Saturday, December 31, 2011


            Last December, it was David Sedaris I couldn’t get enough of. This year, it’s Julian Barnes.

         A quote from Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, taped to my laptop, says: “It’s easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm comes to them.” During my recent inertial paralysis, I dove into the novel from which this chastening bon mot comes, stopping only long enough to rummage in the nightstand for a hi-liter. By the time I finished the book—which I’d intended to pass on as a Christmas gift to my equally bibliophilic sister, Donna—it had become a broken-spined, dog-eared, yellow-smeared, margin-noted mess I didn’t want to part with. When ordering another copy for Donna, I stoked my latest literary addiction with Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes’ musings on facing up to one’s own mortality.

As 2011 goes gently (I hope) into its good night, I thought a short meditation on the subject, as one that concerns us all, would be appropriate.

Barnes makes a nice distinction between those who are afraid of death and those who are afraid of dying; i.e., between those who fear the end of their existence (“Who will remember I was here?”) and those who fear protracted and undignified ends (“But I don’t want all those tubes or to poo in a pan!”).  I fall in with the second lot: the thought of being dead doesn’t bother me—it’s really just the ultimate nap, isn’t it?—but the path I’ll have to travel to get there is worrying. Still, I don’t believe in the existence of either postmortem heaven or hell, so that helps in the sang-froid department.

Why I admire Bertrand Russell
Interestingly, Barnes, a lifelong atheist, claims membership in the first group. He admits to a certain queasiness about the cold finality resulting from his convictions as he gets older and closer to his own denouement. There’s a wistful tone to the story he tells of Bertrand Russell’s response to the question What If You're Wrong? “What if the pearly gates were neither a metaphor nor a fantasy, and he [Russell] found himself faced by a deity he had always denied? ‘Well,’ Russell used to reply, ‘I would go up to Him, and I would say, “You didn’t give us enough evidence.” ’ ”

             A third way of dealing with death arises, peopled by those who have convinced themselves they’re exempt, of which my friend Min was a founding member. About midway through what would turn out to be her last illness, her daughter asked about her funerary preferences. Min refused to take the bait. She looked Judi right in the eye and said, “I’m not going.”

One of many horticultural experiments
gone horribly wrong 
              Gardeners don’t have the luxury of not believing in death. We face it, if not all the time, then often enough. Tim and I always mention the hundreds of plants we’ve dispatched over the years due to ignorance and/or arrogance by way of credentialing ourselves. The list of my bellied-up horticultural experiments would fill a volume the size of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. (I could be exaggerating just a little, but it sure feels that way.) 

            Death and decay serve vital functions in the garden. That annual vinca that “comes back” every year isn’t the self-same plant, back from its roots after a refreshing winter’s sleep: it’s progeny, from a seed produced from a now-dead parent. Despite the name, perennials have life-spans, as do all shrubs and trees. Expect your ‘Goldsturm’ black-eyed Susans to gradually decrease flowering over three to five seasons before they peter out all together; redbuds decline after an average of 40 years. Nor does an “evergreen” label confer immortality—leaf loss is merely more subtle than that of deciduous trees. 

Upon reflection, most of us would agree this life / death cycle is a good thing. And we can take comfort from physics’ dictum “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed.” Death recycles into new life. Besides, who’d really want to trade places with Dorian Gray? Barnes quotes the French writer Jules Renard—“Imagine life without death. Every day you’d want to kill yourself from despair.”

            This brings to our second topic of the day, fungus gnats.

A female black fungus gnat
Fungus gnats, members of the Bradysia and Lycoriella genera, are actually pretty benign, as plant pests go. Indeed, they are classified as nuisances. Adults lay their eggs in damp soils. Eggs hatch and larvae feed in the top half-inch of your pots’ media, rarely observed. The gregarious grown-ups, however, are all too visible.

Larvae eat fungi present in potting mixes. Damp soil increases fungal growth, in turn supporting larger populations of baby fungus gnats. If you tend to water your houseplants too much and/or too often (like I do, even though I know better), you’re going to have a host of tiny fliers.

Hard to believe you'd mistake
a fruit fly for a fungus gnat
Mature fungus gnats look like, well, gnats, and often get mistaken for fruit flies. (If you let your bananas and Christmas citrus gifts sit around too long while you overwater the houseplants, you’ll end up with both.) The good news is that individual adults only live for three to five days. The bad news is that each female lays several strings or clusters of eggs during her short lifespan. The egg-larva-pupa-adult transformation takes two to three weeks, so newly minted reproducers step up to the pot pretty regularly.  

Tim and I have a bumper crop of fungus gnats this year, active earlier and more vigorously than in the past. Early in the Fitzgerald houseplant season (see “Bringing In the Plants II,” Nov. 1), we found adult gnats drowned by the dozen in any liquid left out for any length of time. This saddened me, so I looked for a way to “decrease the surplus population,” as the unreformed Scrooge would say, that was less… visible.

Gardens Alive! catalog offered a soil drench named Knock Out Gnats containing a strain of Bacillus thuringiensis that attacks the (unseen) larvae. As the USDA has decided that corn genetically modified with Bt (as it’s known in the trade) is okay for humans to eat (!), I figured collateral damage to the mammal residents of our tightly constructed house would be minimal: at least it would prove less harmful than spraying Raid 15 times a day.

One week and 30 bucks later, I possessed four ounces of granules that resemble coffee grounds. All I had to do was let the plants dry out enough to use it, at the rate of a quarter-teaspoon per gallon of water. After one dose all around, our gnat population did seem shrunken. Of course, letting the soil in the pots dry out helped too.

Glass chips on the soil's surface
deter cats and egg-laden fungus gnats
Another avoidance strategy involves covering the surface of the soil. Anything that keeps the cats from digging in your pots works to thwart fungus gnats as well.

I must admit I’ve gotten rather fond of our tiny guys. They seem very curious about the things humans do. We find at least one dancing attendance as we wash dishes or our faces, clean the bathtub, feed the cats, work on the computer, load the washer, fold the laundry, read in bed. (They don’t seem at all interested in watching TV, which speaks to me of a high level of intelligence.) Except for an unfortunate propensity to blunder into our noses, ears and mouths from time to time, we coexist quite well. They don't bite or sting, and if they tickle when perambulating our epidermis, well, it's not their fault we're hairy creatures, is it? I've taken to chatting with them as we go about the mundanities of life. Strictly speaking, of course, I do all the talking: but they do seem interested in the commentary.

English poet John Donne
            My saintly husband just rolls his eyes. It’s the same look I get when I chase down and escort earwigs, spiders and roaches back outside. My nature expands John Donne's aphorism: each creature’s death diminishes me, because I am part of creature-kind.

            Or perhaps it’s just aversion to being death’s instrument any more often than is absolutely necessary.

            Happy Christian New Year to all who celebrate it, despite the arbitrariness.

            Thanks for dropping by.


Saturday, December 24, 2011


              At last, each seasonal chore is done, right down to the turkey in the oven. Shopping, wrapping, mailing packages, cards—all completed. Yep, everything’s ready… except the blog post. I’m having a little trouble bringing that task to a successful conclusion.

            It’s not that I haven’t tried. The first of last week I started an entry entitled “Thanatos, Astronomy, and Fungus Gnats.” Before I could finish, however, the annual Geminid meteor shower peaked; death and gnats got shelved for the time being. Then there was “Solstice and Pansies.” Once again, the universe wouldn’t stop—or even slow down—for me: solstice came and went early Wednesday morning. The pansy-care section moved to the back burner.

           Today I’m hoping three’s the charm. (It certainly was in the husband department.) I've piled Beethoven’s 5th, 7th and 9th Symphonies into the CD player, shoved all the Sudokus out of sight in a drawer, and turned on the computer.


Christmas Bird Count participants
            The National Audubon Society’s 112th annual Christmas Bird Count runs from December 14 through January 5. This oldest continuing citizen-science project amasses the raw data scientists and statisticians use for assessing the health of avian populations and for suggesting conservation strategies. I went to the Audubon website to learn about the program, which is different from the Great Backyard Bird Count held in February (see my “For the Birds” post of February 2, 2011).

" ornithological impresario"
            The first Christmas Count took place back in 1900, as an alternative to the then-popular “side hunt.” This fun event involved lots of people with shotguns and pockets full of cartridges dividing into geographically based teams. The object: the indiscriminate killing of anything furred or feathered. At a set time, the happy hunters returned to base camp to compare carcasses. The team that slaughtered the most creatures won. (My source doesn’t specify the prize. Personally, I hope it was an extra six weeks in hell.) Appalled by the toll the side hunt exacted from bird populations, ornithologist and member of the nascent Audubon Society Frank Chapman suggested substituting a holiday bird census in place of the sanguinary free-for-all. By the turn of the 20th century, conservation movements were beginning to take hold in the American consciousness: thanks to Chapman, concern for dwindling bird populations (can you say “passenger pigeon”? Can you say “annihilation”?) became a national cause célèbre.

            More strictly organized than the Backyard Count, the Christmas Count takes place in duly designated 15-mile-radius Count Circles on duly designated dates. On the day, volunteers follow specified routes through their Circles, recording every bird they spot. Tallies are handed in to the area’s Count Compiler. There are scads of Circles in all 50 states, so check out the Audubon website’s FAQ page for more information on joining in the fun.

Experienced a bad moment about the likelihood of successfully publishing this post in a timely manner when our local newspaper, the Wilmington StarNews, ran an article about the Pender County count that took place on Sunday the 18th in the Holly Shelter Game Land. Damn, I thought: skunked again. But then I checked the list of Circles and discovered Wilmington’s count is slated for Saturday, December 31st, and Oak Island/Southport/Bald Head Island’s for New Year’s Day. If you’re interested in participating—solo or with a group of like-minded friends, no prior birding credits needed—contact the Circle's Count Compiler.
While navigating Audubon's time-sucking site, I clicked on a link for “Top 20 Common Birds in Decline.” Seems many common birds (“common” meaning species with over a half-million individuals and a range of 385,000 square miles or more) are becoming a lot less, well, common. Reasons include loss of habitat, pesticide issues and climate change. Here’s a representative sample:

No wonder you never see whip-poor-wills
Whip-poor-wills. A nocturnal woodland species, these loud and insistent little creatures’ numbers have declined by 57% since 1967. Human activities in the form of fire suppression in the eastern deciduous forests, along with road-building and development, have fractured the whip-poor-will’s habitat. Adding insult to injury, pesticide control of gypsy moths has reduced available food supply in some areas.

Can this bobwhite be saved?
 Northern bobwhites. Populations of these grasslands denizens have plummeted 80% over the past 40 years, their breeding-grounds decimated by the growth of large-scale agriculture, intensively managed pine plantations, and unrestrained development. Fortunately, an Audubon Society’s 2007 report on their plight led to conservation efforts that are beginning to bear fruit: the prognosis for bobwhite resurgence looks tentatively hopeful.

Which would you rather see:
another boat ramp
or a little blue heron?
Little blue heron. This one hit close to home. Dependent on marshlands for food and nesting sites, little blues are an object of ornithological concern, especially in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. Since the 1970s, with farmland expansion and residential and recreational developments encroaching on coastal wetlands and riparian environments, degradation and outright loss of habitat caused a 54% population decline among these egret relatives.

A mama common tern & baby
Common tern. Long a favorite of beach-going birders, terns are being loved to death. Their numbers have decreased by over 70% since the 1930s. After surviving the millinery feather fashions of the early 1900s, they now face other dangers. Drawn by poorly placed landfills, gulls usurp tern breeding grounds at the same time overuse of pesticides increases reproductive failure rates. Silent Spring, anyone?

We, as individuals, can’t do much to mitigate the damage we, as a species, have wreaked on our planet. What we can do, as gardeners, is to maintain our properties as welcoming wildlife environments. As citizens, we can be aware of corporate and governmental plans to worsen birds' plights—I have in mind here the megaport North Carolina wants to cram into a wetlands situated between a nuclear power plant and the largest military weapons depot on the East Coast and just north of an infrastructure-lacking village—and follow where our hearts lead. One other thing you-the-individual can do is to participate in a bird count, contributing to the assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of species in your neighborhood, so remedial actions can be undertaken before it’s too late.


From both of us to all of you—regardless of what holiday, if any, you celebrate—a peaceful and pleasant Christmas season, and our best wishes for a happy and healthy 2012. And thanks for dropping by.


Sunday, December 11, 2011


            Decoding botanical names makes learning them more fun (no, really), and increases the likelihood they stick in your memory.

Leonhard Fuchs
            A genus is always a Latinized noun, often of a word in another language that doesn’t mean anything to English-speakers. Take Viburnum: it’s Latin for “wayfaring tree.” Go figure. Sometimes, though, we can make associations. Buddleja, for example, is Linnaeus’ commemoration of the Rev. Adam Buddle (1662-1715), a British clergyman and naturalist. Fuchsia bears the name of the 16th-century German physician and botanist Leonhard Fuchs (technically, it ought to be pronounced FOOKS-ee-uh, but I’m sticking with FYOO-shah). Honeysuckle derives its generic name, Lonicera, from one Adam Lonicer. And so on. Mythological personages make appearances, like Daphne and Andromeda. Morphology occasionally contributes too, such as bell-flower genus Campanula, from the Italian campanile or “bells.”  

        Campanula 'Viking,'
a hybrid bell-flower
            In short, generic names are what they are. Philodendron translates to "love of (philo) wood (dendron)," and we must leave it at that.

         Where nomenclature gets interesting is in the specific epithets. A genus can stand alone—say Juniper (an intermediate English derivation from yoani, meaning “reed,” and another word etymologists haven’t yet teased out) and most gardeners will have some idea what you’re talking about. Species names, on the other hand, are adjectives that have no meaning without objects to modify.

            Too much grammar? Allow me to clarify.

            A man once hired Tim and me to draw a landscape plan for his under-construction house. As we walked the property, he mentioned he loved the japonicas surrounding his home in Georgia. Did he mean camellias? we asked. No, he insisted, japonicas. We pressed for more information, explaining that “japonica” just means “Japanese”: saying he loved the Japanese planted around his house omitted crucial horticultural information. Japanese what? Maples? Camellias? Ligustrum? Hollies? We went round and round on this topic for about 20 minutes, then just gave up. Walter, unmoved by either Linnaean logic or reason, wanted japonicas. 

Walter notwithstanding, when coupled with a genus, specific epithets give helpful information about the plant being named. They may hint at the plant’s anatomical structures or tactile qualities; its habit, color, or origin; some person associated with it; its native habitat; smells emanating from it; resemblances to other plants; or miscellaneous attributions. Here are a few examples from each category.
The star-like flower of
Magnolia stellata
  •     Anatomical structures: flora/um/us and florida/um/us mean flowers; folia/um/us and phylla/um/us refer to leaves; spora/um to asexual reproduction, sperma/um to seeds.  Flowers and leaves each have a raft of identifiers, too. Flowers can be bell-shaped (campanulata/um/us), freely blooming (floribunda/um/us), starry (stellata/um/us), large (grandifolia/um/us), small (parviflora/um/us), and so on. Leaves may also be small (microphylla/um/us and parvifolia/um/us), large (macrophylla/um/us and grandifolia/um/us), narrow (angustifolia/um/us), broad (platyphylla/um/us), etc.
  • Tactile qualities: tomentosa/um/us means fuzzy, hirsuta/um/us is hairy; glabra/um/us is smooth; molle/is is soft; coriacea/um/us, leathery.
  • Habit: arborea/um/us means tree-like; nana/um/us is dwarf; pendula/um/us means weeping; humile/is, low-growing; repens and reptans mean creeping.
  • Colors: rolling down the Roy G. Biv spectrum, rubra/um/us means red, coccinea/um/us is scarlet and rosea/um/us, pink; aurantica/um/us, orange; lutea/um/us means yellow and aurea, gold; viride/is, green; caerulea/um/us, blue; purpurea/um/us and violacea/um/us, purple; alba/um/us means white; glauca/um/us, white-ish; argentea/um/us, silver; and nigra/um/us is black. 
  • Origins: japonica/um/us—as you already know—refers to Japan, as does nipponica/um/us; chinense/is and sinense/is to China; indica/um/us to India; sibirica/um/us to Siberia; canadense/is to Canada. And guess where they’re talking about when missourica/um/us and virginica/um/us get mentioned? A little trickier, nova-belgii and nova-angliae mean New York and New England, respectively. North is boreale/is and south is australe/is.
Carol Petr Thunberg...
  • Commemorative:  thunbergii, thunbergia, and thunbergiana honor Carol Petr Thunberg,  the 18th-century naturalist whose name became the specific epithet of some 254 plants and animals; Miss Ellen Willmott (1858-1934), doyenne of the British Royal Horticultural Society and important English gardener, gave us willmottiana/um/us; and Dr. Augustine Henry of henryana, henryii fame was an English medical doctor who, when posted to China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, indulged his hobby of amateur botany by cataloging Sino-Himalyan flora.
  • Native habitat: alpina/um/us refers to the Alps while any other ol' mountains are montana/um/us; littorale/is and maritima/um/us to the seashore; sylvatica/um/us to woods; and palustre/is to swamps. 
  • Smells: odora/um/us means sweet-scented; moschata/um/us, musky; citriodora/um/us, lemon-scented; foetida/um/us,  strong or unpleasant smelling.
...and his eponymous
Allium thunbergii.
  • Comparisons to other plants: jasminoides means jasmine-like; liliiflora/um/us is lily-flowered; salicifolia/um/us, willow-leaved.
  • Miscellaneous: alata/um/us is winged (a hort term for those corky ridges on the stems of plants like burning bush, Euonymus alata); edule/is, edible; speciosa/um/us means showy; praecox, early; vernalis is spring; and vulgare/is, common.
The Hiller Manual of Trees and Shrubs (see Good Reads, at right) has an appendix translating many common specific epithets that provided most of the above translations. Also well worth checking out is William T. Stearns’ classic Botanical Latin (also in Good Reads).  

Please don't lose sleep over pronunciation. No one actually speaks Latin anymore, not even Catholic priests, so have fun with it. Both Allan Armitage and Tony Avent advise just speaking authoritatively: not too many people will dare to correct you. (Just so you know, I might. An incurable, hard-wired stickler for details, I pore over the pronunciation guides at the back of every issue of Fine Gardening and Horticulture magazines, muttering the syllables aloud to myself, drawing some strange looks if I happen to be in our local coffee shop at the time. To the uninitiated, it probably sounds like incantations or maniacal gibberish.)

The spotty stem of Joe Pye weed, 
Eupatorium maculatum
Botanical Latin opens other etymological doors for word-nerds such as yours truly. You may recall that the previous post started with a lexicographical epiphany I experienced regarding the name of the hospital where I entered the world, Mary Immaculate. I reported the true meaning of “immaculate” coming to me like a flash of lightning. And I owe it all to Joe Pye weed. Why? Because Joe Pye weed’s botanical name is Eupatorium maculatum maculata/um/us” meaning “spotted” or “blotched,” which, in fact, the stems of Joe Pye weed are. “Im” is a prefix meaning “not” or “without” (used only when preceding b, m, or p: otherwise it’s “in”). Ergo, Mary Immaculate is really Mary-Without-Spots.

How can one not be thrilled when stumbling into such a discovery? It beats the hell out of roller-skating down a flight of stairs, I’m here to testify.

It’s really worth the time and trouble to learn botanical names. If for no other reason, you’ll forge some new neural pathways in your brain—the same way brushing your teeth with the hand you don’t usually use does—thus improving your ability to remember where you left your glasses and the car keys so you can get to your local garden center.

Thanks for dropping by.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011


          It came to me like a flash of lightning—the name of the hospital I was born in, Mary Immaculate, means “Mary, unspotted.” And what gave rise to this etymological epiphany? Botanical nomenclature.

          I know, I know. You don’t want to go here. It’s like you saying to me, “Let’s go roller-skating!” in your brightest voice because you love to roller-skate. And I say, “I gave up roller-skating when I was seven years old after roller-skating down the basement steps at my best friend Renée’s house.” (Renée lived in the only house with a basement for miles around.) And you counter with, “Oh, come on! It’s been more than 50 years since then! You’ll have a good time.” And we go roller-skating because I like you a lot and trust you to choose a flat venue, one without stairs. Besides, I’ll be able to leverage this roller-skating disaster-in-the-making when it’s my turn to say, in my brightest voice, “Let’s learn some botanical names!”

I really do understand your reluctance to wade into the murky waters of taxonomy, but I must insist. You can rail against Linnaeus and all his nit-picking descendants, but botanical names contain much pertinent information: first and foremost they impart a high degree of certainty as to any given plant’s identity. So-called “common” names vary from region to region and sometimes from nursery to nursery; reliance upon them courts, if not catastrophe, then at least disappointment.

Wax myrtle,
Morella--formerly Myrica--cerifera

Two examples: in their heads, many people muddle up wax myrtles and crape myrtles. The waxes—Morella cerifera, which up until a recent taxonomists’ convention were filed under Myricaare native, evergreen, very large shrubs. Crapes—Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei—are non-native and, in fact, non-myrtle, deciduous, summer-flowering plants that range from three to 25 feet in height. (Not to jump the gun, but some knowledge of cultivar names and habits comes in useful as well when shopping for crapes.) Imagine your chagrin when you think you’re asking for one and end up with the other.

Full-size crape myrtle,
Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei

Dwarf crape myrtle,
Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei



Lonicera fragrantissima,
not-so-commonly known as
Sweet Breath of Spring
             The second illustration arises from a consultation Tim and I did years ago. The clients' original landscaper's drawing listed one plant by its common name, which was—I kid you not—Sweet Breath of Spring. That was a new one on us. We called around to various nurserymen of our acquaintance with the $64,000 question: they all drew blanks. Focusing all of his phenomenal plant-identifying skills, Tim finally deduced the mystery plant was a winter honeysuckle, with the melodious botanical name of Lonicera fragrantissima (lo-NISS-er-ah fray-gran-TISS-ih-mah). Sweet Breath of Spring? I don’t think so.

            For your edification, while the flowers do smell heavenly when they bloom on bare, whip-like branches in January and February, the shrub itself looks a weedy, tangled mess the other 11 months of the year. Tim and I don’t recommend it.

Be that as it may. I hope you are ready to stipulate the expediency of having a nodding acquaintance with botanical nomenclature.

Okay, here we go. All botanical names consist of at least two Latin words: the first, always capitalized, is the Genus; the second, always lower-case, is the species. Both words, because they are in Latin, rate italics. For instance, both Japanese and Chinese camellias share a genus—Camellia—but are different species: i.e., C. japonica and C. sasanqua. (There’s also the Chinese C. sinensis, the source of tea leaves, and about 30-odd other species, but I don’t want information overload to make you go dial-tone on me just yet.) “Japonica” and “sasanqua” are the specific epithets to the genus Camellia. C. japonica has larger leaves, blooms in winter, and likes shade and acidic soils. C. sasanqua has smaller leaves, blooms in the fall, tolerates more sun and more soil types. These distinctions could be important to your garden design: C. sasanqua does better in the higher pH soils of coastal North Carolina than the more finicky C. japonica.

Camellia japonica 'Black Tie,'
Japanese camellia
Camellia sasanqua 'Setsugekka,'
Chinese camellia


Gardenia jasminoides 'Radicans,'
a.k.a. dwarf gardenia
            When the specific epithet is followed by a word or words enclosed by single quotes, like Gardenia jasminoides ‘August Beauty,’ those words name the cultivar. A cultivar is a selection: it has characteristics that distinguish it from the straight species, and from other cultivars. Because cultivars are usually in English, they aren't italicized. ‘August Beauty,’ ‘Mystery,’ ‘Kleim’s Hardy’ and Radicans’ are all gardenias, but the first matures at five feet high, has a long bloom period and double flowers; the second goes to eight feet with larger-than-species double blooms; the third has single flowers and greater cold tolerance than the species; and the fourth tops out at 12 to 24 inches with smaller-than-species double blooms appearing earlier in the season than any other gardenia. As you can see, working knowledge of cultivars provides helpful information. 
Gardenia jasminoides 'August Beauty' with our dear friend, Min,
and her magic gardening gloves

x Amarcrinum  'Dorothy Hannibal,'
an engineered cross between
an Amaryllis and a Crinum
 When a cultivar name a) follows the genus directly or b) follows an x, it means one of two things: 1) the label maker didn’t know or didn’t care about the species; or 2) the plant is a hybrid, the progeny of an arranged marriage. Hybrids result from human-engineered crosses between two or more cultivars (like Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’); two species (such as Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens, a cross between American and English hollies); or two genuses (as in x Amarcrinum, an amalgam of Amaryllis and Crinum).

Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum 'Ruby'
(pink flowers, on left);
Loropetalum chinense (straight species,
white flowers, on right)
Now, if the selected plant differs from the straight species because of a naturally occurring mutation, we then see Genus-species-var.-species-cultivar, Genus-species-forma-species-cultivar or Genus-species-subsp.-species-cultivar. Var. means “variant,” forma means (duh) “form,” and subsp. means “sub-species.” Take Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum, the red-leaved loropetalum, as an example. Straight species Loropetalum chinense (chuh-NEN-see) has green leaves, white flowers and matures to ten feet high by eight wide. The first of the red-leaved varieties, with burgundy-toned leaves and pink flowers, was spotted in a bed of green loropetalums by some astute plantsman, who then selected it to play with, to see if he could duplicate the mutation. Which he could, and did, leading to the spate of var. rubrum cultivars—with varying heights, foliage sizes and burgundy-ness, with pink to lavender to crimson blooms—on the market today.

            See? The basics aren’t so difficult. Don’t let that all-American fear of foreign languages get you down. You speak pretty good English, right? English is a Latin-based language, so you already know more than you think. Naturally, people who took Latin in high school and Catholics born somewhat before Vatican II may have a slight edge. But I, raised Lutheran and a student of high school and college French, turned out to have almost an idiot-savant facility with botanical names. Really, many people have been amazed by this slightly scary ability of mine. Who knows what hidden talents you may possess?

            More on real-world applications of binomial nomenclature next time.


 The Fitzes' fresh-cut
Christmas tree from the mountains
of North Carolina
            About that fake Christmas tree of yours: consider this snippet from a 2008 EPA report about children’s exposure to lead. “Artificial Christmas trees made of PVC degrade under normal conditions. About 50 million U.S. households have artificial… trees, of which about 20 million are at least nine years old, the point at which dangerous lead exposures can occur.”

            What to do? Get real. Fresh-cut trees are grown in every state, so you can buy local(ish). The average Christmas tree takes 15 years to reach harvest stage, emitting oxygen and sequestering carbon dioxide all the way. Often planted on land inhospitable to other crops, they also provide habitat for critters and contribute to sustainable management of watersheds, wetlands and riparian environments. Only four percent of the 343,000-plus acres of Christmas trees counted in the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture (your tax dollars at work) required supplemental irrigation. And they’re recyclable! Check out some suggestions for post-holiday tree treatment at

            And thanks for dropping by.