Plant names

Lavatera is lost - but not Coleus

Malva (left) and Lavatera - both now Malva.
Malva (left) and Lavatera - both are now Malva.

The latest issue of the RHS magazine The Plant Review arrived recently – always a treat – and tucked away in what they call Classification Corner is the news that the genus Lavatera no longer exists – it’s been amalgamated into Malva.

Now most of us, taking a look at a Lavatera (above right) and at a Malva (above left), would wonder why they were separated in the first place. Needless to say, it’s all down to our old friend Carl Linnaeus, way back in 1753, and what Royal Horticultural Society botanist Dawn Edwards refers to as “differences in epicalyx segment fusion”.

Yes, but what on earth is the epicalyx? Well, the green calyx encloses the petals in bud, and the epicalyx refers to the little green bits that are outside the base of the calyx. Linnaeus thought that whether or not these little bits were fused together at the base (in Lavatera) or not fused at the base (as in Malva) was important.

It wasn’t long before botanists decided that Linnaeus had probably got it wrong but no one did anything about it until relatively recently. Back in 1998 molecular studies revealed that this division did not reflect the true relationship between the species grouped under Lavatera and those grouped under Malva. So, after careful deliberation – and they always deliberate long and hard these days, the RHS and botanists around the word agree - they’re all Malva.

I have to say: I can’t really disagree. And as they’re less separate than we thought, perhaps someone should try crossing them together…. Could be interesting.

• I should mention that it’s also been decided that Coleus are, indeed, Coleus. Not Solenostemon. Or Plectranthus. Which is good news all round.


They're all foxgloves, Digitalis - OK?

Digitalis x valinii (centre) and its parents-©GrahamRice-©T&M-©ScottZona

“The smartness and absurdity of plant names” is one of things I’m going to be discussing here on the re-launched Grahams Garden blog, as I did on its predecessor Transatlantic Gardener. We can start with an old favourite given heightened absurdity by the good people at the Royal Horticultural Society – Digiplexis.

“Oh, no!” I hear you cry… Yes, I’m sorry. And we’re going to do Mangave as well…

So. Here’s the story.

Our British native foxglove, a familiar tough biennial, is Digitalis purpurea (above left). The Canary Island foxglove is Digitalis canariensis (above right), a tender rather woody perennial. Charles Valin, then plant breeder at Thompson & Morgan, crossed the two species together and gave the resulting plant the name of Illumination Pink (above, centre). It won the Chelsea Flower Show Plant Of The Year award in 2012.

But, before the Canary Island foxglove was Digitalis canariensis, it had been Isoplexis canariensis – botanists had thought it was sufficiently different from other foxgloves to be in a genus all of its own. Closer examination proved that this was a mistake and the fact that it crossed easily with D. purpurea was one of the reasons that it was re-classified as a Digitalis. The RHS botanists gave the new hybrid the botanical name of D. x valinii, commemorating the breeder who first made the cross.

Other breeders then got in on the act and made their own crosses. And, somewhere along the way, over in the United States, someone decided that crossing two different genera together – Digitalis and Isoplexis – sounded much more impressive than crossing together two different Digitalis and the name Digiplexis® was born. This was much more a marketing exercise than it was a piece of thoughtful botanical nomenclature.

So, let’s be clear. Digiplexis® is an invalid, made up name with no standing whatsoever and which only serves to confuse gardeners. So it was especially maddening to see, just the other day, in the new plant centre at the RHS Garden at Wisley in Surrey, plants labelled Digiplexis® (below). And note the little symbol for a Registered Trade mark. This is a marketing exercise, not a plant name. Aren’t plant names confusing enough, without this sort of nonsense - and without one branch of the RHS muddling up the good sense of another?

But wait, there’s more. Pretty much the same thing has happened with Mangave®. Note that little ® again. This time we’re talking about rosette-forming succulents mainly from arid regions of the Americas – Manfreda and Agave. Nearly twenty years ago it was recognised that there was no justification for keeping these two genera separate so Manfreda was merged into Agave. All very sensible.

But then in the same way as with those foxgloves someone realised that, from a marketing point of view, crossing plants from two different genera was much more impressive than crossing two different species of the same genus. And Mangave® was born, recommended for patio planters.

But there’s payback for this sleight of hand. That first Digitalis hybrid turned out to be far less hardy than was originally announced and so the name Digiplexis® has become attached to plants that fail to make it through their first winter. Something similar will probably happen with Mangave®, which in the UK need grittier compost and more winter protection than is often mentioned.

But haven’t we suffered enough? In recent years plant taxonomists have taken on board the idea that they exercise caution in their decisions about plant names and respect the needs of the wider plant community. The shoot-in-foot madness of trying to make us call chrysanthemums Dendranthema is long gone.

But then someone else comes along and confuses everyone all over again. And the very least that the RHS can do is make sure that it agrees with itself.

Digitalis x valinii on sale as Digitplexis at the RHS Plant Centre at Wisley


Plant names with a groan

Nurseries and plant breeders plunder a huge range of sources when dreaming up names for their new plants. Gone are the days of ‘Purple Prince’ and ‘Snow Queen’, most of the names in that traditional style have already been used – and you can’t use the same name twice for the same kind of plant. So new names are in constant demand.

Pulmonaria 'Dark VaderOne of the most popular tricks is to adapt a familiar phrase, often by creating a groaning pun – which may, or may not, have some relation to the plant itself. Here are a few examples from books, music and films.

Pulmonaria ‘Dark Vader’
We all know Darth Vader from Star Wars - not a very nice person. Indeed he’s become a popular symbol of evil. So it seems odd to adapt his name and attach it to a plant in the hope, presumably, that it will help sales.

Pulmonaria ‘Dark Vader’ (left, click to enlarge) is a lungwort developed by Dan Heims at Terra Nova Nurseries in Oregon and is known, depending who you ask, for its silver spotted, dark green foliage or its flowers which open pink and then turn dark blue. Neither the foliage nor the flowers seem especially dark to me - and certainly bear no relation to the black of Darth Vader’s costume - although its many months of brightly spotted foliage and its prolific spring flowering make it a valuable shade garden perennial. It was introduced in 1999 although ‘Cotton Cool’, introduced the same year, is a better plant and much more popular. Most of the other pulmonarias Dan introduced that year are no longer grown.

Pulmonaria ‘Spotted Dick’ (Yes, really!) I’ll get to this another time but, in the meantime, if anyone has a picture of this variety please let me know!

Tomato ‘Sweetheart Of The Patio’
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was sixth album by American rock band The Byrds, and their first to fully embrace country music. Released in 1968, to this day it remains an iconic country rock album. It’s simply wonderful.

‘Sweetheart Of The Patio’ is a semi-trailing patio tomato for containers developed by John Burrows at Pro-Veg seeds near Cambridge, England. It is known for its early fruit set, its prolific crop of 1in/2.5cm fruits and especially its resistance to late blight disease. It’s closely related to the All America Selections winner ‘Lizzano’ and has been popular in the US since its introduction a few years ago.

Chili Pepper ‘Born To Be Mild’
Born To Be Wild was a single released by the American rock band Steppenwolf in 1968. It was written by the splendidly named Mars Bonfire – who previously went by Dennis Edmonton and before that Dennis Eugene McCrohan. Obviously, if you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, Dennis Eugene McCrohan doesn’t really cut it. Mars Bonfire is much more like it, and a pretty good name for a hot chili pepper, actually.

Heuchera 'Grape Expectations', Begonia 'Truffle Cream', Alyssum 'Snow Princess'. Image ©GardenPhotos.comAnyway, Chili Pepper ‘Born To Be Mild’ is a slim, 3in/7.5cm long pepper with all the flavor of a jalapeno but none of the heat.

Heuchera ‘Grape Expectations’
Here, the name of the Charles Dickens classic has undergone a clumsy metamorphosis and been applied to a new heuchera with grape-colored foliage (right, in June, click to enlarge) and the failed expectation that it will retain that that rich coloring all summer. In fact, while grapey in spring and early summer and in fall, it turns silver in between.

Developed at Walters Gardens, MI and available retail next year, Walters have also developed the red-flowered ‘Berry Timeless’ so we can see where they’re going with naming their names. In the same style, there’s also Ilex verticillata Berry Heavy (‘Spravy’) and Berry Nice (‘Spriber’), selected by Dale Deppe at Spring Meadow Nurseries, MI.

As it happens, ‘Berry Timeless’ is proving to be an exceptional plant in its first year in the garden. More about that next time.


The Welsh poppy gets a change of name

Meconopsis cambrica. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
As I mentioned here recently, there’s a plan to change the classic botanical name of the Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica. Chris Grey-Wilson, the world’s leading expert on Meconopsis, first proposed the idea of restricting the name Meconopsis to the Himalayan poppies in the botanical journal Taxon in 2012. He repeats the suggestion in his stunning new monograph on Meconopsis, which was published recently, and proposes a new botanical name for the Welsh poppy.

Actually, what he says, basically, is this: if you apply all the legitimate and agreed botanical rules, the Welsh poppy is in fact the only true Meconopsis. All the Himalayan blue poppies that have captured our imagination for so long are, botanically, so very different that they need a genus of their own. Fair enough.

But, because all the blue poppies are so fabulous and so well known to gardeners, we should call them Meconopsis and call the Welsh poppy something else. Technically, the Welsh poppy should probably be put back into the genus Papaver, where our old friend Carl Linnaeus first assigned it back in 1753. But, for various botanical reasons I needn’t go into, that would mess up the taxonomy of the seventy or so other species of Papaver. So Christopher suggests creating a new generic name: Parameconopsis. The Welsh poppy would become Parameconopsis cambrica.

He says that continuing to call the Welsh poppy Meconopsis cambrica and creating a new name for all the others “would be widely deplored in the botanical and horticultural worlds”. I wonder…

I’m entirely happy to accept that the two need to be separated. But, frankly, it sounds to me as if he simply wants to give the everyday, easy-to-grow, self-sows-everywhere plant a new name and retain the well known name for the tricky-to-grow ones with all the exotic and romantic Himalayan associations.

So I thought it would be interesting to see what the Welsh thought about all this and I asked Simon Goodenough, Curator of Horticulture at The National Botanic Garden of Wales.

“The Meconopsis debate has begun here in Wales,” he told me, “and there are a number of people who disagree with the idea of changing the botanical name of the Welsh poppy. However, I think changing its name will be a great opportunity to raise its status as a unique plant and one which Welsh botanists, gardeners and the people of Wales can be proud of. The National Botanic Garden of Wales will celebrate this change, however it plays out.” So, “always look on the bright side” is the message. Rather clever, actually…

Meconopsis aambrica - double flowered orange. Image ©Plant World SeedsAs I said, it’s not the first time the Welsh poppy has had a change of name. Our old friend Carl Linnaeus named it Papaver cambricum back in 1753, but then in 1814 a botanist called Louis Viguier separated it out into a genus of its own. You see why here. It’s also been classified as an Argemone, a Cerastites and a Stylophorum – but let’s not dig all that up. Now, it’s going to be Parameconopsis cambrica. But I have the feeling that when someone finally takes a good long look at the whole poppy family it might be on the move again.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering… Gardeners in Britain and in North America can order seven different forms of the Welsh poppy, whatever its botanical name, from Plant World Seeds - including this double orange.


Transatlantic tomato taste tests 2014

Tomato 'Sweet-Aperitif' was top in the UK taste testA year or two back I did a pairing of posts here on the annual tomato taste tests at Morningsun Herb Farm in California and the tomato taste testing at Ball Colegrave in Oxfordshire. Now the results from this year’s tomato taste tests at these two locations are in – so what’s the news?

At Morningsun Herb Farm the top three varieties this year, out of eighty six tasted, were ‘Sungold’ at number 3, ‘Italian Sweet Beefsteak’ at number 2 and ‘Sun Sugar’ (below, click to enlarge) at number 1.

Rose Loveall at Morningsun reports that because of problems with water pumps, the tomato field was kept drier this year and, as a result, flavor was generally better but the skins were tougher. This led to fewer cherry tomatoes, with their high skin-to-flesh ratio, towards the top of the ratings. ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’, which we’d enjoyed enormously this year when I bought it from our local farmers’ market, has especially small fruits and sank down the ratings compared with previous years. Tomato 'Sun Sugar' was top in the American taste test

Older British readers will remember Clay Jones, a much loved host of Gardeners’ World TV show thirty years ago, and the author of a book on tomatoes. He told me exactly the same thing: less water, better flavor – but, he pointed out, a lower yield.

You can see the full results for 2014, as well as for 2010 to 2013 plus the five year average on the Morningsun Herb Farm 2014 Taste Test Results page.

The results from Ball Colegrave are less comprehensive and they concentrate on cherry tomatoes. They list the top ten for 2014 and also for 2011, 2012, and 2013. The winner this year was ‘Sweet Aperitif’ (top, click to enlarge), with ‘Nectar’ second and ‘Sungold’ third. Last year’s winner was ‘Sungold’, ‘Sweet Aperitif’ won in 2012 but the 2011 winner, ‘Sweet Million’ slipped to number six this year. Find out more on the Ball Colegrave 2014 results page.

‘Sungold’ is the only variety to be highly rated in both tests this year and I’m not sure if the absence of other varieties in both top tens is down to different conditions and growing methods or tasters’ different preferences. But ‘Sungold’ is clearly adaptable and much appreciated – it’s also naturally resistant to two races of fusarium wilt as well as verticillium – a big plus.

British gardeners might like to take another look at my piece from last year on American tomatoes for British gardeners. In reverse, well… There are so many varieties available in North America that American gardeners don't need to look to Britain. Sweet peas, on the other hand, is the exact opposite.


Spoons for Escargot and more crazy plant names

Hemerocallis 'Spoons For Escargots' Image © Strictly Daylilies strictlydaylilies.com)I’ve been working on a piece for Amateur Gardening, Britain’s long established weekly magazine (Yes, Britain has two weekly gardeing magazines), about plants with names suited to special occasions. You know… ‘Golden Wedding’ rose, that sort of thing. There are plants for birthdays, plants for anniversaries, plants for retirements and… and plants for bereavements.

So, when your beloved terrier or retriever finally passes away, you can plant a rose called ‘In Memory of My Dog’ on its grave. Yes, really! And if yours is a cat household, there’s ‘In Memory of My Cat’! No sign yet of roses called ‘In Memory Of My Goldfish’ or ‘In Memory Of My Stick Insect’ let alone ‘In Memory of My Waistline’.

Of course, you know how I love the oddities of plant names and nothing beats the communist lilacs. But looking through the new plants that are being introduced this year there are some interesting curiosities amongst the names.

There’s a new abutilon rather oddly called 'Eric's Wotsit' and a clivia called, yes, 'Sweet Undress'… hmmm. Of course, as usual, daylilies and hostas excel with 'Romeo is Bleeding' and 'Spoons for Escargot' (above, click to enlarge) daylilies along with 'Tokyo Smog' and 'Rosedale Tractor Seat' hostas. And Americans will be horrified by the pulmonaria called 'Spotted Dick'… (It’s a traditional British baked desert, spotted with raisins).... I'll say no more.

Got any more?

Thank you to Strictly Daylilies for permission to use their picture of Hemerocallis 'Spoons for Escargot'.


The Petunia that's an Ipomoea and more botanical fibs

Mutant Petunias Sing The Blues - New York Times 6 January 2014. Screen shot from NY Times website, Jan 6, 2014, by BotanicalAccuracy.comThe news that two prestigious publications, Science magazine and the New York Times (left, click to enlarge), both used the same image of an Ipomoea to illustrate a story about a genetic breakthrough in the development of blue petunias took me from Garden Rant, where a guest post by Lena Struwe laid it all out in glorious detail, to Lena Struwe’s own Botanical Accuracy blog.

Dr Lena Struwe is Associate Professor at the School of Enviromental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey and her Botanical Accuracy blog is simply wonderful.

As well as her piece about the morning glory pretenting to be a petunia, she’s pointed out (in impressive and entertaining detail) that:
Batman’s nemesis Poison Ivy is often actually clothed in English Ivy to keep her decent;
The plants known as ‘Magilla Perilla’ and ‘Magilla Vanilla’ are very definitely Solenostemon (coleus) and not Perilla at all (see below);
Many retailers and wholesalers use images of Philadephus to show that their products contain jasmine;
The logo used to celebrate 50 years of Greening Singapore by their National Parks service shows mostly European weeds;

And more… It’s really fascinating, and funny – and all so thoroughly researched. Take a look – BotanicalAccuracy.com

And here are links to some of my posts here on Transatlantic Gardener that deal with similar issues:
The good, the bad - and the chrysanthemums
Fun with plant names
From the depths of the black lagoon arose – Dendranthema!
Another nursery plant name fiasco
Cannas, agastaches, bluebells, bluebonnets – and Star Trek Voyager

And here's Solenostemon (coleus) 'Perilla Magilla' - definitely not a Perilla. And, actually, it can't be called Solenostemon 'Perilla Magilla' - cultivar names are not allowed to include a genus name!
Solenostemon (coleus) 'Perilla Magilla'. Image ©GardenPhotos.com

Screen shot from NY Times website, Jan 6, 2014, by BotanicalAccuracy.com



Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ – why the unsuitable name?

Nepeta (catmint) 'Walker's Low' - not really low at all. Image ©Walters GardensWorking on an article about catmints, Nepeta, recently it suddenly struck me: Why does Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’ (left, click to enlarge) have such an unsuitable name? You’d never describe it as “low” growing.

Checking what I said in my own book – my big fat Encyclopedia of Perennials – I see that I gave the height as 24in/60cm. When the Chicago Botanic Garden reported on their trial of nepetas back in 2007, they gave it 30in/75cm. America’s Perennial Plant Association, when it gave ‘Walker’s Low’ its Perennial Plant Of The Year award in 2007 gave its height as 24-36in/60-90cm.

Of course it tends to flop, rather elegantly in fact, and if trussed up to keep the stems vertical would be even taller – though perhaps less appealing. But how did a plant that can reach 3ft/90cm in height come to be called “low”?

I’ve been rooting around trying to find out for the last few weeks – and have not come up with a definite answer. Can anyone help?

It’s often said to have been raised in Ireland or named for an Irish garden, but the leads turn out to be dead ends. The garden writer Jane Taylor (author of The Shady Garden, Fragrant Gardens and of the very useful Drought Tolerant Plants) has been cited as having discovered the plant – but I’ve been unable to contact her. [If anyone has contact details, please email me privately.]

Just to emphasize the fact that ‘Walker’s Low’ is not a short plant – we now have a dwarf version, reaching just 15in/38cm. It’s called Junior Walker (‘Novanepjun’) and was created by “gamma-ray mutagenesis” – tissue-cultured plants of ‘Walker’s Low’ were treated with gamma radiation, then grown on, planted out and assessed. One neat, bushy and prolific plant was chosen, give the code name ‘Novanepjun’ and the selling name of Junior Walker – acknowledging the saxophonist of that name, leader of the Tamla Motown band Junior Walker and the All Stars. It’s just starting to appear in the US, not yet in the UK.

So – does anyone have any ideas - or better still facts! - about how ‘Walker’s Low’ got its name?

* My article on nepats appeares in the May issue of the Royal Horticultural Society's magazine, The Garden.

Botanical names really are easier than common names

Cleome hassleriana 'Violet Queen' - or Pink Queen 'Violet Queen'? Image ©Mr Fothergill's SeedsToday I’m working on a project that requires the plants I’m writing about to be organized alphabetically, by common name.

This quickly turns up two big problems:
1.    What is the correct common name for the plants I need to include?
2.    Some entirely different plants share the same common name.

In Britain, common names are used far less than they are here in the US – and very often they’re different. And in different parts of North America, different common names can be used for the same plant. So I turn to the USDA Plants Database, which gives common names for native and introduced plants, even for many rarely seen species.

I need to check Cleome. In Britain, we tend to call the various forms of that impressive tall annual Cleome hassleriana – well, we tend to simply call them Cleome… or perhaps occasionally Spider Flower. But, not very helpfully, Spider Flower is a name also used for those Australian shrubs, Grevillea. OK, confusion is unlikely, but if the plants are listed by common name, the varieties of Cleome and Grevillea - two entirely unrelated plants – would be listed together as Spider Flower as if they were forms of the same plant. Not helpful.

But the USDA Plants Database turns everything upside down by revealing that in North America the common name for Cleome hassleriana - is Pink Queen. Now, there’s a popular old heirloom variety of Cleome hassleriana called ‘Pink Queen’. So we’re in the bizarre position of having to list this plant as Pink Queen ‘Pink Queen’… And not only is there also Pink Queen ‘Purple Queen’ but Pink Queen ‘White Queen’ and Pink Queen ‘Violet Queen’. Makes no sense at all.

Botanical names may sometimes turn out to be tongue-twisters – but Pink Queen ‘Purple Queen’? I don’t think so.