- Author: Lee Miller
In January, I attended the 35th Eco-Farm Conference in Asilomar which is a gathering devoted to organic farming and gardening. One speaker, Deborah Madison, was the founding chef of Greens restaurant in San Francisco in 1979 and has written many influential vegetarian cookbooks. Her menus were driven by what was available fresh from local farms. Deborah talked about the importance of naming the vegetables and fruits one sells whether in co-ops or farmers markets. She cited the example of one farmer who didn't name one of his most popular vegetables for fear that other farmers would grow it and undercut his business. This was folly in Deborah's view, for people need to know the name of what they like and enjoy. How else are they to get what they want if they don't know the name?
Names can be fun too. One of my favorite plant names that I ran across years ago is ‘Drunken Woman Frizzy-Headed Lettuce. No one seems to know how ‘Drunken Woman' got into the name, but the lettuce is a savoy type, hence the frizzy-headed part. Then there is the tomato, ‘Charlie's Radiator Shop Mortgage Lifter', which is an open-pollenated, meaty variety that Charlie Byles of West Virginia bred in the Depression. He sold plants at a dollar each and paid off his shop mortgage of $6,000. It is still an heirloom favorite that is sold today by most seed catalogues with the shorter name of ‘Mortgage Lifter'. Names associated with a story supply fun to gardening.
Botanical names are scientific and come in two parts and hence are binomial. The binomial system of nomenclature was devised by Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s. The language is based on Latin and since few of us learn Latin these days, Latin names are difficult to decipher and pronounce which is a ‘turn-off' to a lot of people. However, it allows everyone to communicate in a common plant lingo. Latin is really not dead after all.
The genus is the first name part as in Echinacia and the second part is the species namepurpurea. Echinacea purpurea has a common name that most of us know as purple coneflower, a commonly planted border perennial. Most of us use common names, but common names vary by region, time and language and hence are not as reliable as botanical names, so if you want to be sure of your plant material it is good to know the Botanical name.
There are many guides to botanical names on line which explain the words origin and pronunciation. One is Botanaria located in Dave's Garden website. Another is at a Fine Gardening Magazine's website which not only provides phonetic spelling, but has an auditory button which delivers a voice correctly pronouncing the name. Botanical names can really help you with plant descriptions. Micro means small, phylla means leaf, and hence microphylla is a small leafed plant. Albus means white, so you can bet that blooms or some part of the plant is white. Learning these descriptors helps with plant knowledge over time.
There are over 20,000 named Dahlias, 7500 tomatoes, over 6500 rose varieties. There are about 1,000 new cultivars of daylilies registered annually with the American Hemerocallis Society, which means that there are about 73,000 now. One has to wonder how people come up with new names. Examples from the daylily clan show the diversity. There are 137 with ‘plum' in the name; for example Plum Crazy', ‘Plum Cute', ‘Plum Dandy', ‘Plum Perfect', and even ‘Plum Plum'. Daylilies with “peach” in their names number 314, and 148 daylilies use ‘cherry', and 84 use ‘apple'. I pity the registrar-of-names for these plant societies who have to keep track.
Keeping track of the plants we have in our own gardens is a chore and alas I have forgotten and lost track of quite a few despite my attempts at journaling plantings. I recommend it nonetheless, so when someone asks you ‘What is that beautiful blooming shrub?'; you will supply a correct name.