HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION: The evolution of plant classification is an interesting study. We note especially the gradual perception of the fact that obvious characters are not the most important and may be of little or no systematic value. We are still a long way from a perfect arrangement, but the most approved modern system differs from the ancient grouping of plants by Aristotle and Theophrastus into trees, shrubs and herbs mainly in the subordination of the obvious to the really important.
The discrimination of what was important came only with the knowledge of increasing numbers of plants and their patient study. Continued observation forced certain facts on the observers' minds, and the genius of individual workers by supplying a broad general view brought the facts more and more into a system.
It is interesting to note the gradual perfection of a classification of plants by men working, so to speak, in the dark and unable to give any valid reason for the subordination of some characteristic and the importance they attached to others. We think to-day that the doctrine of descent is the key to a perfect system, and an arrangement of plants is more or less perfect or natural according as it expresses their natural relationship, or brings together those plants which are genealogically most nearly related, and keeps them further and further apart according to the degree of remoteness of a common ancestor.
Systematic botany began with the herbals of the sixteenth century. In these we find a return to nature and a departure from the so-called philosophy which, since the earlier efforts of Aristotle, Theophrastus, Pliny and Dioscorides, had distorted the study of plants and enveloped it in an ever increasing mist of fancy.
Instead of refurbishing the old descriptions of the Greek and Roman writers with additions drawn from imagination or hearsay, scientific men like Brunfels, Fuchs, Bock and de l'Obel went back to nature, collected the plants of their own country and wrote careful descriptions of them and had wood-cuts made, some of which are perfect examples of their kind. They described not only the plants of their immediate neighbourhood but those procured by travel or in other ways from distant parts of their own country or from abroad. Their aim was to bring together as many plants as possible and the superiority of a new herbal depended largely on the number of novelties which it contained.
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TEXT CREDIT: The classification of flowering plants, Volume 1 Cambridge biological series
The Classification of Flowering Plants, Alfred Barton Rendle
Author Alfred Barton Rendle. Edition 2. Publisher: University Press, 1904. Original from: Harvard University. Digitized: Jun 4, 2008.
Subjects: Science › Life Sciences › Biology › Molecular Biology Botany Nature / Flowers Plants Science / Life Sciences / Biology / Molecular Biology Science / Life Sciences / Botany