What we owe to the self-taught genius Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon were both taxonomists, born in the same year (1707), but apart from that they had little in common and never met. Buffon was French, Linnaeus Swedish. Buffon was suave, elegant, tall and handsome (Voltaire said he had ‘the body of an athlete and the soul of a sage’), whereas Linnaeus was a bumptious little man (under 5ft), who was widely regarded as uncouth. Buffon’s funeral was attended by 20,000 mourners but Linnaeus died almost forgotten, after suffering from a brain disease for 15 years. Yet the Linnaean system of taxonomy has survived much better than Buffon’s, which was hardly a system at

The world’s largest flower is also its ugliest

Plants regularly lose out to animals in the charisma stakes. In Pathless Forest, Chris Thorogood seeks to promote a new face of Southeast Asian conservation: Rafflesia, one of the strangest and most gruesome plants on the planet. Rafflesia is a parasitic plant, deriving everything that it needs from its host, spending most of its life as a microscopic thread hidden inside a vine. It cannot photo-synthesise and survives without roots, stem or leaves. Once every few years, buds emerge which take nine months to mature. Finally open, the enormous five-lobed flowers resemble slabs of bloody, white-flecked meat. Most spectacular of all is Rafflesia arnoldii, the largest single flower in the

The best of this year’s gardening books

What makes a garden is an increasingly pressing question, in the light of what Jinny Blom, in her witty and wise What Makes a Garden: A Considered Approach to Garden Design (Frances Lincoln, £35), calls ‘hairshirt hubris’. By that she means the refusal of some gardeners to call any native plant a weed or any slug or aphid a pest. She wishes to inject a little sense into what has become an ill-tempered dialogue between ‘traditional gardeners’ and the self-deniers who cannot see gardens as anything but parcels of sacrosanct earth, in which any major intervention by a human is to be regretted. But to Blom, garden-making is one antidote

In search of the peripatetic philosopher Theophrastus

Publishers lately seem to have got the idea that otherwise uncommercial subjects might be rendered sexy if presented with a personal, often confessional, counterpoint. The ostensible subject of Laura Beatty’s book is the pioneering Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus. He was a friend of Aristotle’s, and was once thought his intellectual equal, but is now little known except to a few classicists and historians of science. But since no one wants to publish a straight book on Theophrastus, we get instead a book that is at least as much about Laura Beatty, her library researches, her travels in Greece and her kitchen garden. Her publishers describe the book as ‘genre-defying’.

We could all once tell bird’s-foot trefoil from rosebay willowherb

‘There are a great many ways of holding on to our sanity amid the vices and follies of the world,’ wrote Ronald Blythe in 2008, ‘though none better than to walk knowledgeably among our native plants.’ To many today, when the age-old connection between people and their indigenous flora is in danger of being extinguished altogether, this pronouncement may seem eccentric; but is rightly endorsed by Leif Bersweden in Where the Wildflowers Grow, which vividly describes the botanical journey through Britain and Ireland he undertook last year. He was born in 1994 and, unusually for his generation, has been a keen amateur botanist since childhood. There was a time, not

A guide to the apothecary’s garden

On 23 May 1804, two months before his daughter’s wedding, John Coakley Lettsom threw open his estate in Camberwell. Some 800 guests made their way to Grove Hill, with its panoramic views across the Thames to London. A leading doctor and noted philanthropist, a prolific author on matters medical, social and moral, Lettsom was famously convivial. But if any of his guests had been expecting music, dancing and cards, they were in for a disappointment. Lettsom was a Quaker — though not of the strictest variety — and the evening’s entertainment centred on ‘rational pleasure’. Guests were invited to view the shells, corals and minerals on display in his museum,

Every page of this astonishingly beautiful ode to the citrus is a treat

There’s an episode of Yes Minister called ‘Equal Opportunities’. Minister Jim Hacker is under pressure to recruit more women to the civil service. The hunt is on for female mandarins. ‘Ah,’ says principal private secretary Bernard. ‘Sort of… satsumas?’ At this time of year, I can’t help thinking of Bernard as I hover in the Co-op over nets of tangerines, mandarins, clementines, satsumas and ‘easy peelers’, whatever they are. ’Tis the season for citrus. For oranges at the bottom of stockings, for Buck’s Fizz on Christmas morning, for smoked salmon blinis with slices of lemon, for Milanese panettone with candied parings of peel, and for J.C. Volkamer’s The Book of

Flower power: symbols of romance and revolution

Critics have argued over the meaning of the great golden flower head to which Van Dyck points in his ‘Self-Portrait with a Sunflower’. It probably symbolises the radiant majesty of the painter’s patron, Charles I, but for Van Gogh the sunflower ‘embodied and shouted out yellow, the colour of light, warmth and happiness’. In the Victorian language of flowers the plant denoted pride or haughtiness, but its tendency to turn its head to the sun led Byron’s abject Julia to use its image on a seal for her final letter to Don Juan with the accompanying motto Elle vous suit partout. The sunflower has been adopted as an emblem by