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What’s in a Name?
Posted on : February 16, 2018

I don’t know how well you know me but I might as well let you in on a dirty little secret. I’m terrible with names. People names that is. I’ve spent my whole life interested in learning the names of plants, animals, butterflies, etc. and apparently either didn’t leave room in my head for people or didn’t care to learn them. I’m talking a serious and embarrassing condition too. Folks can introduce themselves to me and I can’t tell you their names at the end of the sentence.

Friends and Master Gardeners bring books to me to sign and I just hem and haw staring around while the alphabet runs through my head. That’s my only recourse for somebody I’m supposed to know. I go through the alphabet until a letter appears to fit, then I start on the second letter. Meanwhile the person has been standing in front of me for what seems like ages thinking I’ve had a stroke or something. Heck, they may be right.

I do learn some people’s names, starting with the ones named after plants…Holly, Heather, Rose, etc. I also tend to learn the crazy ones just because they wedge themselves into the Jack Russell circus I call my brain. I wish I knew people names but I’m afraid it’s hopeless as there are so many more plants to learn. I figure it’s like mail slots. I know they are going to be filled with mail so I probably shouldn’t store anything else there.

If I was a pure scientist I’d just learn botanical or Latin names of plants. Thanks Carl Linnaeus and his binomial system of nomenclature, all plants in the world have a set of two names, akin to our two names except backwards. In the scientific world, your first name (species) goes last. The first word (genus) is like our last name, a broader category. The cool thing about this system is it’s in Latin and it’s the very same in every country in the world. But I want to know every common name that plants have too and there are lots of them and no rules to go with them.

Take for instance my favorite little naturalized daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus. It’s also known as the early Virginia daffodil since it’s among the earliest of all daffodils to bloom and it was at least once common in Virginia. But it’s also known as the Lent lily since it blooms at the beginning of the Lenten season and it’s somewhat lily-like, though not even in the lily family.

If that’s not confusing enough, consider the fact that its Latin name means the not-so-narcissus-like narcissus. English herbalist John Gerard called it the “bastard daffodil” in his 1597 Herball.

This poor little flower is no longer cultivated, but is still to be found at abandoned homeplaces across East Texas and the South. Despite its small stature and “dog-eared” appearance, I’ve always loved it even when I didn’t know it had a name.

Later, I learned to distinguish the yellow trumpets (derived from Narcissus pseudonarcissus) as “daffodils,” the tiny fragrant golden clusters (derived from Narcissus jonquilla) as “jonquils,” and the odiferous, creamy white clusters (derived from Narcissus tazetta) as “narcissus.” But these distinctions are recognized by few others. Botanists refer to them all as “narcissus” while American Daffodil Society members refer to them all as “daffodils.” Does it really matter? Not really. But we have to call them something, otherwise they wouldn’t answer. But as Juliet said: “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Thankfully for me, the name Narcissus belonged to a Greek lad before it belonged to a genus of flowers. Poor guy fell in love with his reflection until he eventually turned into his floral namesake.

I’ve always thought it was ironic that I live in Arcadia (from a region in Greece named for King Arcas) and have spent my life in love with the genus Narcissus (from Greek mythology). However, I’m sure at this point you’ve decided plant name are all Greek to you and you’d rather stick with people names, but I’m just the opposite.

I seem to prefer rescue plants just as I do rescue animals and architecture. I especially like under-appreciated plants. Our little bastard daffodil certainly falls into that category. Everybody on the planet wants great big golden daffodils not droopy little pale yellow guys. Not me, little fellow. I’ll stick with you. After all, I know very well that you are the parent of all modern daffodils and the only one that seeds out and naturalizes in my neck of the woods. And even if you didn’t have a name, I’d still love you. Hello Lent. Hello Mardi Gras. Hello spring. -Greg

Written by Greg Grant

Greg Grant is an award-winning horticulturist, conservationist, and writer from Arcadia, Texas. Each month he writes an article for the Arbor Gate Blog where he is given free range to write about any topic that interests him. During the week, he is the Smith County horticulturist in Tyler for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and on the weekends, he and his wife tend Greg’s grandparent’s dogtrot farmhouse, his Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary, a small cottage garden, a little flock of laying hens, four terriers, and two cats.

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