Playing the name game

Janice Wells
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Plant names can drive you crazy. At the most basic, there are the scientific, often Latin, names, and the common names.

As far as I’m concerned, these graceful orange red flowers along a Stephenville driveway are montbretia. — Photo by Janice Wells/Special to The Telegram

Common names can vary from place to place and then there are the definitions and proper uses of terms like “genus,” “variety,” “cultivar” and “species” and so on. One hint I found suggests thinking of them like family names — your family name followed by your given name, like this: Wells, Janice. “Wells” is the genus and “Janice” is the species.

That definition strikes me as a bit misleading.

As intriguing as it might be to think of yourself as a distinct species, I can’t resist saying that it seems down right narcissistic to me.

I can’t resist saying that because it this context, just to confuse the issue, narcissus has nothing to do with the flower and everything to do Greek mythology.

Just to emphasize my point, the narcissus family is actually a sub-family of the amaryllis family and includes daffodils and jonquils.

Yes, the daffodil is really a narcissus except when it’s a jonquil and they are all part of the amaryllis family from southern Europe, not to be confused with the amaryllises from South Africa, or those Mary’s Arm amaryllises.

Then there’s montbretia. Way back in the olden days, when I was a young girl growing up in Corner Brook, my mother’s best friend and gardening soul mate had a clump of late summer flowers in her garden that I really liked; strappy foliage like a narrower,more graceful daylily, and delicate arching deep vermillion flowers.

They were called montbretia and I don’t remember my mother having any (which would be odd because they shared everything). Maybe she didn’t like them as much as I did, or maybe I just remember Aunt Bessie’s because I saw them there first.

By the time I had my first garden, both my mother and Aunt Bessie had downsized their homes and gardens. Getting a piece of Aunt Bessie’s montbretia wasn’t an option so I bought the bulbs/corms (depending on what site your read) from somewhere. Mine did well the first year, but didn’t survive the winter. I assumed Aunt Bessie must have lucked into a good microclimate for these half-hardy corms and I never planted them again.

I don’t remember seeing them for sale for years and then, in a catalogue, I came across crocosmia, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the montbretia of my memory, but seemed a bit more orange.

Now I’ve been told that they are either one and the same or kissin’ cousins, and they’re both members of the iris family. Apparently in the states they’re also known as falling stars, which I guess is too simple for the likes of us.

Whatever you call them, I hadn’t seen them for years and this summer I came across two gorgeous clumps, one in St. John’s and one in Stephenville.

The Stephenville clump was near the street where I’m sure it gets lots of salt and snow abuse, but the size indicated that it had been there for a few years, so they’d be worth looking for if you knew what to ask for.

Let’s say you also want bee balm. I’ve always believed bee balm to be the common name for the genus monarda, which it is, but so is bergamot — which I thought was a different species, but isn’t.

So, if you see a plant labelled bergamot, it’s bee balm —  and by the way, it belongs to the mint family.

Let’s close with those lovely New England asters that are just coming into bloom.

I have been corrected in the past with the information that what I was calling a New England aster is actually a Michaelmas daisy.

Well, yes it is, but don’t correct me because they are the same plant, and are actually members of the asteraceae family, so I choose not to confuse things by calling them daisies.

Can you imagine Gertrude Stein’s famous “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” as “a jonquil is a daffodil is a narcissus is an amaryllis?”

Janice Wells lives in St. John’s. Her latest book, “Newfoundland and Labrador Book of Musts,” was published in October 2010 by MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc. You can reach her at Note to readers: please do not send thumbnail-size photographs, as they are too small to publish.

Organizations: MacIntyre Purcell Publishing

Geographic location: Southern Europe, South Africa, Corner Brook Stephenville New England

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