Who is the father of plant taxonomy

Free University of Berlin

Professor Lack, the Linnean Society honors you for your life's work. When you look back on what you have achieved, what are you particularly proud of?

My work is unusual for a biologist in that I never let myself be tied down to any particular area. I've always had a wide variety of interests. For example, my research on the chestnut leaf miner, a small butterfly, has been widely read and cited. Insects are not one of my main research interests. I am particularly proud of a frequently quoted, fundamental work on the exploration of the flora of Greece, Cyprus and western Turkey.

You became known as a plant researcher. Is there a plant that particularly fascinates you?

I wrote my doctoral thesis on bitter herbs (picris). Soon afterwards, Australian colleagues sent me material from Picris species native to there. Underneath was a plant that immediately caught my eye. I knew straight away that it was new to science, that is, it had not yet been described. I then cultivated and examined them. It was a very conspicuous, easily recognizable plant: head-shaped inflorescences, similar to the dandelion, but a good two meters high, widely branched. Long blond hair hung from their heads. They reminded me of my wife Eva, so I dedicated the plant to her and named it Picris evae.

How did you get interested in botany?

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family home with a garden. My parents also kept beekeeping. So I was in nature a lot early on, and later I had good biology teachers. When I was 15, I wrote a flora for the park that belonged to my high school in Vienna, i.e. a list of trees and bushes. These were my first steps towards botany.

You studied biology in Vienna and, after completing your doctoral thesis, took up a scientific position at the Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum in Berlin-Dahlem. What were your tasks there?

At first I was only responsible for part of the herbarium. My area of ​​responsibility expanded quickly, and I was in charge of the very extensive library and publications of the institution. As a result, I grew into the history of biodiversity research. In biology, the exact naming of organisms is very important. There is an international convention that the oldest name of a plant must be used. You have to go back to May 1, 1753. On this day, Carl von Linné introduced the binary nomenclature, since then the name of each species has consisted of two elements, the generic name and the species name - such as Homo sapiens for modern humans. The consequence of this work was that I also had to deal with the state of knowledge at the time, where the collections were and where the researchers were traveling.

In addition to the history of plants, you have dealt a lot with botanical illustration. Today photography is very well developed, do we still need scientific draftsmen?

Think about the complexity of an orchid flower. A draftsman can depict these, including sections and different levels. A photo is still inferior to a drawing to this day. True-to-life illustrations give an impression of a plant very quickly and very effectively; the essential characteristics of a plant can be recognized quickly - better than in a long text.

They were given an award named after him on May 23, the birthday of Carl von Linné. What does Linnaeus mean for your work?

Linnaeus was the father of botany - for three reasons. He developed the so-called sexual system, with which large groups of plants can be effectively differentiated from one another. He introduced binary nomenclature. And he was a person who knew how to communicate his knowledge effectively. For example, he has described the beauty of late spring in Scandinavia in texts that are as popular in Sweden as Goethe is here. It's a fascinating mix when someone has an analytical-critical mind, but is also a good mediator.

You worked at the Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum for 39 years, now you are retiring. How will you stay connected to the plants in the future?

I am currently working on a book about the brothers Josef, Franz and Ferdinand Bauer, three important botanical illustrators. I want to finish that, and I'm also planning one or the other course. And then I am happy to have more time for my garden and my four grandchildren.

Bianca Schröder asked the questions