Do you know the Mardi Gras plant?
Common names for plants can be colorful and descriptive. Maybe you've heard of dooryard plant or hearts a bustin'.
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He got her to describe the problem and the plant, and finally the light bulb went on over his head. She was asking about Mahonia bealei, a rugged understory shrub popular in the South and known as Oregon grape holly.Skip to next paragraph
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The plant is not limited to the Northwest and is neither a grape nor a holly, but does have green leaves, yellow flowers, and purple berries. Those are the colors of Mardi Gras, and he thanked her for telling him its local name. “Oh no,” she said, “I’m the only one that calls it that!”
The unrelated shrimp and butterfly plants
Other common names are just plain confusing. There are at least three plants called "shrimp plant," a yellow (Pachystacys lutea), a red (Justicia brandegeana) and a blue (Cerinthe major purpurascens). All have a bract structure in their flowers that includes a curved "tail" that gives them their common name.
I treat them as annuals, but the red and blue sorts are able to tolerate temperatures into the upper 20s at least so their pots often survive the winter in my unheated greenhouse.
I don’t know for sure, but it seems like more plants have "butterfly" in their common name than any other one word. Asclepias, Buddleia, and Clerodendron, three very distinct plant families, share the moniker butterfly. The first is the host plant for monarch butterflies, aka milkweed. The second is butterfly bush and is a nectar plant for many in the species Lepidoptera. The third, but by no means the last of this group, is butterfly plant, a tropical plant with blue flowers that have large lower petals that rather resemble butterfly wings.
Botanical names are straightforward and logical, if hard to pronounce. They change when plant lineages are explored further and the syntax systems must be tweaked. The resulting confusion comes when the rules from on high take years to circulate among the rest of us.
So we know banana shrub, but whether it is Michelia figo or Magnolia fuscata depends on what decade you discovered it.
We know chrysanthemum, but did you know they changed its name to Leucanthemum a few years back? Still grows the same, but if you don’t know, it can be hard to look up detailed information or recognize new varieties that may not carry the old names.
I’m dancing off to Mardi Gras, and maybe I’ll see some Mardi Gras plants, too.
Nellie Neal gardens in beds and containers and on windowsills in central Mississippi and south Louisiana. She never met a plant she didn’t want to propagate. Her website is GardenMama.com. To read more by Nellie, click here.