Sunday, February 5, 2012


Here in Palm Springs, the orchid trees are just starting to flower. These are species of the genus Bauhinia , members of the pea family,  coming from tropical and subtropical areas such as East Asia and South Africa. In spring they have spectacular pink blossoms. Whilst the tree is undoubtedly beautiful, it is the name that fascinates me. Bauhinia is named after Gaspard Bauhin, a Swiss botanist living in the 16C. Many gardeners will have heard of Linnaeus who is remembered for formalising the plant naming system in the 18C. This is the binomial system that is generally in use today - two names, genus and species, usually Latin or Greek. However it was Bauhin who first described and classified thousands of plants. His Pinax theatri botanici (Illustrated exposition of plants) was a landmark  publication in 1596, listing over 6000 plants. Although similar to the later Linnaean system it was more complex and often used more words. Linnaeus acknowledged Bauhin's work by naming this plant after him.

Bauhinia variegata - in this instance, the variegata refers not to leaf markings but the two-toned flowers

Plant names although not always obvious fascinate me. One of the local landscape plants is Agave tequilana, which is grown commercially for the manufacture of the spirit tequila. this is distilled from the hearts of the plant, harvested in the twelfth year.

Agave tequilana

 That lovely old dahlia with lipstick red flowers and shoe polish brown leaves, called 'Bishop of Llandaff' is once again fashionable. It was raised in the 1920's by a UK nurseryman called Treseder who sent a number of new plants to his friend, the good bishop and asked him to choose his favourite to bear his name. One wonders what became of the other seedlings.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'

Musa cavendishii, the fruiting banana was first imported into the UK in the 19C by Thomas Fyffe. It was grown at Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire, where the Head Gardener was none other than Joseph Paxton who named it after his employer, the Duke of Devonshire, whose family name is Cavendish. The name is no longer correct as there have been identified many different forms of the fruiting banana so you will find names like Musa acuminata 'Dwarf Cavendish'.
One of the 'Cavendish' group of fruiting bananas

The relevance of many names just becomes lost. Years ago when I worked at Reading University, a red leaved coleus labelled 'Juliet Quartermain' appeared in the greenhouses. I asked its origin and the propagator explained that it was a sport from 'Pineapplette'. 'But what about the name I asked?' The propagator blushed and admitted he named it after his girlfriend. Its now widely grown, a good patio or bedding plant, grown in the thousands each year under that name.  I wonder what happened to Juliet and Rob?

Coleus 'Juliet Quartermain' with Nicotiana sylvestris

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