Names, Names

Ah, spring has slipped by in a wash of showers, and summer has come. Local weather always seems like it must be universal. Here in the Northwest, we’ve had a long, dank spring and a summer with little hint of sun and warmth. I bend my mind take in the reports of punishing heat and misery in the 30 states under official heat advisory. It’s been a poor summer for picnics and camping out, but an excellent one for planting a garden.

Spring planting is always problematic. Under spring rains, the soil is saturated and heavy; where you dig, you slice into goop; where you plant, the goop closes around the little roots wanting to push into soil. “Just mud ’em in,” my aunt used to say, and she went ahead and planted in the wettest conditions. But she didn’t live on clay loam like we do. Here, when you set a plant into mud, you entomb it.

But we’ve had summer rains this year, and they’re of a different character than the spring ones. They are soft, vagrant, gentle on the ground. They drain easily. A rain in the morning might cede to sun in the afternoon, and you can go ahead and weed it or dig it without penalty. Mercy knows, I have enough weedy dirt to contend with this year, what with recently excavated cavities and newly piled-up berms.

Last weekend I went plant shopping on the rainy Saturday, expecting to set things into the garden on the improved Sunday. It turned out Saturday’s rains were  intermittent, and Sunday’s rains were constant, but never mind. I spent the rainy day reading about plants rather than planting them. I researched a few of the things I’d bought (I know, this is supposed to happen before buying, but it seldom does).

I embrace botanical names. Botanical names simplify things most of the time. Sometimes not, as when botanists disagree or make changes and the rest of us haven’t been informed yet. You might notice, for instance, that when you look for “Montbretia,” you find it always listed as “Crocosmia (Montbretia),” and it takes someone more interested in taxonomy than I to know why. But for the most part, if you want a certain class of plant, it’s good to know its binomial. Going from there, if you want a specific one, you attach its variety name. For instance, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is quite different from Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie.’

Just as a note of possibly very minor interest, one of the few things I know that I can specifically place in a classroom is how to write Latin classifications. I recall exactly sitting in a university biology class when the convention of Genus species notation was conferred upon us. Write them in italics. If you have no italics, transcribe them with an underscore. Capitalize the Genus name. Write the species name in lower case. With plants, a variety name may follow, in conventional type, and enclosed in single quotation marks. Ever since, I have followed these rules with something like obsessive compulsion. I know the spirit of Professor Wirtz will haunt me otherwise.

But — no, even greater than that: BUT! Large letters and an exclamation point! (Another teacher, earlier, once impressed upon me that exclamation points are only to be used in case of earthquake or sudden transcendental knowledge.) But, BUT, I must say, the common names of plants give so much joy in the garden.

For instance, knowing that the name of the genus Dianthus, which contains pinks and carnations and Sweet Williams, derives from the Greek words dios for god and anthos for flower is, well, it’s interesting. But knowing that the common name “Pink” for these flowers, describing their pinked or jagged edges, may have given rise to our color word pink, now that makes me smile. It gives depth to the history of this little flower that has happily bloomed in gardens for centuries. In the Middle English of Chaucer, pingen, or pinken meant  “to push,” or to “prick” (I’m losing track of how to apply my italics and underscores and quotes here…). I imagine medieval sweethearts passing between them a posy of sweet-smelling pinks.

Which… that posy, you might want to know, is a variant from the word poesy, a line of verse or poetry inscribed on the inside of a finger ring. It’s first use meaning a flower or a bouquet dates from the 1570’s. That little bouquet, that posy, carried a poetic symbolism that spoke to the hearts of dear ones. By Victorian times, the symbolism of blooms was formalized into a Language of Flowers by which deeply personal allusion was passed from one lover to another. Carnations, “Clove Pinks,” might be delivered with any of these messages implicit in the posy: if white, endearment; if red, an aching heart; if pink, timeless love; if yellow…then, ” hit the road, Jack.”

Here is Dianthus ‘Raspberry Surprise.’ ‘Raspberry Surprise’ is a kind of Pink known as “Cheddar Pinks.” Why? They’re called for the area near a village named Cheddar in Somerset, England, where, one supposes, they have grown.

And we have tiny Maiden Pinks, so named because of their shy maidenly habit of closing their bloom in the evening. Here they are, awake and smiling upward:

See what fun?

The name carnation, by the way, has an uncertain history… Ah, well. You can see where this leads.

Now, to return to my bringing home of plants, among them are a couple of gallon-sized Bergenia, a large-leafed pink-flowering perennial that I think of as a grandmother’s garden kind of plant. They bloomed out of control in my grandmother’s back garden. At one time I wouldn’t have considered them for my own garden, but it may be a sign of advancing years that I now have some of my own. Bergenia is commonly called Elephant’s Ears, Heart Leaf (both for its large, evergreen leaves), and: Pigsqueak.

Pigsqueak! That’s a name that demands a second look! As it turns out, Pigsqueak is named for a most adorable characteristic of its great, flat leaves. When you rub them firmly between two fingers, they oink like a litter of pigs.

Try it. It’s true.

How can a garden not love a plant with such a name?

Now, looking over here to the next bed, we have Agastache, whose etymology traces to the Greek…


Yes, I do understand. You need to go hang out the wash, though you would much rather hear more. Well, then.

Come back soon, will you?

Published in: Uncategorized on July 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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