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.