A rose is a rose is a rose....
Sorry Gertrude Stein, but it isn’t quite as simple – or as short-winded – as that.
What might be true poetically for a rose is definitely not applicable to many other plants. Most of them have at least two names. For instance, a Livingstone daisy – a dazzlingly colorful, low-lying, shy plant – is also (take a breath) a Mesembryanthemum. Its shyness is evident in the way it closes its flowers in rain or darkness.
Add to its already lengthy title the stretchy word nodiflorum and, translated into common parlance, it is a “slenderleaf iceplant.” But wait – it’s now called Dorotheanthus bellidiformis. Or is it Cleretum bellidiforme?
Are such Latinate complications just the result of botanists extending themselves or bestowing importance on the comparatively insignificant? To be fair, the justification for botanical Latin is universality in answer to the confusing multiplicity of languages. But to a gardener, “Livingstone daisy” seems much more accessible and friendly than any of the botanical tags with which it is lumbered. Even worse, those labels sometimes change.
Look up any plant you like and you may well find a weighty nomenclature staring you in the face. And these obscurist labels are rarely as vivid as the common or garden names. I mean isn’t “snapdragon” more exciting than Antirrhinum? And what about Amaranthus caudatus? Isn’t love-lies-bleeding – even if it sounds a bit gory – more romantic? Same with love-in-a-mist, mind-your-own-business, and lily of the valley (respectively Nigella damascena, Soleirolia soleirolii, and Convallaria majalis).
All this naming is hierarchical. At the top are the scientific or botanical names. Next come the garden usage names. And at the bottom are the folk names. These last ones are often surprisingly local and frequently the most enchanting of all. Among my favorites are Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, pudding grass, and cuckoo’s stockings.
Oh – and goosefoot. It is, or perhaps I should say “was,” so named because its leaves resemble the feet of geese. I have a book of wildflowers that grow in Britain and Europe. It was first published in 1974 so it really belongs to the Dark Ages. Goosefoot is listed in it, but not just as a single kind of wild plant. It is a whole family, and naturally this family has a complex name: Chenopodiaceae. Some of the family members have common names worth repeating: good-King-Henry, fat hen, glasswort, shrubby sea-blite, hairy sea-blite, and prickly saltwort. Some of this “family” have now been assigned to other families, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica explains: “The taxonomy of the genus is contentious, and a number of species formerly placed in Chenopodium have been reassigned based on molecular data.” Ho-hum. One wonders if it matters whether or not goosefoot is now (alongside love-lies-bleeding) in another family (Amaranthaceae) as a kind of orphan.
Someone once told me (it may well have been Richard Adams of “Watership Down” fame) that one should be able to enjoy walking in the countryside without having to name everything one sees. On the whole I agree. “Just look at that tiny blue flower!” should be quite enough. Naming every insect, bird, and type of moss smacks of showing off. It’s like name-dropping.
Nevertheless there is a certain pleasure in naming things in nature. Sometimes this pleasure is tinged with amusement. Notice a Eurasian wren – that tiny garden bird – and its Latin name might spring to mind: It’s Troglodytes troglodytes, which is wonderfully too big for this charmingly little specimen.
But what about the fondness orchid growers have in naming names? Aren’t they overdoing it somewhat? Who can comfortably digest Chondrorhyncha, Platanthera blepharoglottis, or Pogonia ophioglossoides?
Memorable for a number of reasons is a perennial scarlet-flowering plant, a native of California. Maybe I like it because it is one of a very small number of plants the names of which begin with the letter Z. Maybe it is also the fact that it flowers late in the summer, when many plants are fading toward autumn. Maybe it’s that it has a profusion of vivid scarlet flowers. But it is more likely because hummingbirds love it, an utterly appealing symbiosis. Its common name refers to this bird-flower combination: hummingbird trumpet flower.
But my main fondness for it derives from the fact that this plant is determined to fly in the face of any fastidious, name-dropping botanist by sticking obstinately to its old-fashioned garden name. Although officially its longtime name Zauschneria californica is no longer permitted, that is what it goes on being called.
Regardless, I say: “Long live Zauschneria californica!”