Tag Archives: plant names

garden signs of the times

Part of this weekend’s tasks was to help install signage at a couple of the gardens that will be on the Garden Native garden tour this weekend. How many times have you gone to a garden and seen the perfect plant, but you no have idea what it is and there’s nobody around to ask? That’s exactly the scenario the organizers are trying to avoid.

One of the tour signs, with a QR code at the top that leads you to a page with information about the plant
One of the tour signs, with a QR code at the top that leads you to a page with information about the plant

The signs have the name of the plant, but they also have this little handy QR code at the top. When you read the QR code with a smart phone you’re transported to a PDF with more information–and usually, photos–of the plant, with notes on things like the plant’s eventual size, its water needs and often with notes on how to use it in the garden. These PDF files are downloaded to the user’s device, so they can have a record of what they’ve viewed. Unless your cell phone reception is really poor or you have a limited data plan–or have no smart phone at all–this arrangement works really well.

A sign for a buckwheat, and a signed San Diego sunflower
A sign for a buckwheat, and a signed San Diego sunflower

Who wouldn’t want to know the name of the perky yellow San Diego sunflower in the distance?

Out to pasture...
Out to pasture…

Of course not everything requires a sign. If you have an old lawnmower, but have native plants instead of a lawn, what do you do? How about making some garden art out of the old lawnmower? Brilliant.

It’s interesting to see how many uses these QR codes are being put to. They’re used all over for advertizing. And you’re starting to see them more frequently on interpretive signage, like here. I wasn’t responsible for making these signs, but even I haven’t been immune to using QR codes. In my case they’ve appeared in some artwork of the last couple of years.

Here’s a short video of a temporary installation I had up at the San Diego International Airport from May to December of last year. It’s simply titled Twenty-Two Flags. Each of the 22 flags has 33 QR codes, each with fragments of text from the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a book I’ve described elsewhere as a Fodor’s Guide to reincarnation and the afterlife.

Twenty-Two Flags (Bardo Thodol), 2014 from James SOE NYUN on Vimeo.

Add up all 22 flags and 660 QR codes and you have the entirety of the two books that make up this first-millennium text. Unlike the garden signs, the codes in my piece link directly to the text and don’t rely on using the web to connect to more content. Each QR code can be asked to store over 1200 different characters. That’s a lot of text!

The piece was part of a show looking at the art/science/tech interface. Something appealed to me about encoding a fairly ancient text that’s endured through the years using a very contemporary and most likely to be short-lived technology. In the end you can call me a bit of a Luddite. I love tech, but I don’t really entirely trust it. Give me a handwritten note, a letterpress book–or a plant. Those things I can trust.

california native plant week, the cartoon

Here’s a little cartoon I whipped up this morning on Xtranormal, the site that lets you create and distribute your own animations without needing to really know what you’re doing. (When it comes to CGI, that pretty much describes me…)

It’s pretty much California Native Plant Week meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets Hello Kitty. And it’s a test of how well voice synthesis can deal with some common (and less common) scientific names.

Pixar, my number is (619) 555-0213.

stefano mancuso, standing up for plants

Plants are way smarter than humans give them credit for being…

Here’s a cool, thoughtful video from the very cool TED program that I was first pointed out to me courtesy of a link sent out by International Carnivorous Plant Society. (Yes, there are a couple shots of a Venus flytrap.)

You can select subtitling into any of ten languages in case you’d like to catch every word Stefano Mancuso, one of the founders of plant neurobiology, has to say. Part of his message: Genesis got it all wrong, but then so did Aristotle.

(An aside: I’ve written at least once about pronouncing scientific Latin names. Listen to how Mancuso pronounces the Latin name of California’s own giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum at the 3:51 mark. If there’s any country that can lay claim to even begin to pronounce Latin correctly it’s gotta be Italy, and the way the name comes out sounding has almost nothing to do with how I’m used to hearing it. Of course the word “Sequoia” originates on this side of the pond, so this is a puzzle with no real answer–the most interesting kind!)

culturally insensitive plant names?

On one of my trips out hiking one of the group went running over to a plant in hysterical full bloom, Pedicularis densiflora, something she referred to as “Indian warrior.” It’s a stunning little plant that’s at least somewhat related to the plants in the genus Castilleja that are sometimes called “Indian paintbrush.”

I can’t say that I’ve had a conversation with anyone about this pedicularis. But in this age of heightened cultural sensitivities and school mascots being changed to less potentially offensive characters I’ve been trying to use the more generic name of “paintbrush” when discussing the castillejas. Most people still know what I’m referring to.

A quick look at Calflora turned up dozens of other California natives that have “Indian” in the name, including Palmer’s Indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri), Indian manzanita (Arctostaphylos mewukka), Indian milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa), Indian strawberry (Duchesnea indica) and Indian headdress (Tracyina rostrata). I’m not Native American but I wonder if these common names might not be the best to use.

Tradescantia albiflora. Some people call it inch plant--probably a better name for it.

Trying to come up with other plant names that have left me a little queasy I thought immediately about the common houseplant, wandering jew, Tradescantia albiflora. The former owners of my house planted some in a bed, and I’m still trying to eradicate it, twenty years later. I keep telling myself that “wandering Jew” is just a plant name and I’m not being anti-semitic when I take the weeding fork to it.

Algerian ivy is another incredibly noxious plant pest, but I know that it’s named after the country where it originates and not the people who live there. In this case I don’t feeling like I’m committing genocide when I yank it out by the yard. Same goes for all the thousands of other plants named after their country of origin, both in their common and scientific latin names.

Dried leaves of Citrus hystrix

Looking on the web I came up with a couple other plant names that folks might find offensive. Golden Gate Gardener had a note about Keffir lime, Citrus hystrix, and Keffir lily, Clivia miniata. In Arabic, according to one of the commenters on the post, “keffir” refers to a non-believer, something similar to the way “heathen” is used in English. Possibly objectionable. But when the word traveled to South Africa it became a seriously troubling epithet for the non-white population. Ick. I buy the leaves of this lime in Asian groceries for when I make curry or pasta, and I’ll make a point of calling it something else. Thai lime, maybe. As for Clivia miniata, the latin name comes to the rescue. Even my mother–not prone to show off with scientific names–called it clivia.

Plant names are important. They can tell you plenty about the sociology of those who did the naming, and they can shape how you perceive the plant. I’ll try to pay more attention to names when I use them, and I’ll try to reject the ones that really shouldn’t have a place in modern, accepting, pluralistic society.

um, how do you pronounce that?

Am I the only one with problems with how to pronounce the Latin names for plants?

Last fall I was at a nursery and noticed a gorgeous stand of grasses in their demonstration garden. What was it, I asked?

“JFjfaljsldjflajsdljf purpurea,” the woman said.

I stared at her for a couple seconds. I’m sure my jaw was dropped and I looked pretty stupid. I worked backwards from the part I recognized, “purpurea,” and finally understood that she’d just told me that the plants were Aristida purpurea, purple three-awn.

To her credit she hadn’t actually said “JFjfaljsldjflajsdljf” for the genus name. Instead it was a very flat, American-style pronunciation that came out something like “Uh-RIS-tuh-duh.” I’d seen the name on paper a lot before that moment, but I’d never heard someone pronounce it. All along I was holding a very different sound in my head, something more like “Ah-ree-STEE-dah.”

In my undergraduate years studying music I was required to sing in the chorus. Two of the pieces we sang, Bach’s B-minor mass and Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes del Confessore, were in Latin. With Ancient Latin being a thoroughly dead language, Singer’s Latin–basically Latin sung as if it were Italian–was what I’d learned.

With the air tense with misunderstanding and purple three-awn blowing in the wind behind me, American Botanical Latin so rudely came face to face against my Singer’s Latin. Who was right?

I’d probably guess both of us and no one. Botanical Latin over the years has been studded with plant names honoring people and places whose names contain letters and sounds you’d never encounter old-school Latin. (Oerstedella schweinfurthiana, anyone?) And who’s to say pronouncing Latin as if it were Italian makes sense? Scholars now say that modern Shakespearean English is pretty far removed from the original Elizabethan pronunciations. It stands to reason that modern Italian is much further separated than that from its Latin source.

So, really, when you come down to it, we all talk with accents. And sometimes, to make ourselves better understood, we have to adapt to the ways the people around us say things.

Aristida purpureaLeft: The plant that started all this, Aristida purpurea, photographed by Stan Shebs, from the Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5 license [ source ].