If you ask a horticulturist or serious gardener to identify a plant there is a good chance they will give you an earful of botanic nomenclature packed with a Linnean mashup of Latin, Greek, German and Anglo-Saxon words that will eventually make your eyes glass over. For botanists it’s a serious business full of rules and regulations, all governed by a mysterious organization called the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. But for everyone else, it’s a bewildering secret language they would rather do without.
Occasionally I’m guilty of launching into a barrage of botanic mispronunciations when asked a question about a plant, but after the dust settles from epithets like “glyptostroboides, macrophyllum and divaricatissimus,” the second question is always, “But what’s the name in plain English?”
That’s why it’s sometimes refreshing to use common names, like the ones our ancestors might have come up with when they pointed at plants in the primeval forest and grunted, “looks like that big yellow thing in the sky,” “makes my tummy hurt,” or “goes good with roast mastodon.”
But, because there are no rules, common names can be just as baffling as all of that complicated Latin lingo, and a huge pile of vaguely descriptive terms have evolved over the years, from the abstract to the bizarre – to a downright abuse of poetic licence.
Of course, some of them still make sense. Morning glory flowers in the morning and bloodroot oozes a bright red sap when cut. Even cowslip might have merit to describe the consequences of picking primula in damp fertile meadows where they grow among the cowpies. But who would have thought that the common name ‘pansy’ was derived from the French word ‘to think’ (penser) because its flowerheads resemble the nodding faces of someone who appears to be thinking?
Then there are the weirdly descriptive ones, such as devils walking stick, corpse plant, monkey puzzle tree and red-hot poker that only seem logical once you see them in the flesh. But, for the sake of politeness (and your marriage), I wouldn’t recommend pointing to the sharp spiked foliage of Sansevieria trifasciata and shouting, “Mother-in-law’s tongue!” within earshot of certain relatives.
When romance is thrown into the mix of common names, things really start to go off the rails. Amorous monikers like kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, love-lies-bleeding, Cupid’s dart, love-in-a-mist, and forget-me-not all sound as if they were plucked straight from a compilation of Shakespearean sonnets or a list of contenders for the Kentucky Derby.
But if I had to pick a winner in the wacky naming sweepstakes it would have to be the branding and mass merchandizing of all the new varieties and cultivars of coleus. Enthusiastic breeders have created so many new types – from an elegant deep purple to the appearance of a well-dressed pizza – that they have had to invent hundreds of nutty names to go with them. Catalogues are bursting with hare-brained tags like Keystone kopper, bada bing, grape expectations, September divorce, screaming raspberry, and my own personal favourite, killer klown.
And you really have to wonder what a couple of growers were thinking when they named their two new varieties ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘Texas parking lot.’
I usually put a few thousand of these dependable annuals in the ground each spring, and trying to remember the eccentric names of the thirty new varieties I’ll be scattering all over the place this year might be a bit of a trick. No problem though – if anyone asks about an exotic specimen I’ll just take a page from the breeders playbook and answer with, “Oh, that’s the new Keystone kopper chasing the schizophrenic killer klown in a Texas parking lot variety.”
Steven Chadwick is a professional gardener and horticulturist, and longtime Beach resident