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What’s in a (Plant) Name?

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the US president had a rose named after her. She was duly gratified – until she studied the cultivation notes which explained, “No good in a bed; better against a wall.”

Green-ThoughtsGardening
By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 14 October 2018, 11:00AM


At least she could joke about it. New cultivars are often named after celebrities. Hybrid tea roses top the list with names such as “Elizabeth Taylor”, “Dusty Springfield” and “Jacqueline du Pre”. There is a pink shrub rose named after the creator of the herbaceous border, Gertrude Jekyll, even roses that pay homage to pop groups such as “Pink Floyd”, or hit singles such as “A Whiter Shade of Pale”. No prizes for guessing the rose’s colour.

The fashion is less in evidence with tropical shrubs. But a striking mussaenda honours Queen Sirikit (it is, of course, named after Thailand’s Queen) and many plants contain the name of the botanist who discovered or bred them, and are therefore included as part of the Latinate tag – for example a white ixora is called ixora finlaysoniana. Again, a natural mutant dieffenbachia, accidentally found in the Roehrs’ nursery in New Jersey in 1936 is the form from which most mottled cultivars have since been spawned. Its name: “Rudolph Roehrs”.

Some names are more revealing about plants. When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I thought Japonica was the name of a shrub in our English garden. But Japonica merely means that it is a native of Japan – just as alpinus means ‘from the Alps’, borealis – ‘from the north’, or montanus - ‘from the mountains’. The term could be, and is, attached to other plants.

Nonetheless, the Japanese quince (chaenomeles) is usually the shrub in question, maybe because the first name (which is always the name of the species) is such a mouthful. A very pretty shrub too, with glowing red flowers produced in early European spring on nearly leafless branches.

If Japonica gives you a clue that a plant prefers cooler conditions than Phuket’s, some epithets refer, more specifically, to the colour of the blooms, the shape of the leaves or the habit of the plant. Thus albus is ‘white’, argenteus - ‘silvery’, coccineus – ‘red’ (as in Ixora coccineus), luteus - ‘yellow’.

An acerifolius shrub has maple-like foliage, quercifolius means ‘oak-like’, laurifolius - ‘laurel-like’. Most of these epithets are easy to work out because there are similar English words, but I suppose a classical education does help. After all, the Latin for oak tree is quercus.

The overall shape of a plant may be described as altus (tall), arboreus (tree-like), contortus (twisted), scandens (scrambling or climbing), compactus (bushy and compact). Imperialis or spectabilis (as in bougainvillea) means ‘showy’, maculatus means ‘mottled’ as in the aforementioned dieffenbachia.

It’s worth remembering that a cultivar (which is shorthand for cultivated variety) is normally marked with an ‘x’ to indicate which two species or existent varieties have been crossed to produce the new hybrid. The new cultivar’s name - for example “Queen Sirikit” is not italicised, but enclosed in quotation marks.

You may well wonder why people bother with these complex and often long-winded titles. After all, many plants have common names which describe them admirably – “red cat’s tail”, “scrambled eggs”, “buzy lizzie”, “spider lily”, “powder puff”, “stag’s horn fern” and so on.

But scientific names are more precise than common ones; indeed some nicknames are used confusingly for more than one plant. “Black-eyed Susan” or “Spanish broom” are cases in point.

It is of course even better if you can learn the Thai names as well, for these are the ones known to local horticulturalists and nurserymen. Dok meaning ‘flower’ is a start. But if it is all too much hassle, just remember to carry an illustrated book around with you.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.


Patrick has been writing for ten years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics.
If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please contact him at drpaccampbell@gmail.com. Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found at Wordpress: Green Galoshes.

 

 

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