|Pinus contorta var. contorta|
Regular Flora Wonder Blog readers know that at the beginning of my career I worked for an enormous wholesale nursery – now bankrupt – that produced millions of boring trees and shrubs. In my six years there I went from being the new grunt to the manager of a farm that employed 110 men. To be honest I was appointed “manager” by default. It wasn't that I was so great, but rather that there was nobody else even half capable. But in my tenure there I never once used a botanic name for the plants we grew, and even the owner didn't know the botanic name of any of his plants. It didn't matter (to him), and he made scads of money anyway and died a multi-millionaire with a Rolls Royce in his garage. Seriously. It wasn't until I began my own nursery that I found scientific nomenclature to be not only important, but also interesting. For example the conifers were mainly all Pinus at one point, then eventually they were separated into Pinus, Abies, Picea, Pseudotsuga etc. I became fascinated with this naming of names*, and now botanical history has become a hobby that I will pursue until the day I die.
*The Naming of Names by British author Anna Pavord is an exciting adventure into botanical history, and though ten years my senior, she is probably the first person I would choose to spend an evening with if I could.
|Gustav Karl Wilhelm Hermann Karsten|
One of my first nomenclatural lessons was that Picea was the generic name for “spruce” and Abies was for the “true” firs. To the general public they surely appear to be about the same – upright, evergreen trees that produce cones that are often full of sticky pitch. But of course the cones are erect on the branches of the firs, while the Picea cones are erect at first but then drop downward as they mature (I'm tempted, but wont make a joke here). And anybody who works with Picea and Abies knows that the former has prickly needles while the latter are more soft (again, no jokes). But at first I was confused. Let's see: Picea is spruce and Abies is fir...then what the hell is Picea abies? What a confusing name for the common “Norway spruce!” We can blame Linnaeus/Karsten for the problematic name. You all know about Linnaeus, but I'll tell you a little about Karsten – Gustav Karl Wilhelm Hermann Karsten (1817-1908), but why so many names? He was a German botanist and geologist who followed my hero, Alexander von Humboldt, and traveled in Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia from 1844 to 1856, and later served as professor of plant physiology at the University of Vienna. As follower of Linnaeus he was the binomial author of many botanic species.
Last week's Flora Wonder Blog, The Allure of Lore, suggested that the more you know about the scientific name of a plant, the more you can appreciate it, and that no diminishment to its “magic” need occur. After all, the haughty botanists who bestowed most of the generic and specific names (after the Linnaeus binomial system) were allowed the award of “first name sticks” no matter how dumb or wrong it might seem to us today. Thus we have Acer pensylvanicum spelled rong – but too late – and Scilla peruviana that doesn't come from Peru.
I'll admit that the botanic names are sometimes rather petty, or at least to me. We learned last week that Abies lasiocarpa was named for its hairy cone scales. If I looked at the fir for every day of my life I would never distinguish it for its hairy scales. On the other hand, the next time I see a cone I will certainly check the scales, and hopefully I will be with someone so I can boast of my botanic knowledge.
For the past few years we have been keeping track of the species of rootstock used as understock for our Abies grafts. Prior to that I could only tell you what we used for the current season, not what the rootstock might have been ten years ago. The choices could have been A. koreana, A. firma, A. balsamea or A. balsamea var. phanerolepis. To a customer in the humid southeast USA, he would be happy to know that the A. firma was the rootstock, and for someone in Oregon he probably wouldn't care. This past winter the majority of our grafts was on A. balsamea var. phanerolepis, commonly known as “Canaan fir.” It is native to isolated pockets in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, and the common name comes from one location in the Canaan Valley northeast of Elkins, West Virginia. For you heathens in the readership, Canaan was a Semitic-speaking region in the ancient Near East that corresponds to modern-day Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Phanerolepis is derived from Greek phaner or phanero for “visible” or “manifest,” and lepis meaning “scale.” Therefore you have a fir with conspicuous bracts unlike the hairy cones of A. lasiocarpa mentioned previously.
|Corydalis flexuosa 'Blue Panda'|
Let's take a look at some other plant names and see what we can learn. Last week we sold out of our crop of Corydalis flexuosa 'Blue Panda'. It was collected in China and named by my “grandfather” Reuben Hatch about 30 years ago. Later it was patented by Terra Nova Nursery of Oregon but it should not have been because 1) it was collected in the wild and 2) it had been sold under the 'Blue Panda' name for about five years prior to the patent. The specific name of flexuosa is a guess and I'm not sure if that was ever proven for certain. Flexuosa does not mean “flexible” in the botanic sense, rather it means “full of bends” in Latin. A few other flexuosa species include Agonis flexuosa (a tree species), Grevillea flexuosa (a shrub species), Deschampsia flexuosa (a bunch grass species), Scutellastra flexuosa (a sea snail) and others. I don't know what is so “bendful” with the Corydalis – the foliage or flower?
|Corylopsis spicata 'Golden Spring'|
The entry following Corydalis on the Buchholz Master Plant List is Corylopsis, and the genus is commonly known as the “winter hazel.” That's obvious because the generic name comes from corylus for “hazel” and the Latin suffix opsis meaning “resembling.” Generally speaking I don't like naming plants for other plants that they resemble, and I think that the botanical namers should have been more original. Besides, Corylopsis is in the Hamamelaceae family and Corylus is in the Betulaceae family. Corylopsis spicata (Latin for “spiked”) is a species with the attractive cultivar 'Golden Spring' and it is the only winter hazel we currently propagate. I have a number of other species in the collection but they didn't sell very well. The nomenclature is murky for Corylopsis anyway, or at least it was for me. One species had beautiful foliage and was called glaucophylla by the now defunct Heronswood Nursery, but I've never seen it listed before or after I acquired my plant 15 years ago. Could it have been that glaucophylla was a cultivar name? If so it is an illegitimate name.
We have never sold Crocus at Buchholz Nursery, however the genus is no stranger to the Flora Wonder Arboretum. It is a member of the iris family which develops from corms and I am delighted to know that the plural of Crocus is Croci, pronounced as krō-kē. There are about 75 species native to the Alps, southern Europe and the Mediterranean and they perform spectacularly in Oregon...well, if you can keep the damn squirrels away from them. Crocus is the saffron plant and the name is from Greek krokos which is of Semitic origin, from the Akkadian* kurkanu for saffron. In particular I like Crocus sieberi, a late-winter bloomer also known as the “snow crocus.” The species is named for Franz Sieber (1789-1844), a botanist and collector from Prague who traveled to the Middle East, South Africa and Australia. In his later life Sieber went loony and wound up in the Prague insane asylum where he spent his final fourteen years, but don't blame the Croci for his dementia.
|Bronze Head of an Akkadian Ruler|
What's the skinny on the variegated “Horse chestnut,” Aesculus hippocastanum 'Wisselink'? I first saw the cultivar at the Bellevue Botanic Garden near Seattle, then again at Sebright Gardens, Oregon, where a magnificent specimen was displayed. The foliage on the cultivar was nearly white (in spring) with enough green in the leaf veins to keep the selection from burning horribly in summer. Thomas Johnson of Sebright told me that his tree came from Lucile at Whitman Farms, Oregon. I begged one from Lucile and the other day we picked up our tree, but it was labeled A. h. 'Variegata'. So...I'm wondering if I have the real 'W.'?
The genus Cotoneaster is a useful small tree or shrub in the rose family, and the gardener (and his birds) is/are rewarded with glossy yellow-to-orange-to-red fruits in autumn and early winter. Oddly, the generic name is from Latin cotoneum for “quince” and aster which denotes “incomplete resemblance,” which implies that it is a plant that resembles a quince, but not quite. “Quince,” or Chaenomeles is a genus of shrubs also in the rose (Rosaceae) family. The generic name Chaenomeles is from New Latin chaemo, and that from Greek chainein and Greek meles for “apple” or “fruit.” Apple is generically Malus – not as in “Malice for None,” and also nothing bad – but rather a genus in the Rosaceae family distinguished by fruit without grit cells. Malus is derived from Latin malum for “apple,” and that from Doric Greek malon. If you were paying attention in high school or freshman college, you would know that “Doric” or “Dorian” was an ancient Greek dialect, and not just a type of architecturally-vertical column. I am particularly enamored with Cotoneaster frigidus which is native to the Himalaya, and I guess it was named because of its origin to a cold place? Frigidus is Latin from frigere “to be cold,” similar to Latin frigus for “frost,” and that from Greek rhigos. Anyway C. frigidus is a “tree” Cotoneaster, so give it plenty of room in the garden.
If you want to attract hummingbirds you can do no better than grow a specimen of Caesalpinia gilliesii, the “bird of paradise” with yellow flowers and red filaments. This bush/tree is native to Argentina and Uruguay and some list it as hardy to USDA zone 6. Plant Delights Nursery reports that one survives at the Denver Botanic Garden, but PD rates it as zone 7a. Not only are the flowers very showy, but Caesalpinia is friendly to other plants. The genus has a symbiotic relationship with some soil bacteria, and nodules develop on the roots which provide nitrogen for other plants growing nearby. Caesalpinia was named for the Italian botanist Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), and it was bestowed by the Franciscan monk Charles Plumier. Linnaeus retained the name in his system and praised his predecessor with the following: Quisquis hic exstiterit primos concedat honores Casalpine Tibi primaque certa dabit.* Linnaeus honors the Scottish naval surgeon and botanist John Gillies (1792-1834) with the specific name. He was a wimp however, and suffered from poor health and died at age 42 in Edinburgh. While in South America he endured wars and civil unrest along with his chronic ill health, but he was able to send numerous plants to Hooker at the RBG Kew.
*Basically, Cesalpino was the best.
Botanical nomenclature and its history is fascinating, and if I haven't convinced you of that it's the fault of my presentation rather than the subject matter itself. Were we “Wandering Through Nomenclature,” or “Rambling Through Nomenclature?” – you can decide. The word nomenclature is derived from Latin nomen for “name” and calare meaning “to call.” Botanical nomenclature is really a means of communication, a way of mapping our natural world in a shared language. With this tool I can speak to Icelanders, South Americans and Asian about our earthian floral experience, and we can all learn from each other. My life has been a plebeian grind, and growing plants has not been an easy or secure way to feed my family, but along the way I have found happiness and satisfaction, and thank you Flora for your bountiful gifts.