Ever since the evolution of language, humans have been designating names to the objects in their environment. Whether through symbols or spoken language, names evolved as a means of communication. Humans have gotten very good at the name game. We name our children, our pets, and objects in our environment; some even name their cars or plants. I will admit I am guilty of playing the name game, often giving monikers to the wildlife in our yard or certain plants in my care. Just ask Dandy the groundhog, Phillip the house wren, or Jasper, our sago palm downstairs.
In the horticultural world, names became essential as our understanding of the plant kingdom expanded. Before 1753, when famed Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published his concept of the binomial naming system, names for specific plant species could differ based on location or family traditions. Common names created a confusing mess for gardeners, as an individual plant species could have several terms depending on where it was grown. Enlisting an international system known as the “International Code of Botanical Nomenclature” made plant naming universal. This code is generally based in Latin and uses Linnaeus’s two-name (binomial) system, giving each plant a unique first (genus) and last (species) name. With this system, the plant can be recognized throughout the world, regardless of the native language.
After the genus and species name, you will find the cultivar name; this is where the plant breeders get to have some fun. They have no control over their plant’s scientific designation, but the cultivar name is theirs to label, with a few rules outlined in the Cultivated Plant Code, of course. I often imagine what it would be like to be responsible for naming a plant that you have bred. There must be many factors to consider. Do you create a list of possibilities and narrow it down or pick the first thing that pops into your head? Select a name solely based on the bloom color or leaf shape and attributes? Come up with something humorous and highly memorable? All of the above? What fun it must be!
I love reading plant tags and seeing how creative plant breeders are. Often, I find myself drawn to certain plants based on their cultivar name. I will admit that I have purchased plants based on their name if I find it particularly ingenious. What can I say? I’m a sucker for creativity. Likewise, a plant name can turn me off of a plant and send me quickly walking away. For example, I couldn’t resist trying the bright yellow daffodil variety aptly named ‘Tweety Bird’ or the miniature variety called ‘Minnow.’ However, a hosta cultivar entitled ‘Outhouse Delight’ would not be joining my garden beds. I appreciate the humor, but I couldn’t bring myself to add that variety to the shopping cart.
Other cultivar names that have caught my attention include the peony ‘Shaggy Dog,’ the azalea ‘I’ll Be Damned,’ and a phlox named ‘Phlox of Sheep.’ Funny cultivar names that seem obsessed with anatomy include the iris ‘Baboon Bottom,’ the Sinningia ‘Sweet Patootie,’ or the rose named ‘Happy Butt.’ Not surprisingly, the flowers on these varieties are pink.
Ornamental cultivars are not the only plants with exciting names, edible cultivar monikers can be just as witty. This season I couldn’t resist purchasing seeds for the tomato varieties ‘Kryptonite,’ ‘Cosmic Eclipse,’ and ‘Painted Lady,’ and had to have the two varieties ‘Gargamel’ and ‘Dancing with Smurfs,’ named after one of my favorite childhood cartoons. Joining them are the appropriately named lettuce varieties ‘Freckles’ and ‘Tennis Ball,’ the fantastical cucumber variety ‘Dragon’s Egg’ as well as the adorably named cucumber ‘Salt and Pepper’ and pumpkins ‘Kandy Korn’ and ‘Jack Be Little.’
Perusing “The Exchange Yearbook,” I find many clever and intriguing edible cultivar names. Tomatoes called ‘Aladdin’s Lamp,’ ‘Banana Legs,’ ‘Flat Head Monster,’ ‘Green Zebra,’ ‘Nebraska Wedding,’ ‘Looney’s Old Timey,’ ‘Yellow Furry Hog,’ and ‘Green Bell Pepper’ (yes, the name of a tomato), all garnered my attention. How about the bean varieties ‘Purple Goose,’ ‘Shamrock,’ and my favorite bean cultivar name that I found, ‘Dragon Langerie’ (I know it’s not spelled the same, but it certainly made me chuckle).
How fun it must be to name a cultivar! I secretly envy plant breeders that have that responsibility. Perhaps someday I’ll dabble in plant breeding just so that I, too, can name a new variety. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the humor and entertainment of those already named.