Derek – Friday 17th July 2020

Listening to Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ I muse on plant names. Until recently, I thought Salley Gardens referred to the Salvation Army, maybe where they did their band practice. But no. Salley comes from salix which is the genus of willow, which are in the gardens ‘where my love and I did meet’. The words are from a poem by Yeats; the tune is traditional. As a poem, it doesn’t strike me as profound. A young man is told, by his girlfriend, to take life and love easy. He doesn’t, and comes to regret it for untold reasons. As a song, though, it is haunting, suggesting deeper meanings than lie in the words.

The community garden has a number of willows. A willow fence right at the back, by the Dare to Dream stage. Though it hardly looks like a fence, as it is evidently trying to escape the restrictions of fence-hood. Another willow is at the entrance of the area, and there’s one by the greenhouse. All are young, and not likely to get that much older. The Community Garden has a lease from the Council giving us a life of five years, with a minimum of three. At some time or other, our lease will come to an end: three years, five years, longer perhaps, but our time is finite. Most likely, the land will be for housing. And that, as we have seen at the site next door, begins with a great stripping. Willow and all will be crunched in the maw of the machine.

As will we all.

Considering the meaning of Salley Gardens got me thinking of the origin of common plant names. Cornflower, in our wildflower bed; at one time there used to be many in cornfields, but not since the 50s and widespread use of herbicide. Ditto the corn marigold. These are names that have lost their link.

There’s two types of St John’s Wort in the garden, a wild plant and a cultivar. Wort is an old name for plant, not really helpful. And ‘St John’ is tagged on, surely, to give its herbal usage more credence. There’s unlikely to be any provenance for John the Baptist rubbing the oil into his weary limbs. A medieval adman’s licence, I suggest.

Bristly ox tongue, I love that name, one of the few that says it like it is. The bristly leaf is the shape and size of an ox tongue, pimply and prickly too, which I suspect an actual ox tongue may well be. Teasel heads were used to fluff up the surface of newly woven cloth. Daisy is from day’s eye as the flower opens in the morning light. Holly is from holy as the prickly leaves were said to be those on Christ’s crown of thorns. Marigolds were often placed on altars as they were claimed to be the Virgin Mary’s flower. Says who? Perhaps the man, a cleric I suspect, who upgraded a common wort.

I found this source of plant names: It was compiled by Nina Curtis, who belongs to an organisation called The Tortoise Table. This is not an organisation of spies, like The 39 Steps, but a group of tortoise lovers. I looked at their website, and found it a font of knowledge if you need to know if a plant is OK for your tortoise. Don’t feed them borage, for example, as it contains the alkaloid pyrrolizidine. In addition, I learned that borage is also called star flower – which is not a bad description of their flowers. Blue star flower would be better, though. The thing about common names for plants is that anyone can start them off. So here’s the first usage (for the OED): 2020 is a good year for the blue star flowers in the Forest Gate Community Garden wildflower bed.

Maize has the common name Indian corn. The name dates from the time when the first European explorers to the Americas thought they had reached India. Corn too is confusing, as in the US and Canada it refers to maize, whereas in the UK corn means wheat. Except when it’s “corn on the cob”.

Such confusions are why botanists stick to one accepted name. There may be lots of detailed argument before the name goes into the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants. The code uses the two-name (binomial) system developed by Linnaeus in the 18th century. A plant’s binomial name is recognized by botanists throughout the world, no matter what the native name for the plant may be.

Our dwarf maize has been flowering for several weeks, but I have seen only male flowers. For obvious reasons, this is limiting. Today, I look closely and see six female flowers. They are smaller, less conspicuous under the copious leaves, but the silky tassels are the giveaway. I am relieved. We will have cobs.

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