Name Game

I understand the importance of nomenclature. Names matter. Working in a biological science, it is incumbent on one to know the scientific name of a microbe or any other living subject – so critical to ones understanding. Yet, as a gardener, I have been less than diligent.

This lapse is due to some laziness on my part. While I’m good with knowing the Genus, I haven’t tried very hard on the species or variety. If I know them, it is really because it came to me without effort. But for a large number of plants, I tend to rely on my archive of plant labels to recall the exact type. I know, that is inexcusable.

The other reason is that all too often, we gardeners use common and botanical names interchangeably. Common names are fine as long as one restricts their use regionally. The colloquial titles can change across the country. I like common names of plants because they’re typically on point in description as in ‘coneflower’ or ‘lady’s mantle’ or, in purpose/usage as in ‘bee balm’ or ‘butterfly weed’. Either way, they are easy to identify. Frankly, common names are charming and often amusing.

Fun fact: Sometimes, the common names of herbs are downright macabre. According to author Sabrina Jeffries, this was so herbalists and healers could conceal their recipes for medicinal potions and lotions from their clients. For example, ‘eye of newt’ as in the witches brew in Macbeth, is actually mustard seed! Similarly, ‘toe of frog’ is buttercup and ‘tooth of wolf’ is monkshood. By giving ominous titles, a mystery or secret was maintained.

Botanical labels are more tricky. While still mostly descriptive, they are generally in Latin or Greek. So unless one is, at the very least, passingly fluent in them and can therefore interpret the names, it means the scientific designations must be memorized. Easier said than done.

Once out of the regional area, the easiest way to speak with other gardeners is by way of the proper names of plants. All over the world, this is the agency of communication. After all, botany is a science. That fact is often overlooked because unlike other sciences that require work in laboratories and under specific conditions and procedures, gardening is possible anywhere and by just about anybody. The garden itself is perhaps the oldest laboratory. Humans have been working the soil from time immemorial. We learned what worked and what didn’t as we went along. And we labeled the plants as we saw fit. Until Linnaeus came along and created order in the chaos of common names. Thank goodness.

As I pottered around my garden over the past weekend, I was appalled over how few of the species names I remembered. It’s mostly because I’ve simply not taken the trouble to commit them to memory. ‘If I can look it up, why bother memorizing?’ Well, the truth is, I don’t often look up the entire names unless I have to. This is despite the fact that I’ve long admired my gardener friends and mentors who not only use only the scientific names but also remember them without effort. Some of these friends are my seniors by several years if not a decade or two. So age is not an excuse I can make for my ignorance or forgetfulness.

I’m resolved to do better. Just like it is not cool to say one is bad at remembering names of people, it is equally uncool to ignore plant names. No buts about it. As a gardener worth my soil, I pledge to step up my game. It’ll be a process as I’m still a work in progress. But then, so is my garden.

Note: Don’t miss out on contributing to the ACLU whilst acquiring something beautiful for your home or somebody else’s! Stock is limited. Your support is needed. Thank you!

Some flowers currently in bloom:

Echinacea purpurea/purple coneflower with yellow swallowtail

Agapanthus/Lily Of The Nile with yellowswallowtail

Helenium autumnale/sneezeweed

Monarda fistulis/wild bergamot

Lobelia cardinalis/Cardinal flower

Asclepias incarnata/Rose milkweed

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar