The specific epithets used in botany are sometimes very obvious, like grandis for the “very large” Abies grandis, or grandiflora for “large-flowered,” as in Magnolia grandiflora. Of course “size is relative,” says my uncle, because Pinguicula grandiflora's flower is less than two inches wide-- but that's big compared to other Pinguicula species. We grow Pinguicula grandiflora in our carnivorous trough with Sarracenias and Dionaea (Venus flytrap) and they are all very interesting when you consider how they feed themselves. Pinguicula are commonly known as “butterworts,” and the genus consists of about 80 known species from North America, South America, Europe and Asia. The generic name comes from Latin pinguis for “fat” due to the sticky glistening leaves that traps small flies. The wet appearance helps to lure prey in search of water but it actually contains digestive enzymes so watch out!
|Ribes sanguineum 'Pulboro Scarlet'|
|Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'|
There are various shades of the color red, and in the Japanese language aka and beni are two different kinds. The specific name of sanguinea or sanguineum refers to “blood-red” which is obvious when you see Ribes sanguineum in flower, as it is in our gardens at this time. Cornus sanguineum is noted for red stems in winter, but now at the end of March the fire has toned down. One of my favorite plants of all is Sarcodes sanguinea, commonly called the “snow plant” because it appears just after the snow melts. I didn't know it even existed until I stumbled upon one while hiking in the southern Oregon mountains, then later in California at the higher elevations at Yosemite. The lurid-red color is startling on the monotypic genus, surprisingly in the Ericaceae family. It is a parasitic plant, and it lacks chlorophyll and is unable to photosynthesize, deriving its nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi that are attached to the roots of trees. Sarcodes is shockingly phallic in appearance, and if you ever see one in person you'll know that the goddess Flora* has a wild side.
*Flora's name comes from Latin flos for “flower.”
Cornus florida 'Unryu'
|Illicium floridanum 'Halley's Comet'|
|Weigela florida 'Rubidor'|
|Alexander von Bunge|
|Ponce de Leon|
You might assume that Linnaeus coined the specific name of Cornus florida because it is native to that state, but remember that Florida* state didn't even exist at that time. He named the species for its prolific flowering, which many consider to be America's most beautiful flowering tree. Coincidentally C. florida does occur in Florida, and actually all the way from Maine down to northern Mexico on the East Coast. A plant that was named for being native to Florida is Illicium floridanum, the “Florida anise,” or “stinking laurel.” It is a medium-sized evergreen shrub that is somewhat boring in appearance, that is until it produces its delightful flowers in May and June. Weigela florida has nothing to do with Florida state, but rather for abundant flowering. It is a shrub from northern China and was named by the Russian-German botanist Alexander von Bunge (of Pinus bungeana fame). The generic name honors Christian E. Weigel (1748-1831), a German physician and botanist.
*Florida was named by Ponce de Leon on April 2, 1513, the first European to record its location, although he assumed it to be a large island. He called it “La Florida” (flowery land) referring to the Easter season, known in Spanish as Pascua Florida.
|Abies amabilis 'Spreading Star'|
The specific name amabilis is used for a “beautiful” plant, as in Kolkwitzia amabilis, the “Beauty bush.” Less lovely is the generic name which honors Richard Kolkwitz, a professor of botany in Berlin. The shrub was introduced by Englishman E.H. Wilson during his initial expedition (1901) in China, so I don't know why botanist Karl Otto Robert Peter Paul Graebner (1871-1933) got to be involved in the naming of it. Plant explorer David Douglas was impressed enough with the beauty of the “Pacific silver fir” that he named it Abies amabilis. The needles of Abies grandis smells like tangerines when crushed, while A. amabilis is more like oranges – and that's one way to have fun with kids. Probably my favorite plant with the amabilis epithet is Pseudolarix amabilis, certainly more beautiful to me than the ugly larix (“larch”) genus. It was introduced into Europe by Robert Fortune in (1852) while the English cad was sent to China to steal tea plants (Camellia sinensis) and tea-harvesting techniques. The luxurious green needles of Pseudolarix give way to golden-orange in autumn, but I am most impressed with the one-year artichoke-like cones of the species. I used to offer Pseudolarix for sale but surprisingly there was limited interest in it, and now I must be content with my one specimen in the Flora Wonder Arboretum.
Scottish botanist David Don (1799-1841) named and described a number of conifers that were introduced in his lifetime including Taxodium sempervirens (now Sequoia sempervirens), Pinus bracteata (now Abies bracteata), Pinus spectabilis (now Abies spectabilis) and others. I have seen A. spectabilis in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, and those deformed specimens were far from “spectacular,” so maybe Don named the species for its beautiful cones. I grew it for awhile at the beginning of my career, my start coming from the wonderful Otto Solburger conifer arboretum just a half hour drive from my nursery. In the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) it mentions “Unfortunately, this striking species is susceptible to spring frosts.” Before that phrase it was called a “magnificent, large tree.” Hmm...Hillier claims it is native to Nepal, India (Sikkim) and Bhutan while Rushforth in Conifers says “from Nepal west to the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan; it also occurs in the Chumbi Valley in Tibet.” So, are we talking about the same species? Anyway it never sold very well for me, probably because it is hardy to only -10 degrees. I was content to keep one last tree in my Conifer Field, but after an unusually wet spring my 20-year-old specimen turned brown when we hit the mid-90's in June.
|Asarum maximum 'Ling Ling'|
|Asarum maximum 'Ling Ling'|
Maxima or maximum means “largest” and the specific name for the eastern North America species Rhododendron maximum was bestowed by Linnaeus. It is a large shrub or small tree with long, narrow leaves, but it is certainly not the largest-growing Rhododendron, nor the species with the largest leaves. Asarum maximum is the “Panda Face Wild ginger,” a Chinese species that prefers a shady woodland site. The cultivar 'Ling Ling' forms a clump of large, glossy heart-shaped leaves with a subtle variegation. Another maximum is Heracleum maximum, the “common cow parsnip.” I've always considered it to be a weed, but still it is impressive growing up to 7' tall, and not surprisingly its genus name is derived from Hercules. Its flower umbels are a dull white and Native Americans would rub them on their bodies to repel flies and mosquitos.
While Heracleum maximum is in the carrot family (Apiaceae) with its umbel-formed flowers, Lindera umbellata (in the Lauraceae family) blooms with small yellow flowers on short umbels, but they are not showy, especially when compared with those of Lindera obtusiloba. L. umbellata is native to Japan and China and it was Carl Peter Thunberg who first described it. In Oregon it performs spectacularly in autumn when the leaves turn to yellow, orange and purple, then they persist throughout winter with a light brown color that is still attractive. Known as kuromoji in Japanese, oils from the species have been shown to fight tumors, and it has long been used in Japan as a traditional medicine. The Lindera genus is known as “spicebush” because of the aromatic components in its twigs and leaves, and its name honors the Swedish botanist Johan Linder (1676-1724).
Speciosa (“showy”) is an uninspired specific epithet but there is a large number of plants so named. Aloe speciosa is the “Tilt-head Aloe,” a single-stemmed succulent from South Africa that carries its leaf-head off to one side. The “showy” name was given by John Gilbert Baker when he described it in the 1880's, and he was referring to the beautiful reddish flowers. The aloe name is of uncertain origin, but it was used in ancient Greece and was possibly chosen for sound-resemblance to Hebrew akhalim.
Banksia speciosa is commonly known as the “Showy Banksia,” a large shrub or small tree in the Proteaceae family. The flowers attract nectar – and insect – feeding birds, in particular the “honey eaters.” These birds, from Australia and New Guinea, do more than just eat nectar, for they are also fertilizing many plants. They are not able to hover over a flower like American hummingbirds, but instead they often feed by hanging on from beneath the flower.
Catalpa speciosa is the “Northern catalpa,” a large deciduous tree from a small area in the Midwest USA. Bell-shaped white flowers feature purple and yellow inner spotting, then long green seedpods develop that can be up to 2' long. The generic name comes from a North American Indian name, but due to a transcription error it should have been Catawba.
I suppose the most showy of the “speciosas” is Pleione speciosa, a bulb which blooms purple-pink with yellow in the throat. The Pleione genus was named for the mother of the Pleiades in Greek mythology by David Don of conifer-naming fame. We are growing a fair number of Pleione cultivars now, with our starts of many coming from Canada or England, but companies in those countries are no longer shipping to the USA so we are happy to have acquired them when we did. I am not an expert on the taxonomy of Pleione (pronounced ply o nee) and even if I was there would be another expert who would disagree with my conclusions. Best to just stay dumb and just enjoy them.
Botanists love plant hairs so we have specific names like villosa for “softly hairy,” tomentosa for “hairy” and mollis for soft and/or hairy. Photinia villosa is a large shrub or small tree from Japan, Korean and China, and it was introduced by Phillip von Siebold in 1865. P. villosa var. laevis is another form, with laevis meaning “smooth.” Another villosa is Thermopsis, commonly called the Carolina lupine. It can reach 5' in height with erect yellow spikes. It is its seed pods which are villous with long hairs.
Populus tomentosa is a large Chinese species with light hairs beneath the large, dark-green leaves. It is known as mao bai yang in Chinese and it is planted along streets as an ornamental, and since the Chinese love to smoke its wood is also used to produce matches. I don't smoke, but I think the species is worth growing for its interesting marked bark.
|Hamamelis mollis 'Westerstede'|
|Hamamelis mollis 'Boskoop'|
The only mollis species I grow is for the Hamamelis genus which is the “Chinese witch hazel.” It forms a large shrub with slightly hairy, round green leaves. I only know of cultivars that flower yellow, but the golden autumn foliage rivals the winter blooms anyway. Give plenty of space in the garden as it can grow just as wide as tall. H. mollis was introduced into England by British plant explorer Charles Maries in 1879 and described by botanist Daniel Oliver (1830-1916). H. mollis, along with H. japonica, are the parents of H. x intermedia, a hybrid of garden origin that has resulted in many excellent cultivars.
|Clematis recta 'Purpurea Select'|
|Rhododendron forrestii var. repens|
The specific name recta is used for “upright” plants, but Clematis recta will grow along the ground if not trained to climb. The white flower is fragrant, and is especially noticeable with the cultivar 'Purpurea Select', which is unfortunately an invalid name. Repens describes plants that creep along the ground, as does Mahonia repens, compared to other species of Mahonia. Repens was commonly used as a cultivar or varietal name years ago, thus we have Rhododendron forrestii var. repens or Repens Group. The species name forrestii honors the Scottish plant explorer George Forrest who discovered it in 1905, and then it was introduced by him in 1914. What is remarkable for the tiny creeper with small glossy-green leaves are the relatively large blood-red bell-shaped flowers. My oldest specimen went through hell when I left it in full sun in its display box when we had a few days of over 100 degrees, and it took two full years to recover from its ordeal. Protective Services probably should have taken it away from me for my neglect and never allowed me to grow it again.
|Aralia elata 'Aureovariegata'|
|Aralia elata 'Variegata'|
Elata is a specific name for “tall” and we grow Aralia elata 'Aureovariegata', a large shrub or small tree from Japan. The large pinnate green leaves are splashed with yellow and panicles of white flowers appear in late summer. Not to be confused with 'Variegata' where the green leaves are variegated with cream-white. Both cultivars are grafted onto A. elata rootstock which is known to sucker, so you don't want to plant it into an intimate garden site. Mine are growing at the backside of our pond – along with some bamboo, and I go back there only once or twice a year because of the wildness of the area. Another reason they are planted far away is because I don't really like either of them, they're not my kind of plant, and they remind me of another plant I don't grow or care for: Trachycarpus fortunei, the “Chinese windmill pond.” The variegated “angelica trees” look like women past their prime who try to compensate for it with too much makeup and flamboyant clothes. I know, probably I'll be criticized for that opinion.
|Oxydendrum arboreum 'Chameleon'|
Arborescens and arboreum mean tree-like, from Latin for “tree” or “shaft,” and there are a lot of plant names that are “tree-like,” or at least they are...compared to other members in their generic group. Oxydendrum arboreum is an excellent garden tree and it won an Award of Merit for its flowers which appear in late summer. When I acquired my first tree I was certain that the generic name was misspelled – certainly it must be Oxydendron, but wrong. I don't know what came over Linnaeus the day he named it, but the word comes from Greek oxys meaning “acid” and dendron for “tree.” That's only why it is commonly called “sourwood,” due to the sour taste of the leaves. If you examine the flowers in their drooping racemes they remind me of Pieris, and indeed Oxydendrum is in the Ericaceae family.
Crassula is a genus of about 300 species of annuals, perennials and evergreen shrubs, usually with succulent leaves. They are too tender to grow in Oregon, other than as a house plant which I have done. C. arborescens is so-named because it can grow up to 10' compared to the other species which are much lower. It is commonly known as the “Silver Jade plant” or “Silver Dollar plant” due to the color and round shape of the leaves. The common “Jade plant” that people grow indoors – at least in America – is Crassula ovata, and it is nicknamed the “Friendship tree.” Both species are from South Africa.
Acanthus spinosus was specifically named due to the spiny foliage, and when it is not in flower you might think it's just a weed. I've had one in the garden for at least 20 years, and it has spread a little, but not aggressively. No one seems to know for certain why the common name is “bear's breeches,” but the generic name is from Greek acantha meaning “thorn;” the redundancy of the generic and specific name is because some species of Acanthus are not spiny (like A. mollis with its “soft hairs”).
Aquifolium or aquifolius also refers to spiny leaves, and an example is Mahonia aquifolium. I like to quiz plant people about the aquifolium name when we are standing next to a Mahonia, and most assume that it's because of its glossy glistening foliage, as in aquatic or aquarium. But aquila is Latin for “eagle,” and the barb on the Mahonia resembles that of an eagle's beak.
This blog was prompted when I recently read one sentence in the back of Hillier's Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014): “The study of botanical plant names is fascinating and rewarding.” And as I've said before, if you don't agree then it was the fault of my presentation rather than the subject matter. Anyway I had fun and learned a few things.