Sidmouth Garden Guru: The unspoken language surrounding The Byes, Blackmore, Connaught Gardens and beyond

By Guest

27th Nov 2020 | Local News

Sidmouth gardening guru Stefan Drew has partnered up with Nub News to give green-thumbed gardeners in the town the best tips and tricks on gardening in the local climate through a series of regular bi-monthly columns.

Stefan is a former market gardener and college horticulture lecturer. Here is his latest column:

An unspoken language surrounds us as we walk the Byes, Blackmore and Connaught Gardens, Peak and Salcombe Hills and beyond.

It's Latin.

Why? Because Latin is the language of plants and flowers.

It started with Linnaeus who was confused by the numerous local names for plants.

He believed we needed a simple system, common to the whole world whatever language we spoke.

Since then gardeners have referred to their plants by their Latin names. Or in most cases by a mix of common local names and a sort of Latinised pidgin English.

Latin names don't just stop at being names. They are also descriptive. Understanding the meaning of Latin plant names opens up a whole world of hidden meaning and beauty amongst the borders.

Important sounding, hard to pronounce and mysterious they might be, but there's much more to Latin plant names than first meets the ear.

Plant names contain hidden messages that can tell us their many secrets. Where a plant comes from, who discovered it, who brought it to our country, why it comes from, the shape and colour of its leaves or stem, or when it flowers are just a few of the plant's secrets revealed in its name.

It's Not All Latin

There is, of course, a contradiction in so-called Latin plant names. Many aren't actually Latin. For example, the narcissus, or common daffodil, is named after Narcissus, the youth of Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection.

And Yarrow, a plant common on grass verges around Sidmouth, also has classical Greek pretensions. It is named Achillea, after the warrior hero Achilles.

Carl Linnaeus

Latin is, however, the source of many plant names and there is a logic in its use. The naming system used for plants is called the Linnaean nomenclature. It's a binary system. devised by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus and goes back to the 18th century. Linnaeus recognised the problems associated with flora and fauna having many local and national names and decided a system was needed to ensure common understanding across the world.

Take a very common plant, Digitalis purpurea, as an example, in Norwegian it is known as revbielde or foxbell; in German it is fingerhut or "thimble"; the French call it gant de notre dame; and the Welsh menyg-elloyllan or elves gloves. In Anglo Saxon, it was foxes glofa from which we get the word foxglove. You might know it as Witches' Gloves, Dead Men's Bells, Fairy's Glove, Gloves of Our Lady, Bloody Fingers, Virgin's Glove, Fairy Caps, Folk's Glove or Fairy Thimbles depending where you were born. Digitalis purpurea is however recognised by gardeners and botanists worldwide and the need for a universal language is self-evident.

Victorian Plant Hunters

It is not all foreign names, dead languages and classical Greek. The names of some plants tell us about their more recent history. The Victorian age was one of plant hunters scouring the globe for new plants. The names of three great plant hunters come to mind; Pere David, Robert Fortune and EH "Chinese" Wilson. Their plants are found in many locations around Sidmouth.

As a missionary in China, Pere Armand David discovered numerous plants that were unknown to the gardeners of Western Europe. Several now bear his name, including Clematis armandii, Buddleia davidii and the rarer Davidia involucrata, which in English is variously called the pocket-handkerchief tree, dove tree or ghost tree.

It was EH "Chinese" Wilson, in the employ of the Veitch dynasty in nearby Exeter, that brought the Davidii involucrata plants back to Devon. An example of the species now grows in the grounds of the Sidholme Hotel. There's another fine example at Killerton.

Robert Fortune was another plant hunter who travelled to China and we have him to thank for the hardy palm tree, Trachycarpus fortunei or Chusan palm that grows in Connaught Gardens. Fortune brought three specimens back with him in1842 but today its a species found in many places as its a remarkably hardy plant for an exotic looking palm.

Women also feature amongst the plant names. The striking miniature blue iris, Iris danfordiae, is named after Mrs C.G. Danford. Ellen Willmott is also remembered with several plants bearing the name willmottianus or willmottiae. Other women are remembered in the cultivars named after them.

Stately Exotics

All these plants can grow well in the typical Devonshire garden and find our winters no problem; not so one of nature's most regal plants. Native to the Cape Province and named after a Queen the bird of paradise or Strelitzia reginae, is truly regal. Strelitzia reginae was first introduced into Britain in 1773 by Sir Joseph Banks, who was then the unofficial director of the Royal Gardens at Kew (as they were known at that time). He named the exotic-looking plant Strelitzia in honour of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III and Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who lived at Kew for many years.

I've grown Strelitzia from seed. Its reputed to be difficult to germinate but I managed to germinate seven out of eight seeds. Beginners luck maybe! Two sit in my home in Sidmouth during the winter but enjoy the summer sun each year when put outside for as many months as I can.

Less regal, but equally as splendid, are the many plants found in the gardens, fields and woodlands of the Sid Valley and surrounding areas. Their names describe their colour, habit, habitat, smell or appearance.

Anemone nemorosa is the wood anemone, which appears in mist-like white drifts in deciduous woodland in the spring. Nemorosa and nemoralis both mean "of woods" or groves.

Another Latin word, palustris, means marshy ground and rightly describes the habitat of Caltha palustris or marsh marigold with its bright yellow early spring flowers.

Far less attractive is the foetid smelling Iris foetidissima or stinking iris, which is found in woodlands and thickets on dry calcareous soils. The seed head is remarkable for its bright orange seed but the flowers live up to its foul name.

Vulgare Plants

Despite the beauty of so many plant names a few suffer at the hand of the Linnaean system with names that are vulgare! Not a judgement on the plants choice of humour or dress, vulgare and vulgaris simply means common. On this basis Devon's county flower, the common Primula vulgaris is indeed common; but I always feel it deserves a better name. A firm favourite with so many, the primrose or prime rose, so named as it was the first "rose" to flower each year, is far from vulgar.

Tip of the Month

During the damp winter months, the glass in greenhouses soon becomes covered in algae.

So now is a good time to clean the glass in your greenhouse and ensure you get the most of what little sunshine and light we get during the winter.

More Gardening Tips

You can learn more about gardening by joining, Stefan's Facebook gardening group on Facebook by following this link.


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