Once in a blue moon I get a comment from a reader. It goes like this. Reader: “I read your column every week, and …” My rejoinder: “Good, that makes two of us.” (It used to be three before my mother died.)
The reader continues: “But why do you use those long plant names?” Then I am backed into a corner, from which extrication proves to be more of a problem than I had thought it would.
“Well,” I feebly plead, “it is the only way you can be sure you are getting the right plant from a dealer, by certain identification of the botanical name of the specimen in question.” My interlocutor goes away uninformed as she (he) wished she were.
The fact of the business, botanical names make no more sense sometimes than the English language in general, one of the hardest in the world to master, it is said. The common names we use, which are familiar to nearly every gardener worth his compost, are often more confusing than the scientific ones. The problem comes, or is exacerbated at least, when one travels to various sections of the country where a different name (or names) is used for a particular plant. Case in point: the almost universal use hereabouts of the word “buttercup” for the early daffodil that is so rampant here. In fact, “buttercup” is a horse of a totally different color in other places, and even here as well. The bulbous daffodil we’re talking about is, botanically, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the last of the two words being the species name. The syllable “pseudo” would seem to indicate it is not a narcissus at all, but a false narcissus, which it certainly is not. It as real a daffodil as any other of the hundreds you might have met.
Now the real buttercup is no narcissus, but botanically Ranunculus repens, the creeping buttercup, native here and flowering with little yellow blooms from a creeping (“repens”) rootstock. The narcissus “buttercup” is a native of Europe, not the United States.
Another good example is the early spring creeping phlox, commonly called “thrift” here. Go to another part of the country and “thrift” is the true “thrift,” Armeria maritima, the specific latter word akin to “maritime,” of the sea. This real thrift does indeed grow well near to the sea in the sandy soils that prevail there. All my efforts to grow it here have resulted in a melting out within a year or so in our heavy soil and sweltering summers. On the other hand, our misapplied “thrift,” or creeping phlox, does well for most gardeners here. This “thrift” is botanically Phlox stolonifera, the specific epithet indicating that it spreads by stolons, which indeed it does.
Where in the Sam Hill are we going here? Not much farther. In fact, we will leave it here, with just the suggestion that you check the label of any plant you buy for the common name, and, as well, the botanical name, usually in italics and printed smaller than the common name.
There’s a whole lot more that could be said on this subject. I am sure you can’t wait.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at 641-1162.