STRANGE PLANT NAMES
BY GLADYS JEURINK
Many of our plants have “funny” or different common names and several plants may have the same one. They are interesting if you hear why or how they acquired that name. The scientific names may be dull or hard to say but are the same world wide. George has written about the scientific names so I am going to talk about the common ones.
Out in my grey garden I have PUSSYTOES (Antennaria plantaginifolia) which is a soft fuzzy small leafed plant that hugs the ground and will grow in the poorest, dry soil around. The flowers are in a cluster looking like cats paws only about 4 inches high that I usually slice off because I prefer the low, grey, soft pattern of the leaves. Sometimes it is called women’s tobacco PLANT as well as at least six other common names. One of which is poverty weed as it grows in such poor soil. You can pick up a piece of several inches, drop it down somewhere else, water and have a new colony.
Just behind the toes I have LAMB’S EARS (Stachys olympsica or some authors call it Stachys byzantina) which are dense, white, and soft leaves that form mats if you don’t water too much and cause root rot. Sometimes called WOOLY BETONY, it is planted out by the mail box. Several years ago I noticed several “kids” from the block coming to pet the ears which are about four inches long. In the same dry area is SEAFOAM (Artemesia versicolar) also called CURLICUE SAGE because it grows in curls that are fragrant.
Out in the backyard in a shady area is PIGS SQUEAK, sometimes called ELEPHANT EARS (Bergenia species). The leaves are very large and stay green all winter until replaced by the new ones. The blooms, arranged on a stem 10-12 inches long and covering all the way around in red, pink, or purple. One bloom stalk is almost a bouquet by itself in early spring. They dislike either very dry or very wet soil and prefer light shade.
Six fool tall JOE-PYE WEED (Eupatorium fistulosum) blooms in July but some of my books say it grows to 12 feet. It is named after a Native American Joe-Pye or sometimes Jopi who helped the early settlers with his knowledge of herbal medicine. His plant was used to treat typhoid fever. Its bloom is big and fluffy as well as dearly loved by butterflies and bees in August and early September. I have 2 clumps in full sun that started about ten years ago as single plants. They are not fast spreaders. Usually the native ones are found near water. They can do well in light shade. In the last few years a dwarf species has been developed. I have seen at least 5 different species of butterflies on my plants at the same time. Sometimes the plants have been called BONESETS, so named because it was used to help cure a painful illness call breakbone fever. The leaves were dried, crushed, and made into tea. This tea was also used as a cold remedy.
HORSETAIL (Equisetum arvense)
growing in the back yard in a wet spot. It is also known as
SHAVE GRASS, and BOTTLE BRUSH.
All of us are well acquainted with CATTAILS (Typha species). There are narrow and broad leaved CATTAILS. I remember growing up that the red winged blackbirds hung their nests between two plants up to 6 feet off the ground. When we came into their territory the parents screamed and dive bombed us coming very close to our heads. I like to grow them in a pond or tub just to see the tails grow. They are perennials, flowering in midsummer, covered with seeds, and fluff by fall. If they have adequate water the plant can become very invasive. In the country muskrats use the stalks to build two room chambers that look miniature beaver houses, and eat the underwater rhizomes. People can eat the female flowers by boiling and eating like corn on the cob. In fall the rhizomes can be ground into flour.
There is also CATNIP (Nepeta cataria) in the backyard. This plant has been used as medicine for over 2000 years. At one time or another it could cure almost everything and herb books tell how to make a tea that can be used as a digestive aid or a mild tranquilizer. The tranquilizer is what makes CATNIP so exciting to some cats. It grows easily from seed or plants. The variety I have grows only about 18 inches high with a bright blue flower that looks good in bouquets. Cats can destroy your plants in a short time, but they usually don’t get interested until you bruise some leaves and they get the smell.
How about raising BUTTER AND EGGS (Linaria vulgaris)? It is not a native but does very well in neglected and sandy places. It needs full sun and is often found along ditches, produces a yellow dye, and was used to treat insect bites. You can find it under at least a dozen names such as DEVILS RIBBON and TOAD FLAX. Farmers hate it as it spreads by tough rhizomes. It looks like a small snapdragon and with a good imagination, you can see how it was named with its bright yellow and white petals. I have never been a success with the plant. Perhaps because it needs to grow near other plants so its roots can tap into their roots to get food and water. The seed companies have seed for sale every spring.
In part #2 I will have more plants with funny common names. In the meantime, keep laughing and enjoy your garden.