaloa province of Mexico. The ascension of the Taliban in Afghanistan famously suppressed the production of opium poppies in that country. Production had increased during the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, when the US-backed mujaheddin entered the trade in order to raise money for their cause.

The sternly fundamentalist Taliban initially encouraged poppy production because they believed that its products were consumed by Westerners, but not Muslims. In 2000 they reversed their policy and nearly eliminated poppy production within a year. After the 2001 expulsion of the Taliban by the US and Northern Alliance forces, poppy production resumed and Afghanistan once again is the source of the vast majority of the world’s opium supply.

While back in the 1970s, when the Rolling Stones were glamorizing (in their backhanded way of glorifying debasement) heroin use, the purity of the drug was less than it is today. Therefore most users took it intravenously to get the full effect. More recently greater purities are available, making possible significant effects via snorting the drug. Recreational users who believe they might avoid the dangers of the drug in this way, find they are sadly mistaken.

Send me dead flowers by the US mail
Say it with dead flowers at my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave
No, I won’t forget to put roses on your grave”