The Numbers of Science

There is this fascination with numbers that has always been the basis for how much of the practice of science is performed. I say ‘practice’ because scientists are performing just that–practicing what it is they do to improve upon their accomplishments over time, through a different series of professional and philosophical questions asked over and over, feeling that sense of success each time they accomplished this step a little bit better than one or more of their colleagues did before.  This fascination with numbers is why we chart out chemicals the way we do, placing Helium and Hydrogen where they are–because Helium has one more electron in its orbital shell and proton in its nucleus.  We place one planet relative to the next due to their associations with the sun.  One temperature is always considered higher than the other, unless the two happen to be exactly equal, which is not that possible in the natural world where everything can be measured based on decimal value.

For plants, people naturally first go to making use of their hands and imagination to count parts of plants, their size, the time in which they flower, the number of similarities and differences they have to each other.  This is no different than how the most sophisticated of botanists during the Colonial period tried to make sense of the relationships between all of the plants around them.  There was the clover that had three leaves, the vetch with 5, 7 or 9, the milkweed with its matched and paired leaves on the main stem, the orchid with just a solitary leaf or two, the pine tree with its needles groups in clusters or 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, with 4 missing most of the time from the local collections of pines found growing in any forest.   

Linnaeus based the bulk of his new way of classifying plants upon ascending numbers and how they were grouped.  He would count the sepals and petals, stamens and anthers, pistils and seeds, see how these parts interact–are they connected in groups? separated?  placed in the flower form as isolated pieces?  In simple terms one could argue that the skills needed to be a botanist were simply to be able to count and be able to reason through some sort of association being formed about these counts.  In simple terms, this is why Jane could become a botanist.

The “numerology” of plants is a little more than just counting leaf and flower parts however.  Numerology is a fairly recent term referring to the study of numbers.  So in this essay numerology is really a modern term being applied to the lines of reasoning that Jane had to base her philosophy of plants upon.  Numerology and the focus on numbers are features of plants that a great deal of Jane’s work seemed to rely upon.  It is not  the type of numerology we associate with superstitions and the sense of good luck or bad luck often related to numbers.  Jane’s numerological treatment of plants has mostly to do with her religious background and philosophy, something which she could personally interconnect with as a part of the grossly scientific philosophies and teachings she was otherwise learning. 

Little would one expect that subliminal signs of this part of Jane’s personal philosophy would surface as one came to understand better her lines of reasoning and methods of focusing upon plants, their numbers parts and their names, in a religious sense.   But a detailed review of the plants she writes about and their numerologic, phytognomic features were “signatures” to Jane, which only she could internalize and made personal sense of.  Jane was very much a female natural philosopher/natural theologian when she worked with her plants and flowers, doing much what a botanist might do performing the same sets of skills, but only with a female metaphysician’s touch.  The following are examples.

Christian Phytonumerics

For Jane, the Christian philosophy of numbers was easy to comprehend due to the prevalence of such things throughout the Old and New Testaments.    There was first the unity, followed by the duality of good and evil, and then the two most important numbers in a Christian philosophical sense–three, the sign of trinity, and four, the sign of the cross.  Whereas the “paganistic” look at such a thing as tetrads (4s) might focus on such commonalities as the four seasons that mankind’s mind has defined, the four directions we imagine to exist on earth, the four humours of life and the body, if we are so trained by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, the tetrad or foursome to Christians could best be interpreted as a sign of verification of their beliefs.  Since this sign was found in nature through plantforms, it had only one source or origin and one predesigned meaning.

But there are other numbers in the holy writings that are also in plants, that some philosophers have come to know.  The pentacle, the hexad, the septar, the octagon, the nonagram, and the decissima complete the count from one to ten, followed by a few other significant signature numbers some philosophers might look for in plants, such as duodecima (12 or the tetrad times trinity) and forty (as in days and nights, etc.).  To botanists, these numbers are what they are, counts of the different plant parts.

To most religious-minded botanists like Jane, believers and questioners about the Garden of Eden, only the first few numbers were most important to understanding the “G-d-given” Christian signatures and philosophies of plants.  This is why certain plants are treated with special interest and unique entry by Jane, even though she does not outwardly mention this trait of each species she is covering, except in the Linnaean sense. 

It is the ongoing build up of these behaviors in her work that brings this interpretation of Jane’s work to light regarding her metaphysical interpretation of plants as a taxonomist.  For the time, Jane’s sense of the plant was therefore somewhat different than that of her father perhaps, but mostly in the gender-related sense, and not at all in a purely philosophical sense.  We know that her father Cadwallader was very much into the natural philosophy of science and its link to religion.  The same might be said about Jane, but only in a more humanistic and symbolic sense.  Without this notion Cadwallader would have never placed himself above Isaac Newton on the pedestle of science, writing his much more metaphysical interpretation of Newton’s universal theory that was published a decade or two earlier.  In botany, Cadwallader was only the mechanist and physically-minded scientist this time, and Jane was his metaphysical counterpart.

Jane’s Personal Nomenclature

Jane assigned popular and personal names to many of the plants she discussed.  These names reveal some of the otherwise hidden persona of Jane in her work as a scientist with her manuscript.   We know a number of the names Jane used are standard, even though they are rarely noted in too many other places.  We know this because most of Jane’s names of general local, cultural and historical significance appear in A. B. Lyon’s Plant Names, Scientific and Popular (Nelson, Baker and Company, Detroit, 1907), a remarkably detailed book on this topic–the only way plants can be better understood and identified in most of the historical writings dating back to the Colonial period. The contents of this book along with Jane’s descriptions and drawings enable well-trained botanists to finally develop a complete understanding of Jane’s work and its importance on the local heritage of the Hudson Valley region.

The following plant names illustrate Jane’s curiosity, admiration, respect, fascination, and perhaps even obsession at times with the religious undertones of many of the plants found in the wild.  Three broad classes can be defined for Jane’s naming behaviors–her respect for the trinity, her respect of tetrads and the Christian Cross, her respect for the images of sainthood revealed by plants.  Jane’s names are the most revealing part of her writing style for this work in terms of the romanticism of this period, as later appreciated and written down by Jane Austen.  Were it not for the fact that some of these names were so unusual and very hard to trace, this religiophilia-based review of Jane’s work might have not even been developed.  Her most unusual and revealing clues to this fascination she had about religion and nature we can see by her use of the name Cruciatu (Cruciati?) in reference to the cruciform shape of the leave of this plant–for which the name is most unusual if not solitary in nature and unique in plant writings due to Jane’s manuscript.  Her focus on the three-leaf pattern of Staphylea was another name that stood out since this 3-leaf pattern depicts only a part of the plant’s distinct, identifiable features.  Her apparent mistaken identity of a 3-leaflet structure of Geum (Avens) for Potentilla added to this pattern she seemed to be producing, and likewise for the ‘Arum Three Leaved’ (actually Arisaema, Jack in the Pulpit).  

The following lists of plants depicts Jane’s numerology perspective of the Plantae:


  • No. 84  Oxis [sic] Wood Sorrel
  • No. 148.  Potentilla (perhaps actually Geum)
  • No. 178  Staphylea, Staphylodendon, Three Leaved Bladder Nut
  • No. 197  (unnamed, but from leaf drawing we can deduce Apios)
  • No. 232 Hepatica  Liverwort
  • No. 237  Paris  The three Leaved purple flower’d herb Trulove
  • No. 238 (unidentified three-leaf form)
  • No. 241.  Panax [trifolia]
  • No. 243 (unidentifed 3-leaf form)
  • No. 244  Leontice
  • No. 249  Arum Three Leaved
  • No. 298  Rudbeckia triloba
  • No. 312  Filipendula


  • No. 70 Lysimachia quadrifolia
  • No. 150 Cruciata Crosswort
  • No. 189  Silene

Sainthood and other historical religious figures

  • No. 54.  Convallaria.  S’alomons Seal.
  • No. 239 Chrisosplenium

Now, according to simple natural laws, the numbers 3 and 4 are most likely to be seen everywhere plants grow.  This is part of the nature of the evolution of plant form, be it a rule of divine origin or not.  The cultural definition of these features or forms as religious symbols however is very much the result of human psychology and behavior, along with the production of names to help define other forms of religious symbolism like the the Seal of King Solomon or the symbols of St. John (St. John’s Wort), St. Mary (marigold), St. Andrew (St. Andrew’s Cross),  St. Peter (St. Peterswort), or St. Ignatius (St. Ignatius’s Bean or Strychnine bean).  Equally important in European culture were the symbols of Royalty like Queen Anne’s Lace and the Fleur-de-lis form of the Wild Iris.  Evidence for this appears throughout the writings of New France and New England travels during the 17th and early 18th centuries.  So, in a simple human behavioral sense, Jane’s attention paid to some of these signs may have in fact just been part of the norm for her time, reminiscent of the much stronger followers of faith travelling the New World in the past.  For this reason, I take Jane’s numerology to be a fairly understandable continuation of the philosophy from the past, with a little more of a natural philosophy edge perhaps than the standard natural theology preached by her grandfather Alexander in Scotland.  Due to the discovery and documentation of the evolutionary process by scientists, other scientists like Cadwallader and Jane followed in these footsteps, themselves demonstrating the evolution of man’s thinking process as the natural sciences were better understood.