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Identification Keys, the “Natural Method,” and the Development of Plant Identification Manuals

Abstract

The origins of field guides and other plant identification manuals have been poorly understood until now because little attention has been paid to 18th century botanical identification guides. Identification manuals came to have the format we continue to use today when botanical instructors in post-Revolutionary France combined identification keys (step-wise analyses focusing on distinctions between plants) with the “natural method” (clustering of similar plants, allowing for identification by gestalt) and alphabetical indexes. Botanical works featuring multiple but linked techniques to enable plant identification became very popular in France by the first decade of the 19th century. British botanists, however, continued to use Linnaeus’s sexual system almost exclusively for another two decades. Their reluctance to use other methods or systems of classification can be attributed to a culture suspicious of innovation, anti-French sentiment and the association of all things Linnaean with English national pride, fostered in particular by the President of the Linnean Society of London, Sir James Edward Smith. The British aversion to using multiple plant identification technologies in one text also helps explain why it took so long for English botanists to adopt the natural method, even after several Englishmen had tried to introduce it to their country. Historians of ornithology emphasize that the popularity of ornithological guides in the 19th and 20th centuries stems from their illustrations, illustrations made possible by printing technologies that improved illustration quality and reduced costs. Though illustrations are the most obvious features of late 19th century and 20th century guides, the organizational principles that make them functional as identification devices come from techniques developed in botanical works in the 18th century.

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Acknowledgements

The research for this article was supported by a SSHRC Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship for Sara Scharf (2003–2006) and a Library and Archives Visiting Fellowship at King’s College London (2007). Mary P. “Polly” Winsor, Charissa Varma, Nadia Talent, three anonymous reviewers, and, especially, Staffan Müller-Wille and Renzo Baldasso provided helpful feedback on draft versions.

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Correspondence to Sara T. Scharf.

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Scharf, S.T. Identification Keys, the “Natural Method,” and the Development of Plant Identification Manuals. J Hist Biol 42, 73–117 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-008-9161-0

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Keywords

  • field guide
  • history of botany
  • Lamarck
  • Candolle
  • natural method
  • keys