Plant names are largely latin, and latin seems to be, for most people, a language of strange, dark magic. You plant nerds know what I mean, right? You can walk down the street and mutter something about Buxus japonica or Lonicera sempervirens and people around you will start crossing themselves and giving you plenty of space. Well, names have meanings, and maybe we all instinctively know that and are a little awed or skeptical of it. More likely is that it’s just annoying listening to a bunch of names that, to non-plant people, are so much gibberish.
Whether called love-in-a-pull or balloon plant, there is a little weed that grows along fencelines or out in un-mowed pastures around here. It makes tiny little white flowers that are pretty easy to miss. What stands out on this plant are the little one-inch diameter green seed-pods. These seed-pods will float on water, and if we get one of those gully-washers that we get every other year or so they’ll sail on the temporary flood to the far corner of the pasture. This, to me, is a pretty cool feature of the plant. But what I really like about this plant is its name: Cardiospermum halicacabum. Poking around on the internet, I couldn’t find what halicacabum means, but the Cardiospermum part is neatly self-descriptive. There are generally three, and occasionally four seeds inside the little balloon seedpod (which will audibly pop when it’s still green- it really is one of the coolest plants). These seeds are about the size of a peppercorn, and are green until they dry, and then they turn black. But whether green or black, they have a little white heart on them, which is more striking and more impressive when the rest of the seed is black. So what you get is a heart on a seed, or a heart-seed, or a Cardio(heart)spermum(seed). Cool, huh? Granted, you have to be in touch with your inner nerd.
A great tree for this area, and one you can see all over Austin, is the burr oak, Quercus macrocarpa. All oaks are Quercus, so that part’s easy enough. But macrocarpa? Macro= big carpa=fruit. Take a look at the acorn from a burr oak, and it all comes together.
These nuts are often the size of a golf ball or bigger, and they’re snuggled into a big, furry looking cap. Every fall, the first couple of burr oak acorns I see make me want to glue of couple of those shaky eyes on them and keep them on my desk for a while. Along with the big acorns, the burr oak features thick, deeply corrugated bark and larger, much more deeply lobed leaves than other oaks in this area.
So here’s what happens to me here at the nursery
several times probably just once a week: there’s a customer looking for a 45 gallon Mexican white oak (Quercus polymorpha). So I jump into a golf cart and take off into the trees to find the very best one. As I go past row after row of oak trees, there’s a running dialog in my head: “live oak, live oak, chinquapin oak, burr oak, cedar elm, chinquapin oak… where in the heck are the white oaks?” It’s not until I finally admit defeat and actually check the tags that I realize that some of those chinquapin oaks I was looking at are actually Mexican white oaks. Those wascally wabbits.
Quercus polymorpha is either a trickster that disguises itself to look like some other- any other- oak tree, or it’s just not satisfied being the great oak tree that it is. And the white oak is a great tree. It’s one of the faster growing oak trees for this area. The new leaves in the early spring come out pinkish to white, looking like flowers. The older leaves lose the pink tinge, but maintain a soft, rounded look. But that’s only when it looks like itself. Often, it takes on the look of a chinquapin or, in some cases, a burr oak. This would bring its parentage into question, if you’re the sort of person who looks at that sort of thing. This failure to commit to one specific look is what gets the white oak the moniker polymorpha; because it can change (morph) to look like several (poly) other kinds of trees. But we love them no matter the shape of their leaves.
|A white oak masquerading as a chinquapin.|
Sometimes, the specific epithet of a plant conveys the plants origins. Kerria japonica is a yellow flowering shrub originally from Japan. The crape myrtle that everyone is familiar with, that you can see throughout the American south, is called Lagerstroemia indica, and hails from India. Now, to be perfectly precise about this, there may well have been Kerrias in China, or Lagerstroemias in Korea, but they got named for where they were first discovered by a European explorer. So, class, where does Cercis canadensis come from? Walla Walla, Washington, right? Close enough.
Then there are the plants that get named for the people who found them, or at least who first recorded them. Remember a blog several months ago about Ferdinand Lindheimer? That guy that had a couple of dozen plants and a snake named after him? The father of Texas botany? Yeah, that guy. One of the plants named after him is Nolina lindheimeri, a grass-like plant that takes 100 degree days and a dry, rocky soil and asks for ‘more, please!’ Not a bad legacy for a tough old bird like Ferdinand who withstood floods, droughts, poisonous snakes, starvation and other fun threats to his life all in the name of expanding the botanical knowledge of Texas.
Lantana horrida, or Texas Lantana, grows wild along fence rows and in pastures. Birds help to spread it by eating the seeds. It’s a pretty plant that sports yellow/orange blooms and can withstand extreme Texas summers without blinking. It’s tough, it’s pretty, but whew! That smell! It’s not something you would notice unless you crush the leaves, and then it’s pretty strong. I should add here that I actually, just a little, kinda like the smell of lantana leaves, but we’ve already established that I’m a weirdo, right? In any case, it’s that odor that gives Texas lantana it’s latin handle: Lantana horrida. ‘Cause it smells horrid.
During the summer of 2010, the Houston Museum of Natural Science attracted crowds so large that they had to be staged in smaller groups and kept in long lines. The main attraction wasn’t the bones of some new dinosaur that were found, or a rare, snazzy, sparkly gem. It was a flower. Amorphophallus titanium take years to bloom, and once they do, the flower lasts just a few days and then dies, hopefully leaving behind a few seeds. The Amorphophallus being displayed at the museum in Houston was named Lois, though a more common name for it is ‘corpse-flower’. So, at the height of flowering, guess what ‘Lois’ smelled like. It wasn’t exactly a spring-fresh breeze, nor was it the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking. It was significantly more putrid, and a lot of people paid money to be exposed to it (and of course I was one of them). But it’s not its smell that gives Amorphophallus titanium its name. This flower, for all its rarity, is big. By the time hundreds of museum-goers were shuffling past it and wishing they had smell-o-vision on their cameras, the spadix (the central part of the flower) was nearly six feet tall. So the specific epithet (the second part of the plant’s latin name) comes from it’s size: titanum = big (like the titanic, but not as tragic). As far as the Amorphophallus part, uh, here’s a picture. You figure it out.
Along those lines, there is an absolutely beautiful plant commonly called butterfly pea vine. When I worked in a retail nursery, customers would gush over it and occasionally come in and ask for it if they didn’t immediately see any. Every now and then, maybe toward the end of a particularly long day when I was feeling a bit punchy, I would ask them for clarification. “Do you mean the Clitoria?” Some of the reactions were pretty entertaining. Sometimes you have to make your own fun. Butterfly pea vine is otherwise known as Clitoria ternatea. Why? Beats me, but here's a picture. Now let’s move on.
So, I love plant names. Some of them are great for the self-description hidden in the obscure latin names. Some of them are just kind of funny. Some of them might not get past the censors. Chinese hat plant is one I’ve never grown, and I think I’ve only seen an actual plant once. But it has one of the coolest names: Holmskioldia sanguinea. Sanguinea just means that it has red stems; that’s straightforward enough. Holmskioldia is where the magic happens. Holmskioldia. Hooooolms(likeSherlock)keeeyyyyyohhhldeeah. There’s a mantra for you. That’s a word you’ll have to practice until it trips lightly off the tongue, and then just keep it with you. Bring it out when the time’s right; you’ll know when. Personally, I think it’d be a great nickname for a little niece or nephew: “Here’s comes the little Holmskioldia right now. What’s happening, Lagerstroemia?”
By the way, you haven’t really heard plant names until you hear them spoken by someone who basically already speaks latin. Last summer, I had to chance to attempt to communicate with a group of Italians. Essentially, we were reduced to pointing and smiling and using latin plant names. When I say Teucrium frutescens or Lagerstroemia indica, at the very best communication happens. When Italians say it, it’s as though they savor the words, and what happens is linguistic magic.