Botany: 18th Century pornography

Who would have thought that in the 18th century, talking about and describing plant parts would be considered pornographic and so inappropriate to woman that books on this subject were ‘sanitized’ and mixed male & female botanical gatherings were stopped. (As an avid gardener and also botanical artist I have never thought that I would be working with pornographic material, but then I am not living in the 18th century.) This observation comes from a book called Sex, Botany & Empire; The story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks by Patricia Fara. It has been one of the most informative and entertaining books I have read on the subject of botany. Some further comments below from the book, which are by no means a full review of the book, but simply aspects that resonated with me and my practice: Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish eccentric, created the binomial plant naming system in 1732. He was a deeply religious man and believed that all the plants on earth were created by god.  He took this belief so far as to see himself as a second Adam and wanted to re-create a Garden of Eden in Sweden. He tried this by creating a large organized garden with garden beds that were divided into 4 (reflecting the 4 rivers of the Garden of Eden) and proceeded to import plants from all over the world. Thinking that he could make plants adjust to the Swedish climate, just like a human. Those plants that failed were simply considered to be weak specimens. It was not until years later, and many failures that he learned that plants need particular climates to survive. It was not until the end of the 17th century that naturalist realized that plants reproduced sexually, a matter that was not easily accepted in that century. Linnaeus used the binomial classification approach and grouped plants according to their reproductive system. He imposed the human sexual discrimination and social prejudices prevalent in those times, and imposed this onto the plant classification system he developed. This meant placing the male reproductive organs higher than the female parts (just like the white European male was of a highest standing). It was said by one of his colleagues that ‘What god created, Linnaeus organized’. The classification system was based around the flower parts of each plant, Linnaeus grouped the plant parts as follows:

  • the calyx is the bedchamber
  • the filaments the spermatic vessels
  • the anthers the testes
  • the pollen the sperm
  • the stigma the vulva
  • the style the vagina (pg 38 &39, Fara)

Reading these descriptions alone makes me look at plants and particular flowers from a different context. Many of Linnaeus’s descriptions could be almost read as a modern Mills and Boons extract: “The flowers leaves.... serve as  bridal beds  which the Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity. When now the bed is so prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and offer her his gifts.” (pg 22 Fara). (Would more people read botany if it was written like that now?) These types of passages were considered to be incorrect for the woman to read and were sanitized to make them harmless and innocent. As it was felt that the woman and her daughters were of the right intellect to study botany and take ‘healthy’ rambles gathering flowers. (pg 45 Fara) While Linnaeus was creating this classification system a chap named Joseph Banks was creating a name for himself through promiscuous behaviour. Banks became the darling of the then gossip columnist, he became known as :Botanic Macaroni” (pg 9, Fara), this label was a general term of abuse and ridicule. Joseph Banks, a man on a mission, was one of the first to encourage the use of the binomial naming system that Linnaeus had developed. Banks was a man who went from an obsession with woman to an obsession of plants. Because of his interest in woman he did himself no favours with supporting the Linnaeus system with it’s ‘explicit’ sexual references. (Banks never lost his interest in woman, as his importance raised in the social structure, so did his love for mistresses) Banks, who had inherited very well from his father, used this money and his own political savvy to travel the world to explore (his longest and biggest exploration was aboard The Endeavour for 3 years, after that he only did one more exploration of 6 weeks) and gather not only plant material, but also rocks and careful observations of the natural inhabitants that they came across. Banks was a political animal and his desire was to forge a strong relationship between Science and the British nation, with him as the main man driving this. This was to increase his own standing in the community and also to increase his own wealth. Banks was instrumental in moving plants around the British colonies to ensure Britain could become independent from the rest of the world and ensure a steady supply of goods (eg tea). It was Banks who made the Linnaean system central to British Botanical Science. It is interesting to note that a plant naming system was based on the then social structure, created by a pastor, whom considered himself the second Adam and was fully embraced by a rich, bachelor social climber with a strong interest for female company. Without either of these 2 connecting and using each others work to further themselves who knows what plant naming system we would have now and what types of ‘sexual’ plant words we would be using. This book contains many other aspects that I have not commented on, they were very interesting to read and learn more about our history, but at this moment I see them to have no relevance to my arts practice.

Posted by Elle Anderson

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