Calling Plants by the Wrong Name

Felder Rushing

Donuts on Cake

Gardeners dig in their heels quickly over cherished ideas, and quickly devolve into unending arguments over trivia.

Call me a flip-flopper but not a know-it-all; nearly forty years ago I resolved, in a journal note, to quickly and thoroughly research dependable new information, and be open to crow-eating “eureka” moments that rightfully change my outlook and recommendations.

But my mom taught me to not wade very deeply into minor issues like the “is it a fruit, or a vegetable” thing. Botanically speaking, plant parts are straight forward; corn, seeds; cabbage, leaves; celery, leaf stalk; carrots, roots; potatoes, tubers; and the part of broccoli we eat, unopened flowers. And anything that contains seeds is a fruit, including tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, and corns.

However, in general, unlike long-lived tree fruit and nut seeds, or field crops like soybeans, garden plants that are replanted every year are classified horticulturally and commercially as vegetables. Including tomatoes and peppers, which are technically berry-type fruits. Sheesh. Oh, and plants used for seasoning, teas, medicine, dyes, or other “non-food” purposes are classified as herbs and spices.

Back to mama schooling me. I don’t fret over descriptive folk names. Doesn’t matter if the worldwide Latin-named Philadelphus shrub is called both English dogwood and mock orange, or who is correct when referring to Lycoris, the big pink leafless flowers popping up around the state right now, as surprise lily, magic lily, resurrection lily, spider lily, or even naked ladies. Mother-in-law tongue and snake plant are the same thing, as are airplane and spider plants. Doesn’t really matter, main thing is to get gardeners on the same page and keep talking about and sharing the plants.

But I have a stubborn that resents when long-established official plant names are changed seemingly willy-nilly by taxonomists. We’ve switched from lumping related plant families together by flower type, to unseen genetics. Case in point: My beloved Sansevierias (snake plant) have recently been renamed Dracaena which includes the popular potted plants we know as ribbon and corn plants. They look nothing at all alike, don’t grow alike, don’t flower alike, but… according to DNA analysis, they are genetically similar. Now I have to learn a whole slough of new Latin names.

This week I got into it good-naturedly with a fellow gardener over a plant we both cherish and grow. Looks, smells, and is cooked like a giant garlic, mild-flavored cloves and all, and is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring like garlic. And it’s even called “elephant” garlic!

But nope. Turns out, my mother was right years ago when in a rather matter-of-fact manner she corrected me when I insisted it was a true garlic. And when I started posturing about how she, a brilliant but self-taught naturalist, didn’t know squat (my word) about it, she just laughed, turned around, and walked away.

I nearly lost it. Forgetting my vow to be open to new information, I stomped around, sputtering about where she gets off, telling her university-trained horticulturist son that he didn’t know diddly (her word).

Deep breath here. After a quick dip into the research pool, delving into plant physiology and genomes and all that, I got schooled. Turns out, just like shallots are a type of onion, elephant garlic is, in fact, not actually garlic. It has a lot in common with both its garlic and onion cousins, but is in fact a mutated subset of a separate species called leeks.

Live and learn; I was wrong, and mom was right. And this is what goes through my head whenever someone calls a plant by the “wrong” name.

Donuts on Cake