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 www.OrganicGardening.com/christmastree.

            And thanks for dropping by.