Who’s In My Garden

Phil Peters
Adams County Master Gardener

Not all the ghosts in Gettysburg are on the battlefield. Look around any garden and you will see it is peopled with the ghosts of the horticultural pioneers and botanists who brought us so many of the plants we enjoy today. So where are they hiding you might ask? Well, they are pretty subtle. Yet they are right beneath our noses.

They are living on in the names of many of the plants that we see day after day. You may have noticed that many botanical names end in the letters –ia. Due to the conventions of naming plants, this ending, sometimes just –a, is very often attached to the name of the botanist or horticulturist who discovered the plant or made it popular. Let’s take a look at some of the more obvious ones.

Do you still have that Christmas Poinsettia around? It was named after J.R. Poinsett (1799-1851) who discovered the plant while he was American ambassador to Mexico.

There is probably not a garden in Adams County that doesn’t have a Zinnia or two in it. It is named for Johann Gottfried Zinn (1727-1759), a German botanist.

Maybe you just purchased a Fuchsia. This flower commemorates Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), a German physician and botanist, who, ironically, never laid eyes on the plant. Linnaeus named it as a memorial to him.

The Dahlia honors Dr. Anders Dahl (1751-1789), a Swedish botanist.

Spring in Pennsylvania is announced by the blooming of Forsythia. Here is a reminder of Wm. Forsyth (1737-1804) who was a Scottish gardener who gained fame as Superintendent of the Royal Gardens at Kensington Palace in England.

Another popular plant is the Wisteria, named for Pennsylvania native Caspar Wistar (1761-1818). He was a Philadelphia doctor who taught at the University of Pennsylvania. A botanist friend named the plant after him, changing the spelling of his name in the process. Dr. Wistar never saw it.

I’ll bet you have some coneflowers in your garden. They belong to the genus Rudbeckia and are named after a father-son pair of botanists, Olof Rudbeck the elder (1630-1702) and the younger (1660-1740). Surely you are putting in Lobelia this year. It is named for Mathias de l’Obel (1538-1616), a famous Flemish botanist. Heuchera, or Coral Bells? It was named of Johann Heinrich von Heucher (1677-1747). And, of course, the Gardenia is named for Dr. Alexander Garden (1730-1791). Although he was a Scottish physician and botanist, he lived in South Carolina. The Magnolia recalls Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), a French botanist. The Begonia was named for Michel Bégon (1638-1710), a governor of French Canada.

And that honeysuckle that is taking over your back fence. Its botanical name is Lonicera. Even though the i is missing, the name commemorates a German naturalist, Adam Lonitzer (1528-86). What a way to achieve fame!

And those African violets on your window sill? They belong to the genus Saintpaulia, after Baron Walter von Saint-Paul-Illaire (1860-1910) who discovered one of the species. Diffenbachia is named for J.F. Dieffenbach (1790-1863) and that Schefflera in the corner is for J. C. Scheffler. Both were nineteenth century German botanists.

And let’s not forget American history. Washingtonia, a palm, commemorates Geo. Washington while Jeffersonia, a white-flowered North American native plant, is named for Thomas Jefferson. Clarkia, the Satin flower, is named after Capt. William Clark (1770-1838) who accompanied Capt. Meriwether Lewis (1774-1808) to the West Coast on the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1806-7. Capt. Lewis has a perennial used in rock gardens, Lewisia, named for him. The Sequoia takes its name from Sequoiah (1770-1843) son of a British merchant and a Cherokee woman. And those beautiful little Spring Beauties, Claytonia, that are so common. They are named for Dr. John Clayton (1694-1773) who was an early collector of plants of Virginia. His specimens furnished the basis for Linnaeus’ knowledge of North American plant species. The Cattleya orchid was named for Wm. Cattley (d.1832), a patron of horticulture.

Sometimes there are really ancient ghosts lurking in our gardens. Loosestrife is a common plant, but hidden in its botanical name, Lysimachia, is a Thracian king, Lysimachos (ca. 360 – 281 B.C.) one of the generals of Alexander the Great, who according to legend pacified a bull with it. Appropriately, his name translates as ending strife.

Do you have a Euphorbia? It commemorates the name of Euphorbus who was a physician to King Juba, King of Mauretania in North Africa, who married the daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

And just when you think you might know what’s going on, there is the curve ball. The Petunia takes its name from the Brazilian Tupi Indian name for tobacco.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go visit some old friends out in the garden.

Read a Primer on Plant Nomenclature

Read other articles by Phillip Peters