Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Root of a Plant's Name

I went outside to look for the blood on the umbels of the Queen Anne's Lace that proliferate in certain parts of my yard. But, probably because it is near autumn and the once-white florets have faded in color and shrunk in shape, it was no longer visible.

Legend has it that the tiny faux exsanguinations are the result of Queen Anne of Denmark's carelessness while tatting (and probably chatting) with her court one day during her late 16th/ early 17th reign. (

Legend likewise attributes exactly the same tale to Queen Anne of England (Mrs. King James I), also an expert lace maker. (ibid)

Frankly I was hoping for Anne Boleyn, the beheaded second wife of Henry VIII -- but I suppose that the tiny floral scarlet centerpiece is too subtle a remembrance of the woman for whom the bearded English king tossed aside his first spouse and his allegiance to the Church of Rome.

In any event Queen Anne's Lace has been my favorite uninvited flower ever since I discovered my first one in my first garden at my first house in 1977. Since that time I have made it an article of faith to never take the life of, or decapitate, any Daucus Carota, no matter where I found it.

The root of a plant's name is oftentimes as interesting as the basis of its botany -- at least to someone who enjoys handling words as much as handling dirt.

During my early years in my mens garden club one of the members came to our monthly meeting with a real-life demonstration of the origin of the moniker Impatiens -- a flower with which I, at the time a neophyte plantsman, was totally unfamiliar.

Ernie, a chemist by profession who approached horticulture with the same scientific rigor, brought with him some several samples of the plant -- each one containing what he called "mature seed capsules".

He held one up for all to see and then stroked its underside ever so gently. The tiny containers exploded, sending a spray of seeds several feet out into the room and over the crowd. This mechanism is known as "explosive dehiscence" -- a ballistic form of dispersal that allows the flower to propagate its species without the assistance of animals. He repeated this demo with great joy until all of his specimens were depleted and the room was totally filled with a milky way of floating spores.

I was so excited by my newly acquired knowledge that I could hardly wait to get home and tell Mars about it. While I was not able to totally recreate Ernie's presentation, with a little creativity she quickly got the idea.

We have grown impatiens (also know as "touch me nots") basically every year since then. I am always careful not to brush against them -- and to keep my mouth closed when I am in their immediate vicinity.

Looking around my yard I also see some Phlox -- "1706, from L., where it was the name of a flower (Pliny), from Gk. phlox 'kind of plant with showy flowers' (probably Silene vulgaris), lit. 'flame', related to phlegein 'to burn' (see bleach). Applied to the N.Amer. flowering plant by Ger. botanist Johann Jakob Dillenius (1684-1747)." (

And there are a goodly number of Black-eyed Susans as well (aka Rudbeckia Rud beck) -- "So named after Olaf Rudebeck, a Swedish botanist." ( All the sources I have checked agree on Olaf. However none of the references offer even a hint as to who Susan might be.

In addition there is some Russian Sage (entitled in honor of General V.A. Perovski), a ton of Hosta (named for Nicholaus Tomas Host, physician to the Emperor of Austria), and an occasional bee balm (aka Monarda – derived from Nicolas Monardes, physician and botanist of Seville.)

Interesting stories, but not really exciting. I much prefer my imagined history of Anne Boleyn's Headless Lace or Ernie's Impatiens lesson.

Violence and sex sells.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Weeds Make Haste

Weeds are an important part of life.

In his play Richard III William Shakespeare wrote, "Sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste." -- using a garden metaphor to explain the political problems of the day.

And I am certain that May Sarton, gardener and essayist, had weeds in mind when she penned the following:
"True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root."

Philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson seem to like them --
"What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered."

But poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow do not --
"Take care of your garden
And keep out the weeds,
Fill it with sunshine
Kind words and kind deeds."

And botanists seem ambivalent --
"For me, a weed is a plant out of place." (Donald Culross Peattie)

There is even "weed dating", a garden-based process for those in the mate-hunting game to meet someone new.

But, whether you consider them to be an apt analogy, a guilty pleasure, the ultimate pain, or a road map to romance – without them, there would not be no such thing as weeding – an activity that I, at least, would sorely miss.

There is comfort in

the simple act of weeding –

if you’re not the weed.