Fancy names for pretty flowers


I used to work with someone named Tom. Tom was one of those people who was always rolling his eyes at something; he couldn’t ask you to pass the salt without sounding terminally weary and disgusted with everything. And, to top it off, he was a gardening snob. I was looking at a bouquet in the lobby once and wondered aloud what one of the flowers was. He looked at it critically. “Well,” he said in his whiny Paul Lynde voice, “it’s obviously a Cornus of some kind.”



I could have slapped his silly face off.



The thing is, I do exactly the same thing.



I love scientific names, especially for plants. A flower can have a dozen different names in English, and a dozen more in every European language, but it will only ever have one scientific name. This is, by common agreement, the flower’s true name.



And (as we all learned at Hogwarts), if you know the true name of a thing, you can conjure with it.



Some names are obvious. Tulips are Tulipa, roses are Rosa, violets are Viola. Some plants have only their scientific names: Poinsettia, Fuchsia, Rhododendron, Azalea, Camellia.



Now we get to the snarky part.



Are those sweet-Williams, or are they pinks? Or even gillyflowers? No, sugar. Those are Dianthus.



A friend asked me about “those yellow flowers in front of the supermarket.” I thought for a moment and then brighened. “You mean the Hemerocallis?” I said cheerily. She looked at me with a veiled expression, which I believe meant she wanted to slap my silly face off.



Partner pointed at some California poppies, and I shook my head. “They’re not even Papaver,” I said. “They’re Escholtzia.”



It really is maddening, isn’t it?



But sometimes it’s worthwhile.



When the witch-hazel blooms with its eerie yellow-red spidery flowers in the January and February snow, I look at it and whisper: “Hamamelis virginiana.”



A name to conjure with, on a cold winter day.



And best of all: there is a lovely tree hereabouts, that grows to enormous heights, and in summer bears extraordinary yellow-green cuplike flowers in its upper branches. It looks supernatural.



It is, of course, the tulip poplar.



Oh, no, it’s not.



It is the Liriodendron tulipifera.



Now that’s a name.



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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