The Importance of Names ~ The Flowers

The Nature Conservancy’s Love Creek Preserve near Medina

After poetic reflections on the importance of names for the natural world’s trees, birds, and rocks, it seemed fitting to end the series by considering the names of the flowers that surround us.

When I began roaming in nature, I often was confused by names given to the plants I encountered. In the photo above, the red flowers — a species of Gaillardia — were introduced to me as Indian blanket, blanketflower, firewheel, and brown-eyed Susan. On the other hand, some people called the yellow flowers blooming among the Gaillardia coneflowers; others called them brown-eyed Susans.

It’s a common problem. For two years, I assumed a friend meant a certain spring-blooming yellow wildflower when she mentioned her love of ‘buttercups.’ In fact, her ‘buttercup’ was my ‘pink evening primrose,’ a flower also known as showy evening primrose, Mexican evening primrose, pink ladies, and pink buttercup. Eventually, we sorted out our confusion: learning in the process that using the flower’s scientific name, Oenothera speciosa, could have eliminated hours of good-natured argument.

Oenothera speciosa ~ aka pink evening primrose, aka buttercup

Scientific names can be long, difficult to spell, and harder to pronounce, but the two-part naming system formalized by Carl Linnaeus serves an important purpose. His system categorizes plants by genus and species, and every two part name, like Oenothera speciosa, refers to only one plant.

Eventually, as I became more comfortable with the system, the thought of having a little fun with binomial nomenclature — those two-part names — occurred to me. When the phrase “the naming of plants” came to mind, it evoked T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem, The Naming of Cats, and a parody was born.

If you’re not familiar with Eliot’s poem, you can hear a recording of him reading it here. If you’ve long enjoyed the poem, you’ll hear it echoing below. Whether Linnaeus would approve, I can’t say, but I’m sure that Eliot would. If nothing else, it makes the world of binominal nomenclature less intimidating, and much more fun.

The naming of plants? It really does matter.
It isn’t correct to think all are the same.
You may think at first I’m indulging in patter,
but I tell you — a plant must have four different names!
First comes the name that tells us its genus —
Gaillardia, Ilex, Solanum, or Phlox;
Clematis and Salvia,  Silphium, Quercus —
the Latin is easy, not hard as a rock.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
some for the cactus and some for the canes —
Monarda, Justicia, or even Lantana
make lovely and sensible Latinate names.
And then, every plant needs a name more particular,
a name that’s specific and quite dignified;
else how could it keep all its stems perpendicular,
spread out its anthers, or blossom with pride?
For namings of this sort, I ‘ll give you fair dozens:
lyrata, drummondii, frutescens, and more —
crispus, limosa, punctatus, texensis —
those names help describe what we’re all looking for.
Of course, there are names by which most people call plants,
like violet, hollyhock, iris, and thyme;
there’s nothing more common than sweet dandelions,
or peaches, or rhubarb for making our wine.
But above and beyond, there’s one name left over,
and that is the Name that you never will guess;
the Name that no researcher ever discovers —
which the plant itself knows, but will not confess.
When you notice a bloom in profound meditation,
its rays sweetly folded, or its leaves well-arrayed,
its mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
of the seed of a thought of a thought of its Name:
its sturdy and windblown,
sunkissed and shadowed,
deep and firm-rooted most singular Name.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For an extraordinarily useful and detailed exploration of scientific names, please click here.

Eudora Welty Pens a Gardener’s Plea

Someone forgot to wipe his chin when he left the flower bed!

Having praised the creativity, intelligence, and playfulness of our squirrels, it seems only fair to give equal time to an opposing opinion: that the creatures roaming our neighborhoods are sneaky and destructive, not to mention determined to wreak havoc on our gardens and our homes.

Gardens are especially vulnerable, as American author Eudora Welty knew. Like Emily Dickinson, Welty loved her gardens as well as her writing. The garden at her home, designed and created in 1925 by her mother, Chestina Welty, is maintained today by garden restoration consultant Susan Haltom and a group of volunteers who have brought the garden back to its 1925-1945 glory.

A book detailing the garden’s history, One Writer’s Garden, includes a parody of William Blake’s poem “The Tyger.” Welty wrote the parody herself, attached it to a stick, then posted it in her garden as a warning and a plea. Even as a squirrel lover, I have to admire the humor.

Squirrel, squirrel, burning bright,
Do not eat my bulbs tonight!
I think it bad and quite insidious
That you eat my blue Tigridias.
Squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris,
Leave to me my small Muscaris;
Must you make your midnight snack, mouse,

Of Narcissus Mrs. Backhouse?
When you bite the pure Leucojum,
Do you feel no taint of odium?
Must you chew till Kingdom Come
Hippeastrum advenum?
If in your tummy bloomed a lily,
Wouldn’t you feel sort of silly?
Do you wish to tease and joke us
When you carry off a crocus?
Must you hang up in your pantries
All my Pink Queen Zephyranthes?
Tell me, has it ever been thus,
Squirrels eat the Hyacinthus?
O little rodent —
I wish you wo’dn’t!

Comments always are welcome.

Spring’s First Dandelion

A hoverfly and a tiny ‘something’ enjoying a taste of spring

 

Other Texas dandelions surely are blooming, but this is the first I’ve seen this season. Also known as Carolina desert-chicory or smallflower desert-chicory (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus),  this European dandelion look-alike generally blooms from February through June, but at least this eager flower was willing to give January a try; I found it along the road leading into the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge only a few days ago, on January 24th.

Walt Whitman would have seen the European dandelion rather than our Texas version, but he seems to have enjoyed the sight. In 1888, the New York Herald ran this short poem written by him:

                                         The First Dandelion

                                         Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close 
                                                    emerging, 
                                        As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, 
                                                   had ever been, 
                                       Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass,
                                                  innocent, golden, calm as the dawn, 
                                      The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful 
                                                  face .

Unfortunately, Whitman’s paean to the coming spring ran on March 12, 1888, the worst day of the Blizzard of 1888, a day when several feet of snow and unceasing winds were making the American northeast a very unpleasant place. As the journal Illustrated American reported in 1892, somewhat primly, the poem “made its appearance at a most unfortunate time.” No one wanted to read about dandelions of any sort on that day. 

Parody was inevitable. One of the first examples appeared in the Herald two days after Whitman’s poem was published, signed simply, “After Walt Whitman.”

                                     The First Blizzard

                                     Simple and fresh and fierce, from Winter’s close 
                                          emerging, 
                                    As if no artifice of summer, business, politics 
                                         had ever been, 
                                   Forth from its snowy nook of shivering glaciers– 
                                        innocent, silver, pale as the dawn, 
                                  The Spring’s first blizzard shows its wryful 
                                         face. 

 Eventually, “The First Dandelion” appeared in the ‘deathbed’ edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: a poem as delicate and sweet as the flower it celebrates.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Bringing Broadway Home

Yes, the Corona virus is serious. Its spread is worrying, just as the willingness of people across the country to stay at their posts in retail shops, hospitals, doctors’ offices, and grocery stores is more than admirable.

Still, there are frustrations and tensions as the world attempts to navigate its way through essentially uncharted waters. There’s anger at politicians and hoarders, befuddlement in the face of empty shelves, and a strong desire for easy or quick answers which refuse to come.

Given the realities, a little humor can be a relief, and when a friend passed on this video (thanks, Jeanie!), I laughed all the way through one of the best bits of parody I’ve seen. No, it’s not entirely safe for work, but since most people either aren’t working or are working from home, that’s not much of an issue. Enjoy!

 

 

Comments always are welcome..

This is Just to Say

 

Not long after I published my color image of this landmark on Trinity Bay, I received an email from photographer and friend Steve Gingold. It included this reprocessed version of the photo, and a few words:

Forgive me…
The strong contrast and those beautiful clouds, I just had to…

The changes he made to the photo opened my eyes to the virtues of black-and-white photography in a new and visceral way. To put it simply, while my color version of the chapel would make a nice postcard, this is a photograph, and an invitation to a new way of seeing.

The association raised by the words of his email was equally delightful. They brought to mind William Carlos Williams’s famous poem titled “This is Just to Say”:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Uncounted parodies of his poem have appeared over the years, and it seems appropriate to add this one to the mix.

I have changed
the color
that was in
your photo
and which
you probably
preferred
in the end
Forgive me
this seems delicious
so strong
and so bold

 

Comments always are welcome.