Monday, December 17, 2007 | | editorial, F.A.Q., greenhouse
Everything has a name. And thank goodness because it’s so much easier that way. Just think if Linnaeus hadn’t shared his system for classifying everything we’d have to identify things through a key-full of qualifiers (you know that tree with the leaves? – No, not that one – I mean the one with the glabrous twigs and leaves that have 5 lobes which are slightly dentate …. oh nevermind.) Or we’d be left with common names and those can be frustrating too – one person’s kinnikinick is another’s bearberry and it makes my head hurt how many flowering plants are called by some kind of “lily” name.
I spend a lot of time with plants and names and labels. And no matter how diligent I am, there is always something unlabeled along with someone -like me!- who will want to know its name. If I see an unlabeled unfamiliar plant, I’ll need to know what it is. Need to know! The thing that gets me is that my desire to know the name doesn’t always have anything to do with wanting to acquire the plant. I seem to just need to know what it is for no other reason than to know what it is. It’s as if knowing a name reveals some sort of hidden treasure of knowledge. And it does – It’s the key that unlocks the door to a good google search! Take this plant: its genus-and-species name is Cardiandra formosana.
If I knew more Latin I might be able to infer something about some characteristic of the plant that inspired the taxonomist. Something to do with a heart shape somewhere maybe? It takes some research to find out that this plant is related to hydrangeas and might survive a mild winter here.
I’ve recently tried to get in the habit of including the common names of plants on the labels because a lot of people ask for those too. Common names can illuminate an interesting feature on the plant and some refer to a plant’s particular usefulness and that’s all fun stuff to learn. I think it’s good to know the Latin name if you’re wanting to buy a certain plant – it’s more likely you’ll get exactly what you want. That said, it’s a lot easier to remember (and spell) “trout lily”, for instance, than Erythronium! (Nevermind that it’s also called “adder’s tongue” and “dog-tooth violet” among a bunch of other names that might not all fit on my label for it…)
How do you feel about plant names? Do you like to know the common names or the Latin or both? Which name do you use when you shop? Do you like to see labels in a public garden? Do you label the plants in your own garden? And just for fun – do ever re-name your plants like pets or the Harry Potter herbology? (I remember reading something somewhere about a garden full of Bobotubers and fanged geraniums… How fun is that?!)