In many traditions, such as many of our Native American tribes, animals played both a physical and spiritual role in their lives. Certain animals embodied important qualities and aspects of life and were revered for these associations. In a way, a little bit of that remains in the world of gardening. As gardeners, we play a small role in the greater ecosystem around us and hopefully we include and honor the variety of wildlife we come into contact with. These creatures are part of our world and even for we urban gardeners they have an integral place in our gardening worlds.
This is all to say that the fauna in our world have woven themselves into the very language of gardening, be that by association or by actual interactions. These associations are reflected in the common names of many plants. Such common names as Butterfly Bush (Buddleja or Asclepias) and Baboon flower (Babiana) reflect direct relationships to the natural world. Or plants may invoke a certain animal's form or function as with names such as Canary Creeper nasturtium, where the bright yellow flowers remind some of canaries. Those some of these names may on the surface be playful or stretching one's imagination, they nonetheless invoke our positive relationships with the wildlife around us.
Regular readers may remember that awhile back I constructed a list of such common names for plants that reflected these relationships. That was part one and now here is part two. I should clarify that this list contains 'common names,' not variety names. That is, 'Hens and Chicks' as a common name for Sempervivums (succulent) but not Impatiens niamniamensis 'Congo Cockatoo.' The former describes a whole genus or at least species, while the latter is a particular variety of a species. The latter may invoke a particular animal but the former tends to describe a broader and deeper relationship.
Okay, onto the names! As with part one of the list, I'm indicating only the common names. Can you guess their botanical designations?
Blue Bear's Paw fern. Definitely a little imagination at work here but this wide-lobed fern could easily be seen as the footprint of one very large animal and the fronds have a lovely blue cast.
Speaking of ferns, there are two species of a particular genus that are known as Squirrel's Foot and Rabbit's Foot. I'm a bit puzzled by these common names. Since both feature white, hairy rhizomes that creep out from underneath the foliage, I think the name Tarantula fern makes more sense.
One very common bulb that visually demonstrates its animal association is Tiger lily. Actually there are several species of lily that use this moniker (or the similar Leopard lily). They all feature orange petals with dark spots, most with recurved petals.
Another apt common name is the lovely Gooseneck strife. This deciduous perennial produces spires of pure white flowers that curve and bend at the tops, invoking a curving goose's neck.
Many people are familiar with the CA native Sticky Monkey flower, given its common name because the flowers are said to resemble monkey's faces.
One example of a plant's common name owing to its use is the Mosquito plant. It is perhaps better known as Hummingbird mint. This plant is said to be used to repel mosquitoes though as someone who is popular with mosquitoes I have my doubts.
Some common names are amusing. There is an Arum family member that's known as Mousetail plant. Do you know it? It derives its common name from the appearance of the flowers, which are brown and white, with long curving 'tails.' I have it in my garden and it's one of the most delightful flowers in my collection.
Octopus tree may seem like it's stretching the boundaries of our imagination but this single conifer in Oregon is shaped like an upside down octopus. The plaque there raises the possibility that Native Americans may have shaped the tree this way for ritual purposes but in any case it is quite the sight to behold. You might google it to get a look.
Much more common, do you know the identity of so-called Moth orchids? Their name derives from the appearance of the flowers, said to resemble moths in flight.
Oxslip meanwhile owes its common name to the fact that this perennial is found in meadows throughout Europe, where cattle and yes ox were cultivated. One doesn't need to imagine where they sprung up (cowpies).
Speaking of cows, there's a not-too-common plant with the common name of Cow Parsley. If the leaves look familiar it's because this genus has a different species that is grown as an herb in many gardens. So, do you know the ID of either plant?
Oyster plant. This perennial member of the Borage family isn't well known but in fact is found over regions of North America. It derives its common name from the fact that it's leaves taste like oysters. Does that mean it's the only plant you want to eat with BBQ sauce?
While it's well known that Pandas only eat a certain type of bamboo, that hasn't stopped their name being invoked for a very curious member of the Arum family. It's known as Panda Face ginger and it possesses one of nature's truly odd flowers. Round, tri-petaled flowers are a deep, velvety purple on the outer edges, with alabaster-colored centers. This is meant somehow to resemble a panda's face. The flowers are also rubbery and the combination of color and texture makes them unique in the plant world (or at least what we're commonly exposed to).
Given how popular birds are in many gardener's lives, it should come as no surprise that bird names show up frequently in common names. Three of them in fact invoke parrots. First up is the popular Parrot's Beak plant, whose name owes to the shape of these red or orange flowers. A bit less known is the plant called Parrot's Bill. This shrub offers up multitudes of larger red or white flowers that are, yep, shaped like beaks (though for me they look more like macaw beaks). Lastly, there's a plant that many would recognize immediately, even if they wouldn't know its botanical or common name. It's Parrot's Feather and this time it's the soft, lacy foliage of this aquatic plant that's the connection.
This next plant has an unusual name (Pelican flower). That alone would not be much of a clue. Here's one, these large flowers can sometimes smell of rotting flesh. Got it? No? How about this, the leaves of the grandiflora species of this genus provide a food source for the Swallowtail butterfly.
Speaking of curious common names, how about Hedgehog rose? I've been trying to find the common name derivation of this species rose but the closest I've come is that this rose was often used as a hedge by British gardeners. Maybe hedgehogs hid in the hedge? (say that phrase fast ten times).
Back to functional common names for a moment, there's a plant used by southern gardeners to keep away flies. Lo and behold, it's common name is Shoo-fly plant and it's the sap that's mixed with milk to kill flies. Here's a clue as to how. This genus is a member of the Nightshade family, many of which are quite poisonous. So, now, do you know this blue-flowering annual?
Another 'functional' common name is Skunk cabbage. You can probably deduce that this name refers to its unpleasant smell. True. It turns out there are several genera with this common name and even the most recognizable one has species endemic to various regions in the world. The clue for our western species is that it is one of the few native species of the Arum family. And of course, nature being very deliberate, the smell serves a purpose, in this case to attract certain flies and beetles that will pollinate it.
Shrimp plant is an evocative name but for the plant that it is most commonly associated with, it's also very descriptive of the colorful flowers.
Likewise, the Snail vine's pretty purple and white flowers are very representative of snail shells. Ironically, real snails love to eat this plant, even climbing up 20' to munch on its leaves.
There may or may not be a lot of snakes in South Africa but there's a plant hailing from this region that's simply called Snake plant. Although it grows outside there here in our cooler climate this tough as nails plant is commonly grown as a houseplant. Know it? No? You might ask your husband's mother. She'll know.
Naturally, spiders figure into the lexicon of gardening names. Start with Spider flower. This popular annual flower comes in a variety of pink, salmon and white colors. Need another clue? It's stems are a bit thorny, meaning one is advised to wear gloves in handling them.
Spider lily anyone? Actually, that common name applies to three different plants, all belonging to the Amaryllis family. The other two are Crinum and Lycoris. Can you name the third? Here's a clue. The genus is a compound word and the Greek word for the first half means 'membrane' and the Greek for the second means 'beautiful.' The common name owes to the flowers that, with a central cup and the six curving, narrow petals, the combination looking very much like an elegant spider.
A much more familiar common name would be Spiderwort. It too is often grown as a houseplant. Its common name owes to the babies it makes, which cascade out from the mother plant.
Sometimes, there is really poetry in the choice of common names. One example of this is Three Birds Flying. Here's a reciprocal clue. There's another species of the same genus whose common name is better known - Toadflax. Wait, toads eat flax? I guess that explains there not being any constipated toads. So have you guessed the genus of these two plants?
Sticking with birds for a moment, did you know there is a Whippoorwill flower? And here's a rather obscure but potentially helpful clue to the name of this genus. It's name is very similar to that of the female lead in the wildly popular book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Finally (mercifully?) two last entries. The common name Wormwood will be familiar to a lot of gardeners. Did you know that the drink Absinthe is derived from a type of wormwood?
And we end with a Z (or is it with zzzzs) and the plant known as the Zebra plant. The clue here is that it's a houseplant, unless you have a tropical green house that is. They are one of the few houseplants to flower, the bright yellow flowers providing a colorful contrast to the glossy green leaves, veined yellow.