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On The Eroticism Of Flowers; Or How Plants Can Be Sensual


An 18th century tribute to the Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, portrays flowers and their reproductive systems in lush illustrations.

Flowers benefit from multiple human qualifiers. They’re beautiful, romantic, strange, even wise, and definitely, sensual. One old book portrays them in precisely this way, touched by their strange eroticism: New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus Von Linnaeus by Robert John Thornton. It was published in three parts between 1799 and 1807, and its most celebrated section, that which has continued to attract the attention of scientists and artists for more than two centuries, is the third part, titled Temple of Flora or Garden of Nature.

The book began as an illustrated homage to the Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), father of taxonomy and whose method of species classification is used to this day. A zoologist and botanist, Linnaeus also made extensive studies of plant breeding systems, and this would give rise to Thornton’s book —an undertaking that would take nearly ten years to complete and which would bankrupt him.

Thornton took up the task of assembling a team of collaborators, important artists of the time, who would majestically illustrate Linnaeus’ studies and observations. The work was conceived and executed as an florilegium —a collection of detailed, realistic, and accurate plant images created specifically for this occasion. The kind of books are deeply valued for the amount of work involved in their production: paintings, lithographs, and engravings, finished nearly always, with hand-painted details. In the case of New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus Von Linnaeus, every plate records the plants in their reproductive phases in detail.  

The universe of flowers and their forms resonate not just with the physiology of our own sexual organs, but already in this eroto-botanical exercise, they appeal to a primary seduction through color, presuming a parade of fertility and enjoying a most harmonic promiscuity. Just a few moments into an observation of the book’s illustrations one can count on seeing every component of their erotic essence.


Images: Public domain

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