What's in a name?

Thinking about plant names is a fun way to spend the day

Liz Douville / For The Bulletin /

Published Nov 5, 2013 at 04:00AM

I have great admiration for my fellow gardeners who can pronounce botanical Latin names easily without having to think it out syllable by syllable. Sometimes my tongue gets in the way of my brain, and the name just isn't pronounced correctly. During the years of 1997-99, The Oregonian in its weekly home and garden section ran plant profiles from the book “Plant This!” written by Ketzel Levine and illustrated by Rene Eisenbart

The profile text was very informative, with bits of humor here and there. The illustrations begged to be framed. I saved many that applied to our area and others just to occasionally enjoy the illustrations. Years later I was sleuthing through the garden book section of a local used bookstore and found a copy of “Plant This!” I was ecstatic.

Both Levine and Eisenbart are residents of Portland. Levine, in addition to being an author, was known for years as the “Doyenne of Dirt” on NPR's Weekend Edition. She currently writes for Portland Monthly.

Eisenbart continues painting beautiful watercolors and conducting art workshops and art tours.

What makes the book so much fun in addition to the eye-candy illustrations are the humorous aids to plant pronunciation. A sidebar on each variety lists the botanical name, then “sounds like,” followed by the common name. The major text filled with cultural facts, history and humor fills facing pages.

Have you ever looked at the name Knautia macedoncia and said “hmmmmmm?” According to Levine, it “sounds like: naughty a mass of Monica.” Did that help?

The botanical name of Berberis could be akin to Burger kiss. Ceanothus sounds like “be a no fuss.” Here's one we probably will never need but I thought it fun to share. Chimonanthus praecox — sounds like “why does man fuss knee socks.” It makes no sense but might help to get the syllables in the right order. By the way, the plant common name is wintersweet.

The book is a fun read, although many of the plants would not do well here. It's worth keeping your eyes peeled for a copy. The book should be valued for its style of writing and the illustrations.

On a more serious note, you might want to become familiar with the bimonthly publication Taunton's Fine Gardening magazine. Each bimonthly issue of the magazine includes a pronunciation guide for all the botanical names referred to in the articles. In addition you can go online to hear the pronunciation at www.finegarden ing.com/hearlatin.

In the October 2013 issue the guide lists Amorpha canescens, pronounced ah-MOR-fah kan-ESS-enz, p74. Turning to page 74, I found the section of Regional Picks for the Mountain West. The common name for the plant is Leadplant and is considered an alternative to the overused Perovskia atriplicifolia, whose common name is Russian sage.

According to the description, Leadplant is a native with spikes of purple-blue flowers that are nectar sources for butterflies, bees and other insects. The plant is of moderate size, has a rounded form and will do well in a xeric landscape. The foliage is gray-blue and the plant is deer- and rabbit-resistant. The plant grows in zones 2 to 8 in full sun in well-drained sandy or rocky soil. Sounds like we should be looking for Leadplant come spring. The botanical name was not given in the article so with some time spent on the magic machine I found the name to be Amorpha canescens.

The Fine Gardening guide is unquestionably the more accurate of the two, but if you're looking for a few winter giggles, try to find a copy of “Plant This!” While you are out perusing bookstores, you might find a slightly used copy of “Plant Names Explained,” published by Horticulture magazine. Botanical terms plus their meanings are explained, which could turn into a full course winter study. It's time to pull out the warm afghan; the season for stacking books on the chair-side table is fast approaching.