The lone voice of horticultural reason

Phoebe or Nothophoebe

 From the old Heronswood catalog:

We are certainly cognizant that many of you might find our beefy catalogue that contains no pictures and no common names a bit intimidating and frustrating. It seems, at first glimpse, that we are assuming you have mastered botanical Latin while in fact you are just beginning to learn. I react precisely the same when I read trouble-shooting instructions for my computer or various and assorted techno-illogical mysteries of modern living, so I can identify with your frustrations.

Several years ago I learned to clog – an Appalachian version of tap dancing. During the first class, the instructor began by performing an entire dance with amazingly intricate, syncopated steps. While watching, I mentally noted what a boisterously entertaining notion it was to think I might actually achieve the same degree of coordinated synapses between my brain and feet.

That night, we learned two basic steps, and subsequently, each night of class, we learned and perfected additional steps. Before I even realized it, not only were we putting all these steps together, making them seem quite like those intricate, insurmountable phrases I had watched only weeks before, but it began to feel totally natural to me.

The point I am trying to make is that botanical Latin is nothing more than learning basic steps. Each plant has two parts. The Genus is the first and capitalized. The species is the second and always in lower case. The third name, if it exists, may be a selected form (‘cultivar’), found in single quotes, or a variety (var.) which indicates it is a naturally occurring variant of the species. Yes, of course, it can get much more convoluted than this, but like my dance steps, this understanding will simply come in time. In the process, you begin to realize that common names, when they exist, are meaningless, as often the same name has been applied to numerous different plants.

When starting Heronswood, I pledged from the beginning not to speak down to the patrons of our nursery but instead to attempt to encourage everyone to meet at a common level. I simple refuse to create inane common names in order to make the plants more understandable. They all seem quite clear enough to us with the names they are meant to possess.

We are very pleased that you have received our catalogue, and hope it brings a bit of simple joy and beauty to your garden. Repeat the names, try to pronounce them, and laugh at your awkward tongue. Everyone has been there. The description of the plants and how they perform in your garden are ultimately more important. Step by step, with a bit of patience and practice, you will find yourself effortlessly dancing through our pages, realizing that even I cannot effortlessly pronounce Ranunculus constantinopolitanus!

Daniel J. Hinkley