You say potato, I say Solanum tuberosum: the trouble with botanical Latin

“Ah, they’ve got that Hypoestes sanguinolenta I saw in DG Hessayon’s Houseplant Expert book in Woolworths right now! And I picked up a Saintpaulia ionantha with really cute frilly flowers, too. I didn’t find a Euphorbia obesa though.”

That was me, aged about 11. Seriously. I have always loved Latin names for plants. I studied Latin GCSE, and whereas I struggled with French, I loved Latin (“Caecilius in horto est” – what’s not to like?), especially when it came to plant names. It was useful and descriptive, and – I admit it – made me feel clever.

I know I am – how can I put this politely to myself? – an outlier. Many adults struggle with plants’ scientific names: they can be hard to pronounce and hard to read on the page; their meaning is obscure to the newcomer, and they sometimes make you sound like a bit of a prig if you bandy them around in the wrong company (guilty as charged).

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Wormwood or whatever: botanical Latin comes in handy at plant shows.

My love of Latin – and what I suspect is the general population’s lukewarm feelings towards it – bubbled to the top of my consciousness recently when I received an email from a freelance writer, complaining about my insertion of common names into their copy. Their argument was that common names are just as hard to learn as Latin, except with Latin you can be sure everyone knows what you are talking about.

As I explained to them in my reply, it’s complicated; common names may be many and varied, across different geographical locations, (I always want to call the houseleek “welcome home husband how drunk you be” – look at a picture of a sempervivum in flower and use your imagination to figure out that one) but Latin names can change too as the botanists shuffle the cards in the deck that is the plant family in a neverending quest for accuracy: that’s why the delightfully named Dicentra spectabilis became the rather less elegant Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Some common names are simply the genus of the scientific name, which can be a help or a hindrance;* others can refer to multiple, completely different plants – bridal veil is a good example, as is daisy (which can refer to pretty much any member of the aster family, and beyond). And some common names can be downright misleading, such as February orchid as I wrote recently.

In Guardian Weekend, where our audience is a general one, we have to try to avoid alienating the absolute beginners who may flick to the gardening page while not talking down to the many expert gardeners who read the pages. My compromise is to use both in the body of an article: common name first (the most common common name, as decided by me, but usually guided by sources that include the RHS Plant Finder, BBC Gardeners World and Shoot Gardening), followed by the Latin in brackets – in the web version, the Latin will almost always link through to a useful website about the plant. In picture captions, I just use common names as there isn’t room for both, assuming that this can be cross referenced with the main copy.  This way around, the non-Latin fans can read the common name and let their eye skate over the Latin; the Latin fans can snort their derision at the common name, then move on to the real business of the genus and species.

The Latin, if you can bear to engage (and if you’re reading this blog you probably can), can help you learn about plants: citrodora means lemon-scented; punctatus means with spots. If it’s a language you’re still learning – or if you want a reference work – RHS Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison is very useful.

 

*Do I write Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’ (Heuchera micrantha ‘Purple Palace)?

February orchid: edible, incredible

 

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February orchid: it’s not an orchid, and it’s not February. But still …

Jerusalem artichoke, evening primrose, creeping zinnia – there’s a long history of plants with common names that are more than a little off-beam. With that in mind I give you my new favourite edible plant… February orchid, welcome to the wonky plant names club!

Orychophragmus violaceus – aka Chinese violet cress and zhuge cai (诸葛菜) in its native China – may well be new to you. It’s not something you’ll stumble across among the seed packets in the garden centre, or see growing in British allotments and gardens. But you should. You really should.

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February orchid growing in one of my raised vegetable beds with kale ‘Purple Flanders’, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’, and buckshorn plantain.

There are a few things going against this plant – its Latin name is unpronounceable, and its common English name is half-wrong – yes it does flower in February, but it is not an orchid. It’s a member of the brassica clan, but that’s good news for us growers because – hurrah! – it’s edible.I discovered February orchid on the website of Brown Envelope Seeds in West cork, Ireland a year or two back. It sounded good: “a brassica for use in salads or as a cooking green”… “provides mild but tasty leaves throughout the winter”.

Hardy? Yes it appears so, by the standards of the mild winter just gone anyway. I often pick off the tender tops and eat them as I potter around the garden. You can treat the leaves like spinach and sauté in a little it of butter, or shred them and add them to a salad.
The flavour is sweet and fresh, a little like pea shoots with a tinge of brassica. Like any homegrown green from my garden, I soak the leaves in a big bowl of cold, salted water for a few minutes (the salt isn’t strictly necessary for February orchid but it helps draw out any bitterness in other greens such as dandelions and kale).

The flowers are edible, pretty, and they come thick and fast between the end of February and May, depending on the weather. Compared with the rocket plants next door, they seem to be immune to damage from flea beetle, and even the slugs don’t make much of an impact.

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February orchid: it’s not an orchid, and it’s not February. But still …

I sowed the seeds direct in two or three spots in the raised beds I grow vegetables in last summer, sat back and did nothing. It was a mild winter, to be sure, but the plants not covered in a cloche seemed to do as well as the ones that were. It started to flower in February as advertised, and now, come April, it’s alive with colour.

 

 

Somewhere along the line I realised that my friend and colleague Alys Fowler was growing – and loving – this plant too. having got her seeds direct from Joy Larkcom, the oriental seed expert who sourced it from China in the first place. An article in the Shanghai Daily says zhuge cai is commonly found in parks and “during the flowering period, from March to May, meadows across China are awash in a sea of purple”.

Alys told me that it’s an annual/biennial that should self-seed around and become one of those “once you’ve got it, you’ve got it” items, like nigella – or listening to the Archers. Oh, and it also makes a really good cut flower – I stuck mine in a vase with Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Osmanthus X burkwoodii and Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ for an effortless spring display.

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February orchid: it’s not an orchid, and it’s not February. But still …

I have three patches of February orchid in my raised veg beds: my favourite is the patch next to the ‘Purple Flanders’ kale (more about which, another time) and the self-seeded Cerinthe purpurascens ‘Major’ (not edible, but I can’t bear to pull it up even though I need to remind my five-year-old not to eat it – he assumes, completely reasonably, that everything in the veg bed is fair game).

The height is about 40cm/50cm or so: you can either harvest individual leaves, pinch out the flowering tops or pull up whole plants as a kind of impromptu thinning.

So I appeal to you: petition your favourite seed company to start selling February orchid seeds: they really are easy to grow yourself from a midsummer to autumn sowing for a crop next year.

Glasshouse heaven at Wimpole Hall

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The glasshouse at Wimpole Hall walled garden

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Aeonium ‘Schwarzkopf’

On a freezing cold day last week we headed for the National Trust property Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire: lots of farm animals and ride-on tractors for the children; a walled garden and a big glasshouse for me. The two large wings of the greenhouse, packed with trays of seedlings, were off limits for obvious reasons – they were the working area of the gardens, but the centre section was open for visitors: a place to enjoy the fertile fug and delight in beautiful plants.

We escaped from the biting wind into the sanctuary of the warm glasshouse: while the toddler drifted off to naptime in his pushchair, the rest of us admired the pots and pots of loveliness. There were so many plants here to catch the eye: from the string-of-pearls (Senecio rowleyanus) in the right foreground in the picture above (String-of-pearls was a close contender for inclusion in my top five succulents list), to the scented leaf geranium ‘Attar of Roses’ (I think – it wasn’t labelled but the cloying rose smell’s pretty distinctive), and the orange juice blooms of Clivia miniata to the statuesque shagginess of Aeonium ‘Schwarzkopf’.  This was pretty close to my definition of heaven.

There were lessons to be learned, too, for you and me: almost everything was planted in a decent terracotta pot (looks are everything when it comes to pots, plus terracotta allows roots to breathe); there was very little damaged or dead foliage on display (good hygiene’s essential in a busy greenhouse), and there wasn’t an inch of empty bench space (fullness is all)!

My top five indoor succulents

Succulents have gone through a renaissance of late, in the garden at least: Pinterest is awash with pictures of containers, vertical walls and roofs full of them. But living in Bedfordshire, not California, my succulent kicks are largely satisfied inside (apart from Sempervivums, about which I’ll write in another post). These fellows won’t mind you whacking up the central heating so the room’s as hot as the Sahara and just as dry (although for the sake of the environment, why not whack on a cardigan instead?). That’s no excuse for not watering them in the summer, however, as they will reward you with lots of growth over the summer if you give them regular food and water. Don’t kill them with kindness: they hate sitting in a saucer of water, so make sure it can drain away. I have a lifelong love affair with succulents, and my favourites change week by week, according to what’s catching my eye. But now, at least, these are my top succulent choices.

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Euphorbia obesa (Turkish temple)
(Photo used under Creative Commons from Urban Hafner)

When I first met ehtnobotanist James Wong at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years back, we bonded over our mutual childhood experience of poring over the pages of the classic indoor plant book DG Hessayon’s Houseplant Expert – even though he grew up in Malaysia and I lived at the leafier end of the Metropolitan line. (I know. Weird. We both turned out fine, though, really…) One of the plants I dreamed of owning was this one, known as baseball plant or the gingham golf ball in the US, although Hessayon called it by the far more romantic name Turkish temple. although I know some houseplant aficionados have a thing for living stones (aka members of the Lithops clan which look like, er, stones – who wants a plant that looks like a pebble? I may as well just have a pebble) but for me, E. obesa is so much better. Its fleshy dome thrusts out of the soil like some kind of rejected set design for a scene in Star Wars. Sadly, this intriguing plant is now rare in the wild in its natural home, the Karoo region of South Africa, because it was targeted by plant collectors, although now it is a protected species.

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Aloe aristata (Lace aloe)

This one has sentimental value: gifted to me by boyfriend’s former neighbours Fiona and Juggs* more than a decade ago, this plant has been with me through thick and thin, and a lot of neglect. This aloe may not have the medicinal properties of its close relative but it is much hardier. I keep my main plant in my unheated and frequently subzero greenhouse-cum-potting shed every winter and it troops through, provided it’s kept dry, it’ll be fine down to at least -5C (some say even lower). A terracotta pot seems to help. It produces strange coral-coloured flowers on fishing rod-style stems every summer, but it’s the fractal whorl of the fleshy leaves that packs the visual punch. Put it in a dull metal or textured pot in just the right shade of green and it will look great. If you need any more reason to try this plant, you may like to know that it has an RHS Award of Garden Merit. It will have “babies” aka offsets, which can be carefully removed from the parent plant and potted up to make more plants.

*He had big ears, hence the nickname. I don’t even know his real name.

Ploverseggs

Adromischus cooperi (Plover’s eggs)

This one’s a toughie, too. In winter it will survive for several months with no water, and admittedly the “eggs” will shrivel a little, but a splash of water and they are back on their feet.I have a feeling my specimen may be a cultivar as most of the pictures I’ve seen have more spathe-shaped leaves, but if anyone can help me out with that, let me know! In a forthcoming post I am planning on how to choose great containers for houseplants, I’ll show you a picture of this plant in another setting … it looks amazing!

I love the strange Leopard-spotted pattern you see on this and some other succulents (check out silver squill (Ledebouria socialis), another close contender for this top five, for another cool spotted leaf pattern).

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Aloe vera
(Photo used under Creative Commons from Toni Villaró)

If you’ve ever wanted a living, growing first aid kit, this is it. There are many claims made for the healing power of this plant, but all I know is if you keep one of these plants on the kitchen windowsill, every time you burn yourself, break off a leaf and squeeze out the gel inside to apply to the skin – it really does help such injuries to heal.

In the summer you can put these outside – they look great massed in a big zinc pot – but don’t do as I did last winter and forget to bring them in, resulting in a mushy mess.

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Kalanchoe daigremontiana (Mother of thousands)

(Photo used under Creative Commons from blumenbiene)

There’s more childhood nostalgia attached to my final choice. This isn’t the ubiquitous (and naff) ‘flaming Katy’ (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) of petrol station forecourts and market stalls, but a relative whose special trick is an odd form of increasing itself. The edges of every leaf are festooned with what look like tiny green flowers at first sight, but they are actually tiny plantlets, which will at a moment’s notice leap off , fall to the ground and sprout roots. As you can imagine, these plants are just fascinating to kids – and, trust me, they are a hell of a lot easier to keep alive than the Venus fly trap, or “one hell of a waste of a fiver”, as I always call it. As this blogpost testifies, these fellas can be devilishly invasive – if I lived in California I’d never have one in my garden, they’d be everywhere, a bit like the deeply annoying Oxalis corniculata, even with its small silver lining of edibility*.

But in a pot it’s easy enough to deal with any extra plants. This – like ginger beer plants and Jamie and the Magic Torch – were ubiquitous in the 1970s and 80s (perhaps it was a local phenomenon where I lived in Buckinghamshire – perhaps you can let me know?), you’d get them at every jumble sale and plant stall this side of, say, 1987. I don’t have one right now, but if anyone wants swapsies for something a bit less, well, fecund, just let me know. As Anna Laurent writes on the Garden Design blog:

The mother-of-thousands is a superlative nurturer by necessity; somewhere on the evolutionary timeline, the unique succulent lost the ability to produce viable seeds, and so the burden of reproduction fell to its leaves. As the plant matures, spoon-shaped spurs develop along the periphery of its leaves, each yielding a miniature clone of the mother. These adventitious plantlets grow larger and form roots, all the while clinging to the mother’s leaves, which now hang heavy under the weight of so many young plants.

*This is edible – the tiny, paper-thin leaves taste like sorrel on a diet: delicately citrusy. Sprinkle it on the top of a risotto You can try to eat it into submission, but be aware that this isn’t a plant to dominate your salad bowl as the leaves contain small amounts of oxalic acid which is not good for your stomach if you eat it in excess. I haven’t got a full idea of how much you’d need to eat to make yourself ill, but I am thinking it’s bucketfuls. Nevertheless, don’t blame me for an overdose, and also beware of any potential issues with allergies: try a small amount first before you dive into a big plateful.

Houseplants part two: my top 5 houseplants even YOU won’t be able to kill!

Ages ago I wrote a post on reinventing the houseplant. I promised part two would list five of my favourite unkillable houseplants… at last, here it is. This is an edited-down version of a feature I wrote for the magazine Your Perfect Garden, available from all good newsagents now!

4155226625_d2f766ba32ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)
This plant will shrug off deep shade, direct sun, no water for months on end and desert-dry air without any sign of distress. If you want to treat it right, water when the compost surface feels dry and put it in a bright spot. It won’t mind the dry air and warm temperatures common to modern homes. If it’s happy, it will grow fast and will need repotting once the roots start to break out of the pot: repot one size up in cactus compost.
Also try:
Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
(Photograph by Artesaniaflorae on Flickr)

P1000927Wax plant (Hoya carnosa)
Most easy-care houseplants don’t offer flowers as part of their repertoire. But this is a glorious exception, although you may have to wait a while for the clusters of fragrant, waxy white flowers to appear. Put it somewhere high so you can enjoy watching the fleshy oval leaves on red stems snake around: or train it up a trellis or some wires to make a living screen.
Also try:
Rosary vine (Ceropegia woodii)

3610497976_a20140e4ba_zUmbrella papyrus (Cyperus alterniflolius) If you like to play fast and loose with the watering can, this   is the plant for you. This stately plant likes its feet in the wet. It’s an ideal plant for the bathroom, where it won’t mind being splashed with water – in fact the extra humidity will do it good. It isn’t overly fussy about light, but avoid direct sunlight.
Also try:
Pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava)
(Photograph by Artep ^_^ on Flickr)

6807128888_135a48793d_zThe Victorians really were onto something when they championed the appropriately-named cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior). If you give this plant the modern treatment by putting it into an imposing pot the result is stunning.

Aspidistra can tolerate those dingy spots other houseplants hate, too. Again, ease off on the watering can: the only thing that will challenge its cast iron constitution is too much wet. Pictured here is A. ‘Big Bang’.
Also try: Parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans); Peace lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii)
(Photograph by MeganEHansen on Flickr)
Sansevieria-cylindrica-potted-plant__0098050_PE238951_S4African spear (Sansevieria cylindrica)
Mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) may be a 70s cliche, but its kookier relative the African spear is the ideal plant for the minimalist look. The leaves are curious round fleshy grey-green spikes and look great planted en masse in a zinc trough. Sansevierias cope with a wide range of conditions, just make sure they have free-draining compost and the occasional drop of water.
Also try: Haworthia; Aloe vera

Reinventing the houseplant (part one)

 

ADIANT004.HR_smallThere is something profoundly depressing about a poorly houseplant. A garden plant that’s having an off period doesn’t tend to draw the eye in the same way, as there’s usually something else to camouflage it, but there’s nowhere to hide from a yellowing, leggy spider plant or a parched palm.

Perhaps that’s why some of us gardeners shy away from indoor plants: they look lush and lovely when we bring them home, but we stick them on a windowsill or shelf and then turn a blind eye when you’re busy outside and in the meanwhile they turn a little brown at the edges, start farming their own herd of fungus gnats and generally become an eyesore.

Houseplants are out of favour. I get dozens of press releases every month about veg, fruit and ornamentals for the garden, but something on indoor plants is rare indeed. So I was delighted to receive not only a press release but a living plant from Dobbies a couple of months back. The presser promised that the Dobbies chain was giving “a tired old friend a glamorous new look”, and included a top 10 health benefits of houseplants.

The plant in question was a maidenhair fern, Adiantum fragrans, a delicate number with tissue-paper thin leaves dancing on wiry black stems. I had fun getting it home on the train, but has since taken up residence in my bathroom. Normally, maidenhair ferns aren’s something I’d buy: they need frequent, careful watering and humid conditions which are hard to meet in most modern houses. The bathroom’s a good choice, though: usually on the chilly side, with plenty of moisture in the air from showers and baths. So far, so good, barring the occasional tug from a toddler and an accident with some toothpaste.

Hoya-kerrii-potted-plant-with-pot__0149144_PE307648_S4The Dobbies houseplant collection has four collections: Country, Heritage, Oriental Spa and Contemporary. I haven’t been into a Dobbies yet to check them out, but when other garden centres are stopping the sale of houseplants, its good to see someone trying to bring them “back into fashion”, even if the selections (despite all the reinvention) major on the usual suspects (I’m thinking begonias, orchids and maybe a jade plant). The pot, too, is perfect: just the right side of distressed, and a gorgeous shade of ultramarine.

Bear in mind, though, that Dobbies is owned by Tesco: if you have a problem with that (and maybe you should), try asking your local florist if s/he can order indoor plants for you. Alternatively, and for those on a tight budget, try Wilkinson or Lidl. They both sell good houseplants on occasion, but you need to get in there quick when new plants arrive as the stock isn’t usually well tended. Ikea’s another excellent choice, if you have one near you, and the offering’s a bit more exciting: for instance the intriguing Hoya kerrii (pictured right), a tough plant which if you treat it right will end up looking like this – including the weirdly wonderful hoya flower.

*Watch out for part two, in which I’ll name my top 5 houseplants that are hard to kill