IT must have seemed like a good idea back in the 19th century. Here was this new pole snap bean that grew clusters of big, dark green, fleshy pods up to six inches long, so that a housewife could pick a panful for dinner in no time from her kitchen garden. The seedsman who introduced the bean was delighted to call it Lazy Wife's Pole Bean. And he got away with it. The new bean sold like crazy.
In today's equal-rights climate, no seedsman in his right mind would dream of using so belittling a name.
Another dubious-sounding name was given to an otherwise nice, solid butterhead lettuce. It was offered as Blonde Blockhead, a name guaranteed to raise the hackles of almost any fair-haired woman gardener today.
Thickhead Yellow was another lettuce name almost as bad.
The descriptive name has always been popular with seed and plant sellers. Today, onions named Sweet Sandwich and Giant Hamburger proclaim their final destination to all.
A cucumber on the market years ago owed its popularity not to its quality, which was so-so, but to its shape. It was slender, curly, and several feet long, and looked quite a bit like its name - Serpent, or Snake.
It provided innocent merriment among the boys by frightening the girls.
SOMETIMES a name is chosen not because it describes the plant or its fruits or flowers, but just because it sounds important.
A strain of pansies was once called Defiance for this reason. ``Giant'' is always a popular name, as are ``Jewel'' and ``Royal.''
``Eureka,'' for ``I have found it!,'' also apparently rings a bell with buyers.
Some names are chosen for their associations.
An old pea, the Telephone, had vines tall enough to suggest they might need a telephone pole to climb.
And the telephone was still a new enough invention at that time that naming a plant for it indicated the plant was also new.
The same reasoning applied to a wax bean that appeared in 1900 with the name Twentieth Century.
Banquet was the luscious name of an old cantaloupe, but another one with skin tough enough for shipping received the dismal name of Ironclad. A watermelon, though, bore the rather romantic name Hungarian Honey.
Lest anyone think the name of a plant isn't all that important, be aware that changing names can make the difference between a fizzle and a success.
Some years ago a seed house brought out a melon under the name Hoodoo, and it turned off customers by the droves. When Hoodoo came out the next year as Hearts of Gold, the gardeners loved it.
WHO thinks up these names, anyway? Well, in the seed business, it has long been the practice to let the breeder of a new variety name his baby. This courtesy is still observed to some extent.
Dr. Calvin Lamborn, who bred the sensational first new snap pea and won a rare gold medal for it from All-America Selections, named his next three varieties for members of his family, SugarRae, SugarMel, and SugarBon.
A frequent way of getting a name for a new plant bred by a seed house or nursery is the group-think approach. Here, members of the staff get together and start thinking out loud.
``There are no holds barred, and nothing is taboo, regardless of how far out it may seem,'' says William J. Park, head of Geo. W. Park Seed Company.
Also using this method, Jeannette Lowe, while a plant breeder with the W.Atlee Burpee seed house, casually remarked of a new phlox variety, ``See how it twinkles,'' causing her boss, the late David Burpee, to seize upon ``Twinkles'' as the name.
Another time, Miss Lowe came up with the name for a new flower via a kind of mistaken identity. She had been gazing at a new unnamed snapdragon and murmured, ``Notice that highlight?''
Her employer was entranced. ``That's the name!'' he cried. ``High Life!''
So prized by seedsmen and nurserymen are ideas for new names that one of them confided to a friend that he had accumulated a file of a thousand.
When asked how he had managed to amass so stunning a total, he said that he never missed a chance to pick up a possibility.
Driving his car, he always looks at billboards, for instance, and picks up good names from some of them.
At dinner parties he sometimes gets name possibilities from things said during conversation. He's often known for whipping out paper and pencil in theaters when a likely-sounding word occurs during the play or movie.
Plants are often named for people. This can have drawbacks, however. Naming a plant after a friend might not endear a seedsman to that friend if he should write the introduction in his catalog something like:
``John Smith is an unusually long string bean,'' or, say, of a petunia, ``Mary Jones has good color and sturdy stems.''