Friday, 5 June 2009

A garden of delights

Summertime is finally here, and while others fire up their lawnmowers or head down to the local garden centre, a lexicographer is prompted to think about the names of flowering plants.

The Chambers Dictionary sheds some interesting light on this subject. It reveals, for example, that dahlia is spelt like that because it is named after a Swedish botanist called Anders Dahl. Similarly, fuchsia takes its name from a German botanist called Leonard Fuchs, and buddleia from an Englishman Adam Buddle.

Knowing this sort of thing can be very useful if you want to remember how to spell these tricky words, but it seems to me that calling flowers after botanists to create hard-to-spell Latin-sounding names is a disappointingly prosaic thing to do. For the dictionary preserves another strand of plant names – ones that originated in country lore – which I find much more evocative. Wouldn’t it be nicer if we still called the pimpernel the poor man’s weather glass (a name earned from its habit of closing up its flowers before a fall of rain), and if we still gave flowers names like enchanter’s nightshade, gold dust and Spanish dagger?

Many of these old names suggest resemblances to parts of animals, as in hare’s ear, pheasant’s eye and storksbill, while the shapes and colours of others suggested sad images to the old country-dwellers: love-lies-bleeding, baby’s tears, mourning bride.

Of course, familiarity breeds a certain amount of contempt. There are plenty of poetic-sounding names that have survived – forget-me-not, honeysuckle, foxglove, snapdragon, speedwell – but we are somewhat immunized against their charms because we know them so well.

Nevertheless, I still like the idea of a garden filled with the likes of dusty-miller, snow-in-summer and witches’ thimble. I wonder whether any of these will be available at the garden centre.

Ian Brookes

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