High above the clouds, sitting here at 36,000 feet I became inspired to write about my next article. My semi-annual trek across the country, in search of next year’s nursery stock, has me reminiscing about the colorful nomenclature often associated with the plants you purchase. And the need to understand some Latin and directing that specific vocabulary into everyday usage should not be seen as elitist, but rather as a more clear understanding of what it is you really want in your own garden. Let me explain!
Most of us know that the road to understanding the plant kingdom can be a bit daunting. Our high school science classes taught us all the order of living things. Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species are words that may conjure up feelings of not being prepared for your scantron test. Remember those? Fortunately, to communicate, really communicate, at your independent garden centers you really only need to learn the last two. Genus and species, for most, are enough to narrow down the search. Take it one step further and you can get into cultivars. Why is this important? Because all blue spruce are not created equal! Understanding the “big three”, genus, species and cultivar brings you to a level of appreciation and understanding their differences. The individual generic (genus) or specific epithet (species name) is really not confusing once you break it down. Google a plant search for blue spruce cultivars and you’ll see what I mean. The name Picea pungens will keep coming up, reinforcing the genus and species. But what about all those names in single quotations? The colorful names of people and places, where did they come from?
Too many to ever list all of them, let’s talk about a few of the most popular. Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’ was named, as you would imagine, after Bill Cosby’s cartoon character. Found in 1976 by Iseli Nursery in Oregon, ‘Fat Albert’ was chosen because it is “the fattest, bluest, most perfect BIG blue spruce grown”. Another popular plant that adorns many homes in New Jersey is Nellie Stevens holly (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’). Who was Nellie Stevens? She was a school teacher and principal whose seed collection was almost lost forever. “Miss Nellie” as she was “affectionately called” collected seed in 1900 from the National Arboretum. Later it was found that the heritage of that collection was English holly (Ilex aquifolium) and Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta). Her seed collection was almost cut down in their later years, but was saved because of collaboration between Eunice Parsons Highley, Nellie Steven’s niece and Mr. and Mrs. Van Lennep. Mr. Van Lennep named the holly for Nellie Stevens and in 1967, some 25 years after Nellie Stevens death, her holly was registered with the American Holly society. The very popular, broadleaf, evergreen, southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’) was chosen by Ray Bracken, a nurseryman whose locution was “if I do nothing else in my lifetime but leave the world a good tree, I’ve done something”. His magnolia was selected not only for its cold hardiness, -22 degrees Fahrenheit, but also for its fungal resistance, huge flowers and shade tolerance. Not to mention the fuzzy-brown undersides of the leaves. One of the most popular harbingers of spring, witchhazel, also has a famed name. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ was selected by the Arnold Arboretum for its unique combination of fragrance of flowers and cold hardiness. Finally, someone in our own backyard discovered ‘Carol Mackie’ Daphne. Carol Mackie has been described as an amateur horticulturist who may very well have found the quintessential plant. In 1962 this past resident of New Jersey found a lovely variegated daphne with fragrant pale-pink flowers. Soon after, Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ became elevated to rock star status.
Understanding the “big three” leads you to asking better questions. Knowing that “cool cultivars” have been chosen for specific reasons should leave you asking the question… does the perfect plant exist. The answer is yes! If you want a bright blue spruce with a smaller habit suitable for a foundation planting, chances are it exists. There are reasons certain plants were selected and became marketable cultivars. They may have been selected for their prominent color markings, heavier flower production, glossier leaves, thicker stems or a more narrow habit. The point being, as your appreciation for plant material increases you can begin to select plants and take advantage of what others have found for you. Your garden, in turn, will begin to take on characteristics very specific to your own likings.