Asking an editor his or her favorite word is like asking a parent to name a favorite child. They’re all special; as my father used to say, though, some are “more special than others.”
But words are not the exclusive domain of language nerds – when was the last time you spent an hour employing no words? – and in the horticulture world, the right word can mean the right sale, or no sale at all.
We’re talking about plant names, yes. Although much has been written about botanical Latin, we explore it yet again in this issue, with a nod and a wink to the father of binomial nomenclature, the good Swede Carl Linnaeus. In my household, “good Swede” and “stubborn Swede” or “hard-headed Swede” are one and the same. So we’ll dispense with the epithets; we all know his reputation. (See “Vivat Linnaeus!” on page 26.)
At any rate, the dynamic duo of Jim Chatfield and Erik Draper make the very good point that without the work of Linnaeus, scientific language – the names of plants in particular – would be a nightmare. You may think it’s confusing; who among us hasn’t become tongue-tied on occasion? And without a doubt, at some point in your horticulture career you’ve been party to the “Cotoneaster joke,” either as prankster or victim. To be fair, I know some Scandinavians who pronounce it “cotton easter” and no one would dare to correct them.
You may also have been the recipient of an eye-roll and an “oh, please!” when you’ve used the proper Latin name for a plant or two or seven. Not in the presence of fellow plant aficionados, I hope, but with family, friends, and even customers. I don’t mind hearing, “huh?” I don’t even mind the stage-whispered, “who does she think she is?” I’d rather fumble for the correct Latin name and get the correct plant than fumble through a series of “common” names that send me far afield.
Even if the cultivar or the trademarked name is off, the “dead” language of Latin can save the day. A retired horticulturist told me of a frustrated customer who called, frantically searching for a plant named “moonhead.” No other description was offered, just an exasperated, “all they asked for was moonhead. I can’t find it anywhere!” When my friend finally asked the customer if she knew the botanical name, she heard, “Well, of course! It’s Coreopsis.”
Aha! Good old Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonhead’. Several dozen ‘Moonbeam’ were shipped that day, much to the customer’s delight.
A coda: There’s always the exception to the rule, isn’t there? I’m particularly enamored of the common name for a common plant, not because I like the plant, but because the common name evokes a legendary, fictional character, perhaps one with superpowers. Phyla lanceolata is lyrical in its own right. But it can’t beat “Lanceleaf Fogfruit,” mild-mannered perennial and defender of common plants everywhere.
Chalk it up to year-end exhaustion; blame it on the frenzy of December’s New Plant Introductions. A proofing error? A production glitch? It doesn’t matter, because I blundered and I owe an apology. In our two-page promotion of the Sweet Melissa Fashion show, Rhapsody in Pink™ crapemyrtle should not – I repeat, should not – include the description, Salsa Red. Doesn’t make sense, does it? Too many margaritas with that salsa? Not an excuse.