Why do they keep changing plant names?

“That’s right!” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”   

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The argument often made for using scientific plant names is that it provides consistency. If you ask for Alchemilla mollis that is what you’ll get. The problem is you keep finding different people referring to the same plant with different names. The exact opposite of what is wanted and causing confusion and irritation to many gardeners – what we want is clear stable names with no grey areas. Unfortunately “grey areas” are hard wired into the system of naming livings thing.

Wild scottish heather
Wild Scottish heather

The names of all living things, plants, animals, bacteria, politicians (possibly), etc are an attempt by mankind to order the world around us. To look at the state of things that may not seem to obvious a human obsessions but our history is littered with mans attempt to bring order and explanation to the world around him. To this end biologists try to group things in collections of related examples. This lead to plants and animals being divided into separate kingdoms and these were further divided and subdivided so like species were grouped into genera and like genera into families and so on. As this was going on it became clear that the range of species around us had changed over time, or evolved, and so it made sense to reflect these ancestral links in the arrangement of species, etc.

This hit two major stumbling blocks. The first and most obvious was the lack of

Sempervivum cultivar
Sempervivum cultivar

information about these ancestral forms. The vast, vast, VAST majority of species are extinct and lost forever. It needs a very unlikely set of circumstances for a plant or animal to be preserved as a fossil and even then the amount of detail preserved is still very limited. The other problem was how species evolve themselves. Initially it was believed that species were distinct with clear boundaries of some sort separating different species. Then came; Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Few people cannot have heard of Darwin but Wallace deserves his share of the credit for the theory of evolution Darwin explained in his book “The Origin of Species”. What the 50 year old Darwin wrote about was a bloody life and death struggle between all living things. This was the driving force behind the gradual change from one form into a new one. No longer were species entirely separate entities but a snap shot on their evolutionary journey.

So we find ourselves in a situation where it is impossible to have a clear definition of what a species is and nearly all the information we need to arrange the extant species in their places in the evolutionary map is lost for ever. I can best describe the situation thus: imagine you photograph everyone walking down you local high street one Saturday, lay all the pictures out and with only the pictures to go on try and work out not only who is related to who but how closely. I can guarantee you will disagree with who ever you are working with and have to frequently change your mind.

Now for the next question – why don’t we end up changing plant names more often?

Sitting out in the garden

Traditional garden bench at Pine Lodge Gardens
Traditional garden bench at Pine Lodge Gardens

One of the most popular pastimes in gardens is sitting out enjoying any warm weather the British climate affords us. At its simplest this could be just relaxing on a lawn, but soon you will be looking for something a little more comfortable. With this comes the decision – where to put the seat. A light wooden bench can simply be stood on the lawn and moved around as needed. This has the advantage that when it comes to cutting the grass it’s a relatively simple task just to move the bench to one side out of the way.  More substantial seating, or when you want to make a feature of the seat, a permanent base is needed to stand the seat on.

The first consideration when deciding where to put your seat is what is you going to use it for? Are you looking for a shady place to read a book, some where to sunbath or a dinning area? By now you should be getting to know your garden and the shade changes during the day and the year. Take a chair into the garden – any one will do – and try sitting in some likely spots. The world looks different when you drop your line of sight by 2 feet. Does it still feel like a good place to sit? Are you over looked (or overlooking)? Can you till see the view you were hoping to admire? Lots of questions I know but it’s easy to modify your ideas at this stage.

Once a suitable place has been found; the next things to consider are what style of seat and what you are you going to stand it on. The actual choice of style is largely a personal choice and most styles can look perfectly good in most settings; either by complementing or contrasting with its surroundings.  The range of different seats is vast but a few pointers are worth considering.

Garden bench built from railway sleepers
Garden bench built from railway sleepers
  • You get what you pay for. The better made the seat the more expensive it is going to be.
  • Hardwood is more durable but of course costs more.
  • Both wood and metal seats both need regular painting to maintain them.
  • Seats don’t have to be bought. Some very effective seats are homemade.
  • Garden seats can soon become hard and uncomfortable so do you need cushions?
  • Single seats never look very inviting in the garden; so generally stick to benches or use groups of two or more single seats.
  • A garden seat does can be made from all sorts of different materials.
  • A seat doesn’t need to be a conventional chair or bench – be imaginative!

    Sculptured garden bench at the Hillier Gardens
    Sculptured garden bench at the Hillier Gardens

When it comes to what you stand the seat on the choice is simpler. You can stand it one the soil or lawn; but the legs will tend to sink into the ground, and not evenly, so you will have to keep repositioning it. Also constant contact with the damp soil is likely to encourage rotting or rusting of the base of the legs. Bark has similar problems unless it is laid over a firm base, if just a porous membrane is laid under the bark the seat legs will tend to puncture it. Gravel has similar problems to bark and it also needs an edging to stop the gravel spreading about. That aside both can make a good base for a seat that is not being moved around as it is in use. The last choice is paving in its various forms and this is the most expensive. If the seating is going to be around a table, with chairs moving about as people sit and get up from the table, then a smooth solid surface is the only practical choice.

Enzymes

These are catalysts which drive and control all the processes in living things. These are proteins just like muscle and hair and work as a result of their complex structure. Catalysts are something which causes a chemical reaction to occur but remain unchanged by the reaction so that it can repeatedly act on the same reaction.

Organic matter

This is the part of the soil which is made up from partly decomposed plant material or material which can beaded to soil to increase the amount of soil organic matter. It is very important as a reserve of nutrients and in the structure of the soil. Typical sources include peat, compost, farmyard manure and leaf mould. Except for peat soils, mixing additional organic matter into a soil will improve it.

Organic

Originally this was something which served as an organ and with time was adopted by chemists to refer to carbon based compounds. As a result of living things being carbon based it extended to which living things and material which resulted from living things; hence organic matter.

The latter half of the 20th century saw the word adopted by the anti-chemical movement to mean something produced without the use of manmade chemicals.

What to put in the garden

By now we’ve got the garden under control and we can take time to consider what we are going to do with it in the longer term. I can’t give a list of what to put in as every garden is different as are its owner’s needs.  What actually goes into the garden is going to be determined by the garden and the use you are going to put it to. It is inevitable some compromises will have to be made; so it’s worth considering who is going to use the garden and for what. Once you feel clear about this, comes the problem of fitting it into the space you have available. Only a very luck few space for all the demands that we will place on a garden. In addition to the size your ideas have to allow for nature of the garden and how your needs are going to change with time. Most commonly people remain in the same house 10 to 20 years and a lot can change in that time.

The Slave Garden at Pine Lodge Garden
The Slave Garden at Pine Lodge Garden

To start off make two lists, one of the characteristics of your garden and the second of what you what to be able to do in your garden, both now and in the future. In the first list you need things such as its rough size, its shape *, whether it faces north, south east or west**, is it fairly level or does it slope, is it shaded by buildings and trees, which parts get the sun and when***, is it sheltered, where are the inspection chamber/manhole covers, where are any existing things you want to keep, What is the soil like, …

The second list needs to contain things such as do you intend to eat out in the garden****, what a pond or other waterfeature, are you going to put play equipment in the garden now or in the future, are you going to need a washing line or rotary dryer, are you planning to grow your own fruit and vegetables, what areas are you going to need access to, what car parking/additional car parking do you need now or in the future, do you need a clear area of lawn to kick a ball about on, do you want to grow a particular type of plant,…

Notes:

* Most people assume their gardens are rectangular, but in practice they never are and in practice are generally along way from being a rectangular.

** In the UK satellite television dishes point roughly due south.

*** In the summer the sun is much higher in the sky, but never directly over head, so things like buildings and trees will cast much less shade.

**** As a general rule, ideally, you need a paved area at least 4 metres by 5 metres for a modest garden table and chairs.

The Concise British Flora in Colour by W. Keble Martin

William Keble Martin was an amateur botanist in the must noble tradition of amateurs. That is to say he was not employed as one but was every bit as skilled and dedicated as any “professional” botanists. He was formally trained as a botanist but instead of following this path chose to be ordained and spent his entire working life working as a parish priest.

Throughout his life though he maintained his keen interest in botany and over a period of over sixty years studied and drew over 1400 native British plants in exquisite detail. It was not until he was 88 years old was this collection first published. These days the work of botanical illustrators is over looked, having been pushed aside by the ease, speed and ultimately cost of photography. The draw back of this is that a photograph can only ever be one example of a plant on a particular occasion, but plants are far more viable than this. The blunt tool of the camera can never isolate and capture the spirit or soul of a plant in the way a skilled artist can. Therefore the simple skilled illustrations in this book gives the reader a far clearer understanding of what a plant actually looks like than a “modern” glossy book ever can. I don’t know what lead Rev. Martin t to paint all these plants but I very much doubt anyone will try to repeat his work partly because he has already done it and partly because as he working away, colour photography was evolving from a laboratory experiment into mainstream use.

What he left us was though a remarkable tool for identifying British plants. Some of the names have moved on but still the modern alternative can readily be found by cross referencing with new publications. Sadly this book is no longer in print but can be found ridiculously cheap on the second-hand book market. . In a perfect world a publisher would take these illustrations and re-publisher them with up-to-date names but I don’t imagine the economics of the book world would make this a practical proposition.

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba L .in leaf is probably the easiest tree to recognise, it’s leafs are so unique. Its heart shaped leaves resemble an enlarged version those of the maidenhair fern (Adianthum sp.) and so the common name the Maidenhair tree. The tree is quite narrow in habit, slowly growing to be a large tree. Hardy and unfussy regarding soil or location it tolerates industrial locations and can be grown all over the U.K. If this were not enough, come autumn, the foliage turns a glorious gold making it an excellent specimen or avenue tree. If you chose to plant one you should bear in mind it is both slow growing and very long lived. Kew’s oldest specimen is over 250 years old and there are reports examples in oriental temple gardens 3,500 years old! So you will be planting something not only be able to out live you, but also your civilisation.

The maidenhair tree can be readily propagated from seed but this normally has to be imported as general only the male form is growing in the UK. Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants (dioecious). This is because the “fruit*” emits a vial smell when it starts to breakdown, said to resemble the smell of vomit. In contrast the seeds are edible and said to resemble pine nuts in flavour.

Ginkgo biloba foliage
Ginkgo biloba foliage

Ginkgo biloba was first introduced to the west in the early 1700s, possibly about 1727, and was named Salisburia adiantifolia by James Edward Smith (1759- 1828), who was a founder and the first president of the Linnean Society, and Salisburia biloba by Johann Centurius von Hoffmansegg (1766 – 1849), a German botanist and Count. In 1771 Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) described both the genus Ginkgo and the species Ginkgo biloba in his “Mantissa plantarum altera generum editionis VI & specierum editionis II” and so the name was settled.

What has caused botanists far more problems was placing the genus Ginkgo in the over all system of plant names. The fossil records show it was part of a large group of plants in the Jurassic period but only this one species remains resulting in the rather erroneous description of living fossils as there is no evidence that any of the fossils are of the actual specie Ginkgo biloba.  Its seeds lack an ovary wall and it has flowers so it is often placed in the class Gymnospermae along with the conifers and in garden books it is usual listed as a conifer but it has little in common with any other extant plants let alone conifers. This has lead to a various attempt to place it in a suitable group. It has been suggested that it is closest relative is the Cycads while others place it in with the Horsetails. What is clear is that botanists still have a long way to go in unravelling the evolution of plants.

Notes:

* Being a gymnosperm the plant cannot by definition have fruit in the strict botanical sense.

 

Tiding up to see what you’ve achieved.

Once the overgrown trees and shrubs have been cut back a lot of rubbish will be left; which we need to do something with. Its only once you’ve tidy up your hard work can you really get an idea of what you have achieved and the sense of space you will have created. There a several ways of dealing with green waste: take it to the tip, put it in a skip, re-use it, grind it up or make it into compost. All these have their advantages and disadvantages and in practice most cases will need a combination of some or all of these.

 

Large Yellow Skip
Large Yellow Skip

The easiest solution with small quantities is to cut it into manageable sized pieces and take it to the local tip in the car. If there’s a lot, and when cutting back its surprising how much rubbish you will create, a skip might be a better solution. The green waste you produce will be very bulky so you will probably need a large skip and over sized skips are sometimes available for this very reason. You will need to explain you are only putting green waste in, and make sure that is all you do put in, as then you should get a better price. It may seem a waste just to throw it away but these days garden waste doesn’t just get buried in the ground. Its ground and shredded up, and made into compost for reuse. The advantage is that it’s done on a big scale so the machines doing the shredding and grinding will happily swallow things like tree stumps which are very hard to recycle any other way. Also as the material is coming in from a wide range of sources so the compost doesn’t get overwhelmed by one type of material, an important consideration when making compost. Finally the process of making the compost is a commercial operation so it is carefully managed to make a usable and therefore re-sellable product. The main disadvantage is that if you what to benefit from this compost you have to pay to buy it, so you can end up paying twice; once to get rid of it and once to get it back.

Log car
Log car

That considered you may well feel you would rather recycle the rubbish yourself and this has its advantages. You are not paying someone to do the work and you can be more flexible in the way you use the material. This is though going to take imagination, space, hard work and patience on your part, the results can far outweigh these. First off have a really good look at what you have and start planning how you could make use of it. There is no point in chopping everything up and then finding you could do with some big pieces of wood for something. This may well mean you have to adapt your plans; but this often turns out for the better.

A simple use of small branches is as an edging for informal parts of the garden and these can be built up to form low retaining walls and steps if needed. If you only have a small amount the branches can be cut into equal lengths, say 600mm long, and heaped up to provide valuable shelter for wild life and most importantly the things they feed on. Thin pieces of stick can make simple summer plant supports amongst hardy perennials and in the vegetable garden. Traditionally garden peas were supported by “pea sticks” which they could climb up to keep the plants off the ground. If you are in the fortunate position of having more substantial pieces of tree trunk; these can make very impressive garden seats. Alternatively they can be made in simple but very effective pieces of play equipment.

Log car
Log car