Linnæus’ Classification and The English Yew

The Emglish Yew

Linnæus’s system of classification covers all living things, but we explain it here through that most iconic of our hedging plants – The English Yew…

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Linnæus and The English Yew

Every living thing is now first divided into one of six (five in Britain and elsewhere – if you know a taxonomist perhaps they can explain why) fundamental Kingdoms: Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protoctista, and Prokaryota/Monera. Since his time, the microscopic world has been discovered and explored – hence the last two kingdoms.
Given this, we can return to our friend Taxus baccata, the first Yew to be classified by Linnæus. Its full classification is:
Kingdom: Plantae – plants.
Phylum: Tracheophyta – “land plants that have lignified tissues (the xylem) for conducting water and minerals throughout the plant.”
Class: Pinopsida  – “gymnosperms, cone-bearing seed plants with vascular tissue.” In other words, all conifers past and present – extinct plants in the fossil record are categorised within the same system
Order: Pinales – all extant conifers.
Family: Taxaceae – all c.30 species of Yew
Genus: Taxus – Yews that “have reddish bark, lanceolate, flat, dark-green leaves 1–4 cm long and 2–3 mm broad, arranged spirally on the stem, but with the leaf bases twisted to align the leaves in two flat rows either side of the stem.”
Species: T. baccata – the English Yew!
Incidentally, because all Yews are so similar, debate about the classification of some species is ongoing, though the classification of The English Yew is not under debate.
But why did Linnæus chose Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek? The answer is simple – in the 18th century, Latin was still prevalent in academia with the additional advantage of being an essentially fixed language. Latin was immune from the grammatical and lexicographical changes that keep living languages alive.
We shouldn’t complain, though – had Linnæus written in his vernacular we would now all be struggling with 18th century Swedish. Give me Latin any day!