Friday, January 13, 2017

The Alphabet of Plants

Snow event at Buchholz Nursery

Looking at my Master Plant List I wonder if I have a plant genus beginning with every letter of the alphabet. Then further I'll see if I can find the generic name origin. I was holed up at home over the weekend, fretting about snow and freezing rain, and listening to the weather lady enthusiastically describing our “wintery mix” evolving into a “wintery mess.” Indeed it all unfolded just the way she described, and now on Monday I am all alone at work with the crew preferring to stay in their beds. Least I slip and fall outside I'll keep my fire burning this morning inside with my books.

Acanthus spinosus

A is for Acanthus. It is derived from Greek akanthos, a “prickle,” as some species feature spiny foliage. With Acanthus spinosus the specific name also refers to the foliage. I have had one in the garden for years, and every summer it sends up 3-4' flower spikes. This eastern Mediterranean perennial's leaves have lent their shape to the carved motifs used to decorate the capitals of Corinthian columns.

Bergenia 'Angel Kiss'

Bergenia 'Pink Dragonfly'

B is for Bergenia, a genus of spring-blooming perennials which display purple-red leaves in fall and winter. They were named for Karl August von Bergen (1704-1759), a German physician and botanist by fellow botanist Conrad Moench, the latter who also named the plant genus Echinacea. I have seen Bergenia in the Himalaya – probably B. ciliata – growing on drippy mossy cliffs, but what I grow and sell are patented hybrids, where the originator keeps it secret as to the hybrids' parent stock.

Parodia magnifica

C is for cactus, from Greek kaktos, a name used by Theophrastus (371 BC - 287 BC) for an unknown prickly plant; but now cactus has been dropped as a generic term and is just the English name for members of the family Cactaceae. The “cactus” shown above is Parodia magnifica, a native to southern Brazil just like our intern Rodridgo.

Delosperma basuticum

D is for Delosperma, from Greek delos to “manifest” and sperma for “seed.” The species above – basuticum – comes from South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains and amazingly is hardy to USDA zone 4, or -30 degrees F. Delosperma are commonly called “ice plants” due to hairs on the leaf surface that reflect light in such a way that they appear to sparkle like ice crystals. Flowers come in a kaleidoscope of unreal colors, such as purple, yellow and white, and it's not really a plant that I want in my garden even though I can appreciate the genus in another's (perhaps cactus) garden. I think the basuticum photo was taken in southern California at the Huntington Botanic Garden.

Echinacea purpurea 'Ruby Star'

E is for Echinacea, and I mentioned earlier that the German botanist Moench named it even though all species of the “coneflowers” are native to the United States. The generic name is derived from Greek echinos for “hedgehog” due to the prickly flower heads. The same company that provides my Bergenia also peddles lots of Echinacea and while I have a few in the garden, I have resisted the urge to grow them for sale. I have never taken Echinacea as medicine like the hippies do to boost their immune systems and alleviate pain. Great Plains Indians used it for headaches, snake bites, sore throats, stomach aches and tooth aches. It is also claimed that Echinacea can relieve anxiety, which might be helpful for me because I'm always worrying about one thing or another.

Fuchsia magellanica var. pumila

Ferdinand Magellan
F is for Fuchsia which was named after Leonard Fuchs, a 14th century German botanist. There are probably thousands of Fuchsia hybrids, but I'm content in my garden to only grow the hardy F. magellanica var. pumila which comes from Chile and Argentina. The specific name is for the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan of course. My plants die back in winter, so I prune them to keep the shrub less unsightly. When my daughter was five she would attach a Fuchsia blossom to her earlobes with scotch tape. Now that she is thirteen her ears are pierced for the real stuff, but in my opinion – which she and no one else wants – the Fuchsias were far more beautiful.

Gaultheria tricophylla
Gaultheria shallon

G is for Gaultheria, an ericaceous genus that commemorates botanist and physician Dr. Gaulthier of Quebec. Both of my properties contain Gaultheria shallon, and the specific epithet is an old Native American name. The common name of salal was from the Chinook Jargon, a pidgin trade language developed in the Pacific Northwest. Shallon was a native word recorded by Lewis and Clarke as shelwel or shellwell and it was used both as food and medicinally. G. shallon was introduced to Britain in 1828 by David Douglas, and I'm sure he tripped on plenty of it as he tromped through the Oregon woods. My favorite Gaultheria species is tricophylla (hairy-leaved) for its brilliant berries. The photo above was taken in the Indian Himalaya at about 12,000' where it crept only a few inches above the ground.

Hemerocallis 'Moon Traveler'

H is for Hemerocallis, from Greek hemeros for “a day” and kallos for “beauty,” and of course they are known as “daylilies” as their blossoms only last one day. I don't care for this Asian genus nearly as much as I do the true Lillium genus, but Hemerocallis is so easy to grow and tough that one must give it due respect. One characteristic of the thousands of hybrids is that they are frequently given goofy names like 'So Excited', 'Holy Mackerel', 'Root Beer', 'Russian Rhapsody', 'Moon Traveler' and the like. Please....

Illicium anisatum 'Red Leaf'
Illicium parviflorum 'Florida Sunshine'

I is for Illicium, and the name is derived from Latin illicio, to attract or allure, referring to the aromatic perfume. I. anisatum is from Japan and China and its bark was and is used as incense, and a synonym for the specific epithet is I. religiosum. I couldn't pass up an Illicium parviflorum 'Florida Sunshine', and I ordered it from Plant Delights Nursery based on their fanciful description: “As the weather cools in fall, the leaf color brightens to screaming yellow [emphasis mine] then becomes a near parchment color by midwinter. During the same time, the upper stems take on a brilliant red cast, contrasting vividly with the leaves.” They claim that 'Florida Sunshine' is hardy to USDA zone 6, -10 degrees F, but so far I have kept my plant in the protective confines of GH20.

Jovibarba heuffelii 'Gold Bug'

By Jove!

J is for Jovibarba, or “the beard of Jupiter.” Ten years ago I didn't grow a single cultivar and now we have a nice collection. I'll admit that I still can't tell a Jovibarba from a similar genus, Sempervivum, without the label. The specific name heuffelii was named for Johann (Janos) Heuffel, a 19th century Hungarian physician. The best part about both Jovibarba and Sempervivum is the 100% propagating results, and I think children should get into the act for wholesome fun. That's better than spending every waking hour with their digital gadgets.

Koelreuteria paniculata

K is for Koelreuteria, a flowering tree in the Sapindaceae family, the same family as my beloved maples. The Asian genus was named by Erik Laxmann, a Finnish-Swedish clergyman, explorer and natural scientist for German botanist Joseph Gottlieb Kolreuter (1733-1806). I had a Koelreuteria paniculata between the house and a Thuja hedge. It grew too large and the only solution was to cut it down, though I was sad to do so. But every few years a seedling will sprout from within the hedge and lean out towards the road. I never replaced the big tree, so I could say that I don't grow it any more, except for my little visitors frequently peeking out from the hedge.

Lapageria rosea
Lapageria rosea (albino form)

Empress Josephine
L is for Lapageria, the Chilean bellflower vine. The single species in the genus is rosea, although albino flowers can develop. The scientific name honors the Empress Josephine Lapagerie of France, Napoleon's wife, because of her devotion to botany. She was the first to grow it in Europe, taken to France by one of the Empress' botanists. I purchased or was given a start by Sonoma Horticultural Nursery in California, and eventually I had a dozen vines that were staked in one-gallon pots. They grew to five feet in height and bloomed every years. I thought they would look nice in our cute 7” cedar boxes, which are hardly any larger than the 6” diameter one-gallon pot. They resented the move – they are known to be difficult – and every one of them stood pouting for three or four years, refusing to prosper but choosing not to die either. Also they stopped flowering, so eventually I made myself feel better by dumping the lot.

Mammillaria geminispina

Mammillaria aljibensis

M...mmm. There is no shortage of generic plant names that begin with “m.” I could go with Magnolia, named by Linnaeus in honor of Pierre Magnol, a professor of botany and medicine at Montpellier in the 16th century. Or perhaps with Mahonia, named for Bernard McMahon, the nurseryman who served as curator for the plants collected by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But no – I think I'll go with Mammillaria due to its double “m's,” appropriately from Latin mamma for the “breast,” or mammilla for a “nipple” due to the tubercules found on many species. Linnaeus first described it as Cactus mammillaris in 1753, and most of the “pincushion” species come from Mexico but I have also seen them in Arizona. My wife keeps a few Mammillaria on the kitchen window sill and they bloom and thrive with her total neglect, and I think it might be steam from the stove that nourishes them.

Nepenthes species 

Helen of Troy

N is for Nepenthes, a fascinating carnivorous tropical perennial. The name is from Greek meaning “without care,” alluding to a passage in the Odyssey where Helen drugged the wine so as to free the men from grief and care. According to Linnaeus: “If this is not Helen's Nepenthes, it certainly will be for all botanists. What botanist would not be filled with admiration if, after a long journey, he should find this wonderful plant. In his astonishment past ills would be forgotten when beholding this admirable work of the Creator!” Linnaeus first published the name Nepenthes in 1737 when describing N. distillatoria from Sri Lanka. Interestingly monkeys have been observed to drink from Nepenthes, and they are commonly called a “pitcher plant.”

Oxalis bowiei

Oxalis tetraphylla 'Iron Cross'

Oxalis corniculata

Oxalis stricta

O is for Oxalis, the name coming from Greek oxis and means “acid” due to the acidity of the leaves of many species. At its best some Oxalis species are wonderful rock garden and woodland perennials. I like O. bowiei for its flower and O. tetraphylla 'Iron Cross' for its foliage, but at its worst it is a bane to the nurseryman and gardener. I am afflicted with two species, O. stricta and O. corniculata, both pretty in their own right, but impossible to get rid of. I have even been known to throw plants away unless I can bareroot them to remove the pest, but even at that a piece of root might remain to sprout again.

Paeonia lutea

Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii

Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii seeds

Paeonia delavayi

P is for Paeonia and was named after Paeon, a physician of ancient Greece who used the plant medicinally. I grow P. lutea and P. lutea var. ludlowii in our gardens, and this past fall I put the red-flowered P. delavayi near my home road so my family could enjoy it. Other than that I steer clear of the genus because my grounds have a Peony crud – a virus I guess – and after a few years they decline then die.

Quercus garryana

Q is for Quercus, and thank goodness because I have no other plant that begins with a “q.” Quercus is Latin for “oak tree.” In Old English oak was ac from Proto-Germanic aiks. In other European languages it was ek in Old Frisian and eik in Old Norse. Old Norse was the language of Iceland but there are no native oaks, and eik just referred to a “tree.” I'm always bragging about my huge 300-year+ Quercus garryana, the main reason I bought Flora Farm thirteen years ago. But after every snow and ice storm event, as we have just had, I gingerly open the front door to see if it is still standing, then I happily report back to my relieved wife.

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'

Olof Rudbeck the Younger

R is for Rudbeckia, named after Olof Rudbeck (1660-1740), a Swedish botanist who succeeded his father as Professor of Medicine at Uppsala University. Why does that sound familiar? One of his students was Carl Linnaeus who eventually named the genus for father and son. Rudbeck's greatest accomplishment was that he fathered 24 children (with three wives). His sister, Wendela, married Peter Nobelius, and from them descends Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes.

Sciadopitys verticillata

John Gould Veitch

S is for Sciadopitys which comes from Greek skias for a parasol and pitus for a “fir” tree according to one source, or Greek sciado meaning “shadow” and pitys meaning a “pine” from another source. The specific name verticillata is fairly common in botany and means “with whorls.” Old Linnaeus had nothing to do with naming the genus* as it was first introduced to Europe by John Gould Veitch in 1860. However, if you go back far enough Sciadopitys was more widespread in the Northern Hemisphere and fossils have been found in coal formations in Germany. The Japanese know the genus – with only one species – as koyamaki.

*It was Philipp von Siebold who first described Sciadopitys.

Tulipa humilis 'Lilliput'

Tulipa bakeri 'Lilac Wonder'

T is for Tulipa, commonly called tulip. Its name is a corruption of the Persian word thoulyban or tulipant for a “turban” which the flower is supposed to resemble. Tulipa is a genus in the Liliaceae family and consists of about 100 species with thousands of cultivars. We had a nice collection of dwarf species tulips that we showed off in our pumice stones, and what a perfect way to “container” grow them. I walked by them one day and was shocked to find that every bulb had been dug and eaten by squirrels.

Uvularia sessilifolia

U is for Uvularia and the name comes from Latin uvula for the “palate” due to the hanging flowers according to one source. Another source says it is Latin uvula for “little grape” because grapes hang down. The grape theory seems a stretch, and besides every ear-nose and throat doctor knows about the palatine uvula that hangs down from the soft palate in the mouth. So, I don't know I guess – and I should have used U is for Ulmus.

Viola 'Silver Star'

Viola 'Dancing Geisha'

V is for Viola and that was the ancient Latin name for a violet. It was perhaps derived from Greek ion for violet. Some Viola species are perennial and some annual, and just as with the Oxalis species mentioned earlier, some are weeds that you definitely don't want. We have a bad one – I don't know the species – but it is very difficult to remove from containers, and outside the spray crew thinks that it's a species that I have chosen to grow. The garden pansy is a hybrid form of Viola and I admire the incredible array of colors that are available in spring in the garden centers. By the way, neither Saintpaulia (“African violets”) nor Erythronium dens-canis (“dogtooth violets”) are related to the true Viola.

Wisteria species

Wisteria floribunda 'Variegated'

Caspar Wistar

W is for Wisteria and the name was bestowed by botanist Thomas Nuttall in honor of Caspar Wistar (1761-1818), except that Nuttall screwed up the spelling. Wistar was an interesting character as an American physician and anatomist, but botany was not his forte. Besides medicine he was elected to membership of the American Philosophical Society, and on the resignation of Thomas Jefferson in 1815 he served as president until his death. He also served as president of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, so I wonder what Jefferson thought about that! I have two cultivars of Wisteria, both given to me by Guy Meacham of PlantMad Nursery, but I'm scared to plant them out because the genus can dominate, so I keep them in a greenhouse and prune heavily.

Xanthocyparis vietnamensis

Fortunately the Chamaecyparis nootkatensis name has been changed to Xanthocyparis nootkatensis, for it is the only X I have since I sold my last Xanthoceras sorbifolium. The change was prompted by the discovery of X. vietnamensis in 1999 in the limestone mountains in northern Vietnam, and so far it has been found in only one location in an area of less than 50 square kilometers. It is making its rounds in western collections, and the photo above was taken at the Rhododendron Species Garden in Washington state. I hope someone will harvest the cone I discovered at the top of their small bush, and then give me an offspring. Or, please stick some cuttings because its cousin X. nootkatensis roots relatively easy.

Yucca rostrata 'Sapphire Skies'

Y is for Yucca which is from Spanish yuca and it is of unknown origin, but it could be from a Native American name since the genus is found in western North America. Linnaeus named the genus, but perhaps by mistake, for yucca is the Latinized version of the Caribbean plant cassava, Manihot esculenta or tapioca. Huh?

Zea mays 'Tricolor'

I'm growing weary of this plant alphabet project, but at least I can finish with Z for Zea which is an old Greek name for a “kind” of corn. Zea mays is an American grass whose fruit we all love to eat, so you would assume that mays is derived from the Indian name of maize, first domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mexico about 10,000 year sago. I have seen corn in Mexican and South American markets, usually displayed for sale alongside their grubby little potatoes, but one must admire the aboriginal people to accomplish such impressive food development.

Personally, I met a girl in college whose name was Mia Hays. She was vivacious and cute and totally above my level. I watched her from afar for I was only 17 (she 19) and I was wet behind the ears – so dumb – but I loved her immensely and especially the sound of her exotic name which now reminds me of Zea mays. I don't know whatever happened to her – perhaps she is still growing corn with her grandchildren on a California commune – but now she must have gray hair like me. One thing I am certain of is that Mia - Zea doesn't remember me, but I'll never forget her.


  1. This post made my day! I do enjoy every post of you, thank you very much =)

  2. mine too, especially Mia Hays/Zea mays. But tell your wife she IS cute and you definitely (can tell from your posts!) made a better choice!