What’s In A Name?

SO THE GUY who blows the leaves off my sidewalk turns off the turbo-charged jet engine he carries slung on his shoulder, lifts his goggles, and asks me, “What’s the name of that plant over there?”

He means, of course, coreopsis auriculata—a tall, hardy perennial covered with yellow blooms that look like a daisy and a chrysanthemum smooshed together.

“You oughta label these things,” the lawn guy suggests.

Actually, I have been thinking about doing just that. I even bought 100 sturdy metal stands and one of those letter-punch contraptions that spits out a sticky tape with whatever you type printed right on it. But I have balked at starting the task, and here’s why.

I don’t care what the heck the genus and species of my plants are. That’s not what’s important to me about them, that’s not how I think about them, and that’s not what I’ve named them.

Take coreopsis auriculata, for example. When I water it, weed around it, and talk about it to the other plants (“Don’t worry about that big yellow guy over there, you little Bleeding Heart, just bloom, anyway, will you?”), I refer to it as the “Otto’s Garage Plant.” My grandfather, a short fellow with a white, bushy crewcut and the improbable name of Otto Marcelius Hill, grew this thing along his white clapboard garage in Duncombe, Iowa. After his death and the death of my grandmother, my Aunt Bonita took a clump of the plant and moved it to her garden in Slater, Iowa. One weekend while I was visiting her, she divided the plant and gave me one of my own. So now, along the side of my own garage, I grow Otto’s Garage Plant, by way of Aunt Bonita’s Garden.

I guess I could type that on a label.

I also have the iris by the front step from Zula, a marvelously nutty friend of my mother’s who ran an iris farm and first taught me about bulbs, dirt, and appreciating the garden. Zula, who knew the Latin names for every shade of iris, might be disappointed in me, but I call all the colors of my iris garden by her name. My children are growing up with the wrong idea of the proper name for that flower. “What a nice bouquet of zulas,” they say. What better legacy?

When I walk through the garden showing it to friends, I never recite the names of my plants. Instead, I tell their lineage.

“The hostas are from my friend Kate, and they used to grow all around her enormous backyard tree until it had to be cut down and we had an emergency and had to get all the hostas out overnight, so we carried them here in cardboard boxes.”

“This leggy purple thing is from my old neighbor who brought by one day and said, ‘I don’t know what this is, exactly, it’s just a leggy purple thing, but I thought you might like it’.”

Sometimes I get a puzzled look and, “OK, that’s nice, but what are these?” Well, that’s what they are.

They are the plants that, every time I see them, make me remember what it felt like to be eight years old and swing on the tire swing near my grandfather’s garage. Or to sit on Kate’s backyard deck under that enormous spreading tree talking and laughing until the sunset. Or to receive a lovely and unexpected kindness from a neighbor.

In the back garden, there are the violets and the lilies of the valley that spring up wild and so abundant in my parents’ yard that my father mows them down unless I go rescue them.

Near the hollyhocks, there are the rudbeckia I wasn’t sure I wanted until an elegantly dressed woman parking a Mercedes at the garden store leaned out her window and said, “Oh, my dear—you are going to love that color!”

Out front, there is a tree just like the one my grandmother had outside the bedroom window. Its branches are feathery and tiny flowers actually make the tree look like it is turning from green to pink. As a child, the first time I saw it turn, I thought I was imagining it and that it was magic.

The twin moonflower bushes are not exactly from my friend Marie, but I liked the ones she planted outside her garden gate so much I had to go get some of my own and do just the same thing with them.

And there in the garden between my house and my neighbor Sam’s are the knockout fuchsia-and-white lilies she gave me as a gift. She spends every summer on her island off Maine and will never see them bloom, but when they do, I miss her especially and feel she is here with me.

I will never fit all of that onto one little label.


This appeared in Midwest Home and Garden, August/September 2000, P. 136.

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