Garden Gossip

with Ted Smith

What’s in a name? This is the question we’ve been asking over the past couple of weeks. Our search for an answer to this question, within the realm of plants, has led us down some interesting paths. Plants may be some of the most whimsically named of all living creatures with names that run the gamut from extraordinarily descriptive to downright silly. In today’s column we’ll continue our look at this rarely discussed aspect of plants. 

The first plant I’d like to throw up for discussion has a name that combines humour, information and a frank warning. Oh, and it’s not actually a plant but rather a mushroom. The fungus in question is a member of the inky cap family known as Tippler’s Bane. This fascinating mushroom is both widely spread in our area and considered safely edible. But there is one caveat as explained by the mushroom’s name. Consume these mushrooms with alcohol and they become painfully poisonous. Ignore this fungi’s frank warning at your own peril, and don’t get far from the washroom.

Within the world of flowers reside perhaps some of the most oddly named plants. The endangered Corpse Flower is a notable member of this dubious fraternity. Weighing up to two hundred pounds, the massive bloom of a corpse flower smells just exactly like a rotting corpse. While not likely to up its status as a vase flower, the namesake rank aroma serves the critical purpose of attracting corpse eating carrion beetles who are the flower’s primary pollinators.

How about some oddly, yet appropriately, named members of the vegetable garden? Well, imagine a tiny vegetable named after a giant fruit. Watermelon radishes are just such an enigma. Comprised of deep reddish flesh surrounded by a deep green outer skin, sliced watermelon radishes do resemble a plate of tiny melons.

There are also fascinatingly named plants whose moniker is purely fanciful. Roll in the Moon and Stars watermelon. Nearly extinct as recently as twenty years ago, Moon and Stars watermelon has become the most widely grown heirloom watermelon in the world. While the flavour is reputed to be out of this world, the celestially based name actually refers to a faulty genetic pigmentation which leaves each dark green fruit with at least one very large yellow spot (the moon) surrounded by a field of smaller, but equally bright, yellow speckles (the stars). 

Since we are on the topic of melons, perhaps we could bring a little French humour to the fore. The Italian Bruto Ma Buono melon is quite appropriately named. With a name literally meaning “ugly but good”, this rare melon truly lives up to its billing. A warty, misshapen, muddy orange and green mottled skin is the ultimate camouflage for some of the sweetest and most delicate orange flesh to grace the melon family. For those who would love to grow this unusual delicacy, seeds for these melons are sold in North America under the less distinctive name of Zatta melon.

Of course, no garden discussion would be complete without tossing in a weed or two. One insanely well named weed that can be a huge local headache is the Gallant Soldier. All it takes is for one tiny seed to germinate and soon a sea of Gallant Soldiers will be marching across your garden like a sweeping green army bent on complete domination. One strangely coincidental characteristic of Gallant Soldiers is that they make an amazingly effective dressing for healing wounds such as might be experienced by real-life gallant soldiers.

And what weed discussion would be complete without an examination of the ubiquitous and interestingly named Dandelion? Another plant deriving its name from the French, dandelion is a derivation of dent de lion (lion’s tooth) which refers to the deeply (lion) toothed edges of the plant’s leaves. While this name is founded on basic physical appearance, it also seems highly appropriate to name such a powerful and dominant plant after the similarly defined king of the jungle.

And if ever a group of plants was positioned to receive zany and entertaining names, that group would have to be the crazy hot peppers. With names such as Viper, Trinidad Scorpion, Carolina Reaper, Devil’s Tongue, Ghost, Komodo Dragon, Brain Strain, White Bullet, and Dragon’s Tongue, very little is left to the imagination as far as what you will find wrapped up in these tiny colourful packages. However, none of these pepper names are as remotely descriptive as the Peter Pepper. I’ll just leave that one to sit with you awhile.