It’s plant catalogue season. Plant Delights and Derry Watkins’ Special Plants both arrived in the mail today, although I also seem to be getting quite a lot via email. Selfishly, my preferred format for the long, slow perusal required of a first-rate catalogue is on paper. (Next best is the iPad I don’t yet possess.) A string of computer glitches has put me in a technophobic mood, not to mention the glut of Clay Shirky reading I did yesterday, not to mention the new Gmail format. That this process of constant upgrades and innovation seems to have hit breakneck speeds is why I expect to wake up one morning looking like this fellow. (Image found here)
Did I already mention that I loathe the new Gmail format? Like the insomniac developers at Google who just can’t leave well enough alone, plant names can also really grate on the nerves. Just check any catalogue list of hosta or daylily offerings. Then there are those names that bring really sweet associations, like Melianthus ‘Purple Haze,’ which always reminds me of my brother’s hero worship of Jimi Hendrix, and when he mastered a reasonable approximation of the guitar solo from ‘Little Wing’ and first played it, to the rapturous awe of my 11-year-old self. Different song entirely, but if it wasn’t for the purple haze all in his eyes, we wouldn’t have the perfect name for this compact cultivar of Melianthus major with the lovely purple wash to its serrated leaves. The agave ‘Jaws’ is another name I never forget, which surely must be the aim when selecting names. But my being unable to forget this agave’s name might also have something to do with the fact that I coinicidentally purchased it on the day Roy (“That’s some bad hat, Harry”) Scheider died, February 10, 2008. Unfortunately, I can’t cite a source for this melianthus at the moment, but Plant Delights carries ‘Jaws’ in its extensive online agave offerings.
Agave ‘Mr. Ripple.’ Another memorable name.
But the name of this dark-leaved, lophomyrtus I transplanted yesterday always eludes me.
(Checking old blog entries, I find it’s ‘Red Dragon.’ Evergreen New Zealander.)
The euphorbia I remember only as not the weak grower ‘Tasmanian Tiger,’ a name easy to recall. Its true name, ‘Silver Swan,’ I can’t seem to commit to memory.
Roses tend to have memorable names, even when in French, e.g. Cuisse De Nymphe (“Thigh of Nymph”).
But the difficulty in finding catchy names for cultivars is nothing compared to the slow progress made in describing plants in Latin.
“Botanists are probably only about halfway through describing the plants on Earth, with roughly 200,000 species described. Yet only about 2,000 names get published a year at the current pace.” (ScienceNews.)
And having to publish new species in a printed format has proven cumbersome in the electronic age:
“[I]n July 2011, the international congress that meets every six years to revise the nomenclature code convened in Melbourne, Australia, and voted to accept certain forms of electronic publication.” (ScienceNews.)
“[R]esearchers have agreed to drop the requirement for hard copies of papers describing new species. Also vanishing from the code is a requirement that species must come with a Latin description.” (Nature.)
Names must still be in binomial Latin, as prescribed since Linnaeus, just not the physical descriptions. Beginning January 2012, “diagnostic botanical descriptions may be written in Latin or English, and the electronic publication of new names is accepted,” The New York Times 1/5/12, “The New Universal Language of Plants.”
Now, that’s progress even I can appreciate.
Added 1/23/12: “No longer will botanists have to write sentences like: ‘Arbor usque ad 6 m alta. Folia decidua; lamina oblanceolata vel elliptica-oblongata, 2-7 cm longa,’ as I did in 2009, describing a new species from Mexico. Instead, I could simply write that Bourreria motaguensis was a six-meter-tall tree with deciduous leaves that were 2 to 7 centimeters long.” – “Flora, Now in Plain English,” by James S. Miller, dean and vice president for science at the New York Botanical Garden. The New York Times, 1/22/12.