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Gardens - Plant Names

( Originally Published 1901 )



"The fascination of plant names is founded on two instincts,—love of Nature and curiosity about Language."

— English Plant Names, REV. JOHN EARLE, 1880.

VERBAL magic is the subtle mysterious power of certain words. This power may come from association with the senses ; thus I have distinct sense of stimulation in the word scarlet, and pleasure in the words lucid and liquid. The word garden is a never ceasing delight; it seems to me Oriental ; perhaps I have a transmitted sense from my grandmother Eve of the Garden of Eden. I like the words, a Garden of Olives, a Garden of Herbs, the Garden of the Gods, a Garden enclosed, Philosophers of the Garden, the Garden of the Lord. As I have written on gardens, and thought on gardens, and walked in gardens, " the very music of the name has gone into my being." How beautiful are Cardinal Newman's words : "By a garden is meant mystically a place of spiritual repose, stillness, peace, refreshment, delight."

There was, in Gerarde's day, no fixed botanical nomenclature of any of the parts or attributes of a plant. Without using botanical terms, try to de-scribe a -plant so as to give an exact notion of it to a person who has never seen it, then try to find common words to describe hundreds of plants ; you will then admire the vocabulary of the old herbalist, his " fresh English words," for you will find that it needs the most dextrous use of words to convey accurately the figure of a flower. That felicity and facility Gerarde had ; "a bleak white color" — how clearly you see it ! The Water Lily had "great round leaves like a buckler." The Cat-tail Flags " flower and bear their mace or torch in July and August." One plant had "deeply gashed leaves." The Mari-gold had "fat thick crumpled leaves set upon a gross and spongious stalke." Here is the Wake-robin, "a long hood in proportion like the ear of a hare, in middle of which hood cometh forth a pestle or clapper of a dark murry or pale purple color." The leaves of the Corn-marigold are " much hackt and cut into divers sections and placed confusedly." Another plant had leaves of " an overworne green," and Pansy leaves were " a bleak green." The leaves of Tansy are also vividly described as "infinitely jagged and nicked and curled with all like unto a plume of feathers."

The classification and naming of flowers was much thought and written upon from Gerarde's day, until the great work of Linnæus was finished. Some very original schemes were devised. The Curious and Profitable Gardner, printed in 1730, suggested this plan: That all plants should be named to indicate their color, and that the initials of their names should be the initials of their respective colors ; thus if a plant were named William the Conqueror it would indicate that the name was of a white flower with crimson lines or shades. "Virtuous Oreada would indicate a violet and orange flower ; Charming Phyllis or Curious Plotinus a crimson and purple blossom." S. was to indicate Black or Sable, and what letter was Scarlet to have ? The "curious ingenious Gentleman " who published this plan urged also the giving of pompous names" as more dignified ; and he made the assertion that French and Flemish " Flowerists " had adopted his system.

These were all forerunners of Ruskin, with his poetical notions of plant nomenclature, such as this; that feminine forms of names ending in a (as Prunella, Campanula, Salvia, Kalmia) and is (Iris, Amarylis) should be given only to plants " that are pretty and good"; and that real names, Lucia, Clarissa, etc., be also given. Masculine names in us should be given to plants of masculine qualities, — strength, force, stubbornness ; neuter endings in um, given to plants indicative of evil or death.

I have a fancy anent many old-time flower names that they are also the names of persons. I think of them as persons bearing various traits and characteristics. On the other hand, many old English Christian names seem so suited for flowers, that they might as well stand for flowers as for persons. Here are a few of these quaint old names, Collet, Colin, Emmot, Issot, Doucet, Dobinet, Cicely, Audrey, Amice, Hilary, Bryde, Morrice, Tyffany, Amery, Nowell, Ellice, Digory, Avery, Audley, Jacomin, Gillian, Petronille, Gresel, Joyce, Lettice, Cibell, Avice, Cesselot, Parnell, Renelsha. Do they not " smell sweet to the ear " ? The names of flowers are often given as Christian names. Children have been christened by the names Dahlia, Clover, Hyacinth, Asphodel, Verbena, Mignonette, Pansy, Heartsease, Daisy, Zinnia, Fraxinella, Poppy, Daffodil, Hawthorn.

What power have the old English names of gar-den flowers, to unlock old memories, as have the flowers themselves ! Dr. Earle writes, " The fascination of plant names is founded on two instincts ; love of Nature, and curiosity about Language." To these I should add an equally strong instinct in many persons—their sensitiveness to associations.

I am never more filled with a sense of the delight of old English plant-names than when I read the liquid verse of Spenser:—

Bring hether the pincke and purple Cullembine
. . . with Gellifloures,
Bring hether Coronations and Sops-in-wine
Worne of paramours.
Sow me the ground with Daffadowndillies
And Cowslips and Kingcups and loved Lilies,
The pretty Pawnce
The Chevisaunce
Shall match with the fayre Flour Delice."

Why, the names are a pleasure, though you know not what the Sops-in-wine or the Chevisaunce were. Gilliflowers were in the verses of every poet. One of scant fame, named Plat, thus sings : —

" Here spring the goodly Gelofors,
Some white, some red in showe ;
Here pretie Pinks with jagged leaves
On rugged rootes do growe ;
The Johns so sweete in showe and smell,
Distinct by colours twaine,
About the borders of their beds
In seemlie sight remaine."

If there ever existed any difference between Sweet-johns and Sweet-williams,, it is forgotten now. They have not shared a revival of popularity with other old-time favorites. They were one of the "gar-land flowers " of Gerarde's day, and were " esteemed for beauty, to deck up the bosoms of the beautiful, and for garlands and crowns of pleasure." In the gardens of Hampton Court in the days of King Henry VIII., were Sweet-williams, for the plants had been bought by the bushel. Sweet-williams are little sung by the poets, and I never knew any one to call the Sweet-william her favorite flower, save one person. Old residents of Worcester will recall the tiny cottage that stood on the corner of Chestnut and Pleasant streets, since the remote years when the latter-named street was a post-road. It was occupied during my childhood by friends of my mother — a century-old mother, and her ancient unmarried daughter. Behind the house stretched one of the most cheerful gardens I have ever seen ; ever, in my memory, bathed in glowing sunlight and color. Of its glories I recall specially the long spires of vivid Bee Larkspur, the varied Poppies of wonderful growth, and the rioting Sweet-williams. The latter flowers had some sentimental association to the older lady, who always asserted with emphasis to all visitors that they were her favorite flower. They over-ran the entire garden, crowding the grass plot where the washed garments were hung out to dry, even growing in the chinks of the stone steps and between the flat stone flagging of the little back yard, where stood the old well with its moss-covered bucket. They spread under the high board fence and appeared outside on Chestnut Street ; and they ex-tended under the dense Lilac bushes and Cedars and down the steep grass bank and narrow steps to Pleasant Street. The seed was carefully gathered, especially of one glowing crimson beauty, the color of the Mullein Pink, and a gift of it was highly esteemed by other garden owners. Old herbals say the Sweet-williams are " worthy the Respect of the Greatest Ladies who are Lovers of Flowers." They certainly had the respect and love of these two old ladies, who were truly Lovers of Flowers.

I recall an objection made to Sweet-williams, by some one years ago, that they were of no use or value save in the garden ; that they could never be combined in bouquets, nor did they arrange well in vases. It is a place of honor, some of us believe, to be a garden flower as well as a vase flower. This garden was the only one I knew when a child which contained plants of Love-lies-bleeding—it had even then been deemed old-fashioned and out of date. And it also held a few Sunflowers, which had not then had a revival of attention, and seemed as obsolete as the Love-lies-bleeding. The last-named flower I always disliked, a shapeless, gawky creature, de-scribed in florists' catalogues and like publications as " an effective plant easily attaining to a splendid form bearing many plume-tufts of rich lustrous crimson." It is the " immortal amarant " chosen by Milton to crown the celestial beings in Paradise Lost. Poor angels ! they have had many trying vagaries of attire assigned to them.

I can contribute to plant lore one fantastic notion in regard to Love-lies-bleeding — though I can find no one who can confirm this memory of my child-hood. I recall distinctly expressions of surprise and regret that these two old people in Worcester should retain the Love-lies-bleeding in their garden, because " the house would surely be struck with lightning." Perhaps this fancy contributed to the exile of the flower from gardens.

There be those who write, and I suppose they believe, that a love of Nature and perception of her beauties and a knowledge of flowers, are the dower of those who are country born and bred ; by which is meant reared upon a farm. I have not found this true. Farm children have little love for Nature and are surprisingly ignorant about wild flowers, save a very few varieties. The child who is garden bred has a happier start in life, a greater love and knowledge of Nature. It is a principle of Froebel that one must limit a child's view in order to coordinate his perceptions. That is precisely what is done in a child's regard of Nature by his life in a garden ; his view is limited and he learns to know garden flowers and birds and insects thoroughly, when the vast and bewildering variety of field and forest would have remained unappreciated by him.

It is a distressing condition of the education of farmers, that they know so little about the country. The man knows about his crops, and his wife about the flowers, herbs, and vegetables of her garden ; but no countrymen know the names of wild flowers — and few countrywomen, save of medicinal herbs. I asked one farmer the name of a brilliant autumnal flower whose intense purple was then unfamiliar to me—the Devil's-bit. He answered, "Them's Woilets." Violet is the only word in which the initial V is ever changed to W by native New Englanders. Every pink or crimson flower is a Pink. Spring blossoms are " Mayflowers." A frequent answer is, " Those ain't flowers, they're weeds." They are more knowing as to trees, though shaky about the ever-green trees, having little idea of varieties and inclined to call many Spruce. They know little about the reasons for names of localities, or of any historical traditions save those of the Revolution. One exclaims in despair, " No one in the country knows anything about the country."

This is no recent indifference and ignorance; Susan Cooper wrote in her Rural Hours in 1848 : ______

" When we first made acquaintance with the flowers of the neighborhood we asked grown persons — learned perhaps in many matters — the common names of plants they must have seen all their lives, and we found they were no wiser than the children or ourselves. It is really surprising how little country people know on such subjects. Farmers and their wives can tell you nothing on these matters. The men are at fault even among the trees on their own farms, if they are at all out of the common way ; and as for smaller native plants, they know less about them than Buck or Brindle, their own oxen."

In that delightful book, The Rescue of an Old Place, the author has a chapter on the love of flowers in America. It was written anent the ever-present statements seen in metropolitan print that Americans do not love flowers because they are used among the rich and fashionable in large cities for extravagant display rather than for enjoyment ; and that we accept botanical names for our indigenous plants instead of calling them by homely ones such as familiar flowers are known by in older lands.

Two more foolish claims could scarcely be made. In the first place, the doings of fashionable folk in large cities are fortunately far from being a national index or habit. Secondly, in ancient lands the people named the flowers long before there were botanists, here the botanists found the flowers and named them for the people. Moreover, country folk in New England and even in the far West call flowers 'by pretty folk-names, if they call them at all, just as in Old England.

The fussing over the use of the scientific Latin names for plants apparently will never cease ; many of these Latin names are very pleasant, have become so from constant usage, and scarcely seem Latin ; thus Clematis, Tiarella, Rhodora, Arethusa, Campanula, Potentilla, Hepatica. When I know the folk-names of flowers I always speak thus of them — and to them ; but I am grateful too for the scientific classification and naming, as a means of accurate distinction. For any flower student quickly learns that the same English folk-name is given in different localities to very different plants. For instance, the name Whiteweed is applied to ten different plants; there are in England ten or twelve Cuckoo-flowers, and twenty-one Bachelor's Buttons. Such names as Mayflower, Wild Pink, Wild Lily, Eyebright, Toad-flax, Ragged Robin, None-so-pretty, Lady's-fingers, Four-o'clocks, Redweed, Buttercups, Butter-flower, Cat's-tail, Rocket, Blue-Caps, Creeping jenny, Bird's-eye, Bluebells, apply to half a dozen plants.

The old folk-names are not definite, but they are delightful ; they tell of mythology and medicine, of superstitions and traditions ; they show trains of relationship, and associations ; in fact, they appeal more to the philologist and antiquarian than to the botanist. Among all the languages which contribute to the variety and picturesqueness of English plant names, Dr. Prior deems Maple the only one surviving from the Celtic language. Gromwell and Wormwood may possibly be added.

There are some Anglo-Saxon words; among them Hawthorn and Groundsel. French, Dutch, and Danish names are many, Arabic and Persian are more. Many plant names are dedicatory; they em-body the names of the saints and a few the names of the Deity. Our Lady's Flowers are many and interesting; my daughter wrote a series of articles for the New York Evening Post on Our Lady's Flowers, and the list swelled to a surprising number. The devil and witches have their shares of flowers, as have the fairies.

I have always regretted deeply that our botanists neglected an opportunity of great enrichment in plant nomenclature when they ignored the Indian names of our native plants, shrubs, and trees. The first names given these plants were not always planned by botanists; they were more often invented in loving memory of English plants, or sometimes from a fancied resemblance to those plants. They did give the wonderfully descriptive name of Moccasin-flower to that creature of the wild-woods; and a far more appropriate title it is than Lady's-slipper, but it is not as well known. I have never found the Lady's-slipper as beautiful a flower as do nearly all my friends, as did my father and mother, and I was pleased at Ruskin's sharp comment that such a slipper was only fit for very gouty old toes.

Pappoose-root utilizes another Indian word. Very few Indian plant names were adopted by the white men, fewer still have been adopted by the scientists. The Catalpa speciosa (Catalpa) ; the Zea mays (Maize) ; and Yucca filamentosa (Yucca), are the only ones I know. Chinkapin, Cohosh, Hackmatack, Kinnikinnik, Tamarack, Persimmon, Tupelo, Squash, Puccoon, Pipsissewa, Musquash, Pecan, the Scuppernong and Catawba grapes, are our only well-known Indian plant names that survive. Of these Maize, the distinctive product of the United States, will ever link us with the vanishing Indian. It will be noticed that only Puccoon, Cohosh, Pipsissewa, Hackmatack, and Yucca are names of flowering plants ; of these Yucca is the only one generally known. I am glad our stately native trees, Tupelo, Hickory, Catalpa, bear Indian names.

A curious example of persistence, when so much else has perished, is found in the word " Kiskatomas," the shellbark nut. This Algonquin word was heard everywhere in the state of New York sixty years ago, and is not yet obsolete in families of Dutch descent who still care for the nut itself.

We could very well have preserved many Indian names, among them Hiawatha's

" Beauty of the springtime,
The Miskodeed in blossom,"

I think Miskodeed a better name than Claytonia or Spring Beauty. The Onondaga Indians had a suggestive name for the Marsh Marigold, " It-opens-the-swamps," which seems to show you the yellow stars " shining in swamps and hollows gray." The name Cowslip has been transferred to it in some localities in New England, which is not strange when we find that the flower has fifty-six English folk-names among them are Drunkards, Crazy Bet, Meadow-bright, Publicans and Sinners, Soldiers' Buttons, Gowans, Kingcups, and Buttercups. Our Italian street venders call them Buttercups. In erudite Boston, in sight of Boston Common, the beautiful Fringed Gentian is not only called, but labelled, French Gentian. To hear a lovely bunch of the Arethusa called Swamp Pink is not so strange. The Sabbatia grows in its greatest profusion in the vicinity of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and is called locally, "The Rose of Plymouth." It is sold during its season of bloom in the streets of that town and is used to dress the churches. Its name was given to honor an early botanist, Tiberatus Sabbatia, but in Plymouth there is an almost universal belief that it was named because the Pilgrims of 162o first saw the flower on the Sabbath day. It thus is regarded as a religious emblem, and strong objection is made to mingling other flowers with it in church decoration. This legend was invented about thirty years ago by a man whose name is still remembered as well as his work.



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