What’s in a Name

Posted by & filed under Formal Gardens, Trees.

I was in the arboretum yesterday and I ran into some old friends who are blooming very nicely.  One is the crape myrtle and the other is the loblolly bay.  While I was visiting with them I noticed these plants are both named for people (that is – the Latin name), while the common name is actually descriptive of the plant in some way.  It’s a funny coincidence that just started me thinking – which is always dangerous for a little plant with no brain.

The botanical, or Latin, name for crape myrtle is Lagerstroemia indica.  It is named for Magnus von Lagerstroem, who was the director of the Swedish East India Company in the early 18th century.  The specific name indica supposedly means that it comes from India, but it is wrong.  It actually comes from China and Japan.  I guess the Swedish guy naming the plant for his friend didn’t know exactly where it came from.  Those two names tell you nothing about the plant and more about the person who named it.  When it comes to the common name, crape myrtle, you might get a better idea about what the plant is like.  The flowers do have a ruffled appearance, much like crape paper.  The leaves resemble the common myrtle leaves but are not exactly the same.  I think they actually look more like privet, but “crape privet” doesn’t sound as nice.  The tree itself is a great landscape plant.  It has long lasting flowers in the heat of the summer, something difficult to find in other trees.  In the winter it has beautiful bark and even some good fall color.  A tree with three great seasons of interest is always a good addition to the garden.  Perhaps that’s why there are so many here.

The loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus) is probably a little lesser known to most people.  This southeastern native is a member of the tea family.  It naturally grows in pocosins where the soils are wet and periodic fires keep it short.  Interestingly, in a garden setting it needs dry soil so that is why it is growing in the arboretum.  Right now it is covered in beautiful white flowers and is a sight to see.  Just like the crape myrtle, the Latin name honors a friend of the person naming the plant.  Two people worked on naming the plant in the early 1700s – one wanted to name it for James Gordon of Aberdeen, Scotland while the other wanted to name it for James Gordon, a nurseryman in London England.  I guess they had to compromise and name it for James Gordon. The species name is more descriptive of the plant – lasianthus means it has wooly anthers – a part of the flower.  The common name on this one is descriptive of the plant as well.  The leaves are similar to bay leaves so that part of the name is easy to understand.  Loblolly had several meanings in the 18th century.  It was a reference to a thick gruel or porridge.  For many colonists, it meant a mudhole or wet place.  In some areas it also meant a fool, lout or useless person. For this tree, the word is probably a reference as to where it was found growing – pocosins are very wet areas and somewhat useless for farming.

I just thought it was kind of funny that both these beautiful trees were blooming at the same time, both were named for people that had nothing to do with them and both had common names that described the plant.

By the way, if you are curious about my name.  Dandelion is derived from the French phrase dent de lion, which means lion’s tooth.  It is a reference to the shape of my leaves, but I also like to think it refers to how courageous and tenacious I am.  (Funnily enough, in France I am called pissenlit, but I will let you talk to your French friends to find out what that means.)  My Latin name, Taraxacum officinale, is a reference to my valuable and useful qualities.  Taraxacum is derived from a Persian word for “wild endive” and officinale is a reference to my medicinal qualities.  Now given these glowing character traits, I still don’t get why people call me a “weed.”  It just goes to show that people really don’t know what they are talking about.