Naming the Flowers ... According to Jefferson

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A gardener's vocabulary is rarely precise. Even the expert's use of scientific nomenclature is a hodgepodge of English and Latin. Jefferson himself, the master of exactness, referred to his flowers in a variety of ways. There was even a period when he listed all his garden plants in Italian. We claim to use Latin as a universal language of botany, and yet, when Latin names change over time, piecing together colloquial terms becomes even more challenging.

Our research on Jefferson's plants affords many such occasions. Deciphering his "Chinese Ixia," for example, required cross-referencing the archaic Ixia chinensis with the current name, Belamcanda chinensis, for Blackberry Lily. This plant is neither an ixia nor a lily, but rather a tough, long-lived iris that has escaped from old gardens, presumably even Monticello's, and naturalized throughout the countryside. Our familiar name Blackberry Lily describes the shiny black seeds that, as Elizabeth Lawrence wrote, "must fool even the birds." But, Lawrence also called it another name, Leopard Flower, for the ephemeral leopard-spotted blossoms that open throughout the morning and close at dusk, "neatly furling themselves into a minute and almost invisible red and yellow striped barber pole." This relates to a third Latin name used through the last century, Pardanthus chinensis, which derives from pardos, meaning a leopard.

The plant Jefferson called "Prince's feather" leads us down other paths of speculation. Because he compared it to the Cockscomb, we generally concur with Edwin M. Betts who, in his 1944 annotated edition of Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book, identified it as Amaranthus hybridus hypochondriacus. We find the name Prince's Feather used in America as early as 1709 when John Lawson described "Prince's feather very large and beautiful" in his A New Voyage to Carolina. Presumably, this plant is the same as the flower Jefferson planted in 1767. During the late nineteenth century, however, another Asian species also called Prince's Feather was Polygonum orientale, or Japanese Knotweed. Many names for this flower have persisted through time, including Princess' Feather, Ragged Sailor, Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, Ladyfingers, Garden Persicary, Tall Persicary, and Oriental Persicary. Last year a Twinleaf reader added to the roster when she sent a picture of her six-foot-tall son standing beneath an arching oriental polygonum that her mother had called "Tailley."

To confuse matters more, its former Latin name was Persicaria orientale. This, according to John Gerard's 1633 Herbal, came from "the likeness that the leaves have with those of the Peach tree [Prunus persica]." Gerard listed other interesting common names of polygonums such as Spotted Arsmart and Water Pepper, for the seed's "hot and biting taste." Philip Miller's The Gardener's Dictionary (1754) described Persicaria orientalis as "Eastern Arse-smart . . . brought from the Eastern Country by [Joseph Pitton de] Tournefort, to the Royal Gardens at Paris, from whence it hath been since communicated to several Parts of Europe. This Plant . . . doth grow to be ten or twelve Feet high, and divides into several Branches, each of which produces a beautiful Spike of purple Flowers at their Extremities in the Autumn."

William Curtis' Botanical Magazine, 1792, contained one of the first color illustrations and described the Tall Persicary thus: "The present well-known native of the East . . . is the principal one cultivated in our gardens for ornament, and is distinguished not less for its superior stature than the brilliancy of its flowers; it will frequently grow to the height of eight or ten feet, and become a formidable rival to the gigantic sunflower. . . . It produces abundance of seed, which, falling on the borders, generally comes up spontaneously . . . but it is most commonly sown in the spring with other annuals . . . will bear the smoke of London better than many others."

Our earliest date documenting this Asian polygonum in America is 1736-37. That year Peter Collinson, a British patron of early American plant explorers, sent seeds to the Quaker botanist John Bartram of Philadelphia and to Williamsburg's John Custis. In a letter to Bartram, Collinson wrote, "Inclosed, is some seed of a noble annual, -- grows six or seven feet high, and makes a beautiful show with its long bunches of red flowers . . . . It is called the great oriental Persicaria."

While the tenacity of the Prince's Feather, with its multitude of names, is well documented both in the literature and in older gardens, another plant from Jefferson's notebook appears to have been very nearly forgotten. On March 16, 1811 Jefferson wrote: "Pentapetes Phoenicia. Scarlet Mallow. Outer flower border. S. W. quarter." The seed for this planting along the flower roundabout walk at Monticello undoubtedly came from Jefferson's favorite nurseryman and gardening mentor, Bernard McMahon. This obscure flower shows up in the appendix of McMahon's American Gardener's Calendar (1806) as "Scarlet-flowered Pentapetes," but is curiously absent from other period sources. It was introduced to the West apparently before 1700, and an unusual hand-colored engraving by Jakob Christoph Keller appeared in Christoph Jakob Trew's Plantae Rariores (1763). Liberty Hyde Bailey's The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (1936) briefly described it as a "tender annual, widely distributed in tropical Asia," and added, "rare in gardens." The modern edition of Hortus Third (1976), however, omits Pentapetes completely. Puzzled by this dearth of information, we despaired of ever finding it. Yet, like so many serendipitous occurrences, Greg Grant, a colleague from Texas, saw the flower on one of his plant-hunting excursions. He recognized it as a little-known Jefferson species and sent us some seeds.

The Pentapetes made its way back to the gardens at Monticello, from the brink of virtual obscurity, in true "pass-along" fashion. As bold and handsome as it has proven in the garden, we are left wondering why this flower was ignored for so long. Its genus name, from the Greek meaning having five leaves, refers to the five-petalled arrangement of its attractive red flowers, which open at noon and close the following morning. The species name, phoenicia, means scarlet. Once the season warms, its growth competes easily with the magnificent Prince's Feather, but its habit is more solidly pyramidal and erect. For a true annual, it is amazingly woody, with a strong, olive-brown central stem contrasting nicely with the long, deeply lobed leaves. Now the question has been, what to call it? Although Jefferson listed it as Scarlet Mallow, it is actually a member of the chocolate family. Because there are so many true mallows and hibiscus in our vocabulary already, we decided not to confuse that issue further. For now, we have chosen to use its odd and unpronounceable scientific name, but welcome any leads to other historic, and perhaps more poetic appellations.

Peggy Cornett, Director
Thomas Jefferson Center
for Historic Plants
January 1996

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says

This is a wonderful post. I'm a rookie in house and gardening and so excited to apply all of my acquired knowledge online next week when I plant my first orchids.

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