Veni, Vidi, Vici, and all That!
I wanted to take Latin in High School. The Latin teacher wore a toga and there was always laughter coming from his classroom. My mother called it a “dead language” and insisted that I take French. I rarely use my French, but of course, I went on to find that Latin would have been indispensible in my research as an historian and now as a gardener.
Today, I would like to focus on Latin binomials—something that the rest of the world uses commonly, but not in the States. Now why would you use a Latin name of a plant instead of a common name. Well, here is the story…. Before the use of a standardized system of naming plants, different regions had different names for botanical material. You might find a plant named in England “”welcome-home-husband-never-so-drunk” or in America as “kiss me over the garden gate” or in another country translated as “mare’s fart” or “priest ballocks.” People had tried to formulate an international system, but whose language to use? Enter on the scene Carl Linnaeus of Uppsala, Sweden. We owe our standardized system of binomial nomenclature to him. He used first a name like a surname which was the genus – such as “Magnolia.” The second name was the distinct species – “grandiflora.” The genus is always capitalized and the species is lower case and in italics. Latin was and is used as an internationally recognized language of many sciences.
I honestly wish we used this system more frequently in this country. Some growers are careful to use the Latin binomial, but growers for the big box stores often do not label their plants as anything other than “Salvia” or “Phlox” or the name of the hybrid such as “Crimson Sun” or “Mardi Gras.” How do you really know what plant you are getting? Sometimes, the common name can be quite hilarious as in “Hairy Balls” Milkweed (Gymnocarpus physocarpa) I wondered what nurseries would use as a common name. One nursery calls it “Family Jewels.” Who says that growers do not have a sense of humor?
Having said this, plant DNA researchers are changing some Latin binomials as they find out that certain plants belong to different genus. Like Ancestry for Plants, new relatives are being discovered every day.
Now that I am off that soapbox, what should you look for at garden centers right now?
Do not be afraid to try ornamental grasses mixed in with your flowers and/or shrubs. They give great late season and winter interest as well as provide shelter for hibernating bees. One of the best is Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster.” It grows tall and does not spread outward or become invasive.. Avoid Miscanthus sinensis – it is becoming invasive in this area. Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is also a good choice as it is a native.
A fun plant to look for is Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia species) It has bright spikes of flowers that stand tall in a garden and come in many, as the name implies, hot colors.
And last, but not least, Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) will give you a feathery clump of foliage that butterfly caterpillars love. A mixture of foliage and flowers will give you long lasting interest in your garden.
Happy Gardening! Next time, I will be talking about roses!