with Ted smith
What’s in a name? Sometimes very little. However, sometimes a name can carry a wealth of information. Names can include not only descriptive information but quite often they also convey a great deal of historical context. Essentially, a name is the ultimate defining characteristic of what something is. When we look at the vast world of plants and seeds, names are capable of not only providing us with a quick impression, they are also capable of establishing a personal image that will define that plant for us forever. Learning why something is named as it is can be an integral part of the relationship you develop with your garden.
Possibly my favourite plant name of all time is also the one that caused me to start looking at a column based on unusual plant names. Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed lettuce is a pretty epic moniker to try and live up to. The origin of the name is not entirely clear. Some speculate that the red blushed leaves resemble the rosy cheeks often associated with inebriation. Others have suggested that the frizzy leaves are simply reminiscent of hair in wild disarray after a night of uninhibited and carefree consumption. Whatever the source of the name, it is one you will never forget and it certainly has been responsible for quite a number of sales at the farmers’ markets over the years.
While the previous name is lighthearted and obviously tongue-in-cheek, some names convey a much deeper, and often more troubling, meaning. The pole bean known as Cherokee Trail of Tears is one such. In the late 1830s, the Cherokee Nation of North Carolina was forcefully relocated to Oklahoma. It was a multi-year trek filled with hunger, pain and death. The march became known by many as the Trail of Tears and these beans were reportedly one of the treasures carried by the Cherokee to be grown in their new home. While the namesake story is one of hardship and tragedy, the beans themselves are well worth growing. The shiny black dried beans produced in large green pods are reputed to be amongst the more flavourful of dried beans currently being grown.
Another story tied closely to a seed name is one of triumph and success. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato presents a very long name for a pretty nondescript looking fruit. The story goes that during the Great Depression, a struggling mechanic known as Radiator Charlie decided to try and breed a highly productive tomato that would be big and meaty and would help struggling families with their food bills. With no prior plant breeding experience, Radiator Charlie undertook a six-year journey that saw him combine the best traits of four well known tomatoes into one stable variety that met all his criteria for the perfect tomato. Soon, Radiator Charlie began selling seedlings at the unheard of price of a dollar a plant. Initially skeptical, gardeners soon heard such great things about this new tomato that they began driving hundreds of miles to buy this marvellous new plant. So successful was Radiator Charlie that he paid off a six thousand dollar mortgage in six short years. And with that, a legend was born. To this day you can buy seeds for Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato and they continue to live up to all his initial criteria.
Perhaps you like a little more whimsical name? How about a name that dips its toes in the dark side? Coincidentally you can grow a plant that goes by two different names that couldn’t possibly be more disparate. A variety of amaranth that is grown both as an ornamental flower and for an edible seed crop is often known as Kiss Me Over The Garden Gate. It is also possibly better known as Love Lies Bleeding. Apparently, you can tell a lot about a person based on which name they prefer. Meanwhile in France this plant is referred to as the slightly more gruesome Nun’s Scourge.
Interestingly, there is also a lovely pink annual flower also known as Kiss Me Over The Garden Gate. Possibly a result of look-alike flowers getting confused in the misty past of plant taxonomy. Not to be outdone by the “other” Kiss Me Over The Garden’s Gate, this one also goes by a variety of aliases. These include Prince’s Feather, the more pretentious Oriental Persicary and the overused Lady’s Fingers. Sometimes it seems, what’s in a name is an awful lot of confusion.
And stepping back quickly to the amaranth family. This diverse ornamental grain crop includes a number of aptly named members. From the hyper-chromatic Joseph’s Coat, to the pendant Pony’s Tails and the incomprehensibly named Hot Biscuits, there seems to be an amaranth for every name.
So, what’s in a name? Another column or two at least.