What’s in a Name?

I am a pushover for a creative/weird/clever/punny (take your pick) plant cultivar name.. so much, that I have on occasion lusted after a particular plant simply for its name alone. The first one was the evergreen azalea ‘I’ll Be Damned’, back in the 1980s. Granted, it wasn’t just the name: this variety produces a fair number of its flowers with random splashes or percentages of dark pink rather than solid pink or white. Supposedly the name came from the fact that this wasn’t something the hybrizer expected! Because I am also a sucker for any flower that is randomly splashed or streaked (see Weird and Wonderful Broken Color Iris) there was no way that I was able to resist buying that azalea!

The next indication that I might have a plant-name addiction came a year or two later, after one of my British gardening books (Christopher Lloyd’s? maybe) mentioned Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’. Now really: how many gardens can boast of having a brazen hussy constantly in residence? (okay, don’t answer that) Back then, there was no internet (for me anyway) and so I was going on the description of “rich glossy leaves and brilliant yellow flowers that look almost lacquered”, or some such purplish prose. Nobody, but nobody, in the entire USA had this plant for sale. So what did I do? Got myself an Import Permit, of course.

That’s right: I jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops (and expense) required to get myself a USDA Import Permit simply because I refused to accept the fact that otherwise I could not have this plant name in my garden. Oh, I rationalized to myself that there were tons of available-in-UK-only plants that were just waiting for me to give them a new home here across The Pond. But the fact is that the very first plant I wrote down on the Hillier’s order form, the very same day that my shiny new import permit arrived, was that Ranunculus. (I honestly do not remember what other plants I ordered; how pathetic is that??)

When my order finally arrived I was thrilled to be able to tell gardening friends what I’d acquired. What I didn’t realize until I planted them was that those rich glossy brown leaves completely disappear against brown soil, which means that after the (very much smaller than I’d imagined) yellow flowers are gone… the plant is now absolutely invisible. And the plant is very small to begin with! I started with a half dozen plants and after three years they wouldn’t even have covered the same amount of ground as my laptop. Disappointed? You could say that.

So I have learned the hard way that plants should never be chosen on name alone, even on a whim. However, I have to admit that names such as Streptocarpus ‘Purple People Eater’, Iris ‘Tickety Boo’ (if you like old Danny Kaye movies, you’ll “get” this), or either of the following two daylily cultivars would bring a chuckle to anybody’s plant list:


‘Big Honking Flaming Floozy’

Iris cultivars can be really fun in this regard, especially the hybrids that came from Brad Kasparek’s Zebra Iris nursery which is now, sadly, gone – but not forgotten, especially with names such as Llama Mama, Drunk Skunk, Iwan’a Iguana, Yeti Again, or Meerkat Manor (oh how I loved that show).




But when it comes to beautiful, evocative cultivar names I do believe that the tree peony contingent is far and away the clear winner. Some of the most gorgeous names I’ve ever seen are found there. Here are some of my favorites:

Black Dragon Holds a Splendid Flower
Black Ink Sprinkled with Gold
Coiled Dragon in the Mist Grasping a Purple Pearl
Crane Standing in Snow
Cuckoo’s Sad Tears
Cup of Shining Night
Face Radiant with Spring Happiness
Feather of Young Phoenix
Flying Swallow Lady in a Red Dress
Geese Landing on Pink Lotus
Grand Duke Dressed in Blue and Purple
Green Dragon Lying on a Chinese Inkstone
Imperial Concubine Emerging from the Bath
Necklace of Precious Pearls
Palace of the Purple Clouds
Princess Zhao Marries Beyond the Great Wall
Ruby Wrapped in Ice
White Lion in a Fury

Now I must confess that my absolute favorite tree peony cultivar name has always been ‘Tipsy Imperial Concubine’ – the only probem is that the flower itself is probably my least favorite. 😦 She looks like she’s had a heck of a wild night and is nursing the world’s worst hangover. So, as much as I have always wanted to be able to say “Excuse me a moment, I have to give the Tipsy Imperial Concubine a drink”, I had resigned myself to the fact that it would never happen … until I recently discovered that there is rose cultivar with the same name! And wonder of wonders: not only do I think the flower is lovely, but it is supposedly very fragrant as well!

Rose Tipsy Imperial Concubine

Hmmm, where is that list of plants that I will get for my next garden… ah yes, the first entry is now Rose ‘Tipsy Imperial Concubine’….

(oops, I did it again!)

  13 comments for “What’s in a Name?

  1. June 2, 2015 at 4:51 am

    I have always wanted to make a Naughty Border, we used to grow Thalictrum “Black Stockings” and Cimifuga “Black Negligee” at Cliffe. Last week I bought an achillea called “Saucy Seduction” for one of my gardens! I do love a good name. 🙂

    • June 2, 2015 at 10:18 am

      Now there’s an idea! And what’s a Naughty Border without a hussy and a floozy? 🙂

  2. June 2, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Such fun, these names!

  3. June 2, 2015 at 8:27 am

    I think it’s fun that you choose plants by name! I had no idea they’re were so many creative ones out there.

  4. June 2, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Enjoyed this. 🙂

  5. June 2, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    The names are really cute, and it was a great read! However, rather than falling for names of plants on a whim, I tend tall fall for the flowers…that Iris would get me parting with cash any day 🙂

    • June 2, 2015 at 7:08 pm

      Oh, if the name was the only thing that about a plant that snagged me, I’d have spent a lot less, LOL

      Those broken-color iris varieties had me at the first “splash”! I had one (Chocolate Moose) that hit me with the name, the looks, AND the fragrance which really did remind me of chocolate.

  6. June 3, 2015 at 9:39 am

    Love this! I always wonder at how names for products are derived. Lipstick names, paint names, and flower/plant names–are people paid real money to do this? I’m with you–“Tipsy Imperial Concubine–it really doesn’t get any better than that.

    • June 3, 2015 at 11:38 am

      I did have a chance to add a creative cultivar name, back in the 1980s when I registered two of my orchid hybrids; but I named one after my baby son, and the other after Henry VIII’s most under-appreciated wife, LOL

  7. June 3, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Love this post! I also have a fascination with names, though I have never been driven to obtain in import license. On the other hand, I have felt strong impulses to buy a plant simply because of the name. I also really like convoluted Latin names. And I especially like those Daylily names – especially ‘Spock’s Ears’.

    • June 3, 2015 at 3:25 pm

      Daylily, iris, and hosta cultivars do seem to have the largest percentage of inventive names, don’t they? 🙂

      I let my import permit lapse after Hillier’s raised their minimum export order amount to something like $400USD (for just the plants) and then packing and shipping fees were almost that much again. Before that, I’d combine my wants with that of a gardening friend who was also addicted to the unobtainables from Britain, but it simply became unaffordable for either of us.

  8. June 3, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    Great post, some of the American Hemerocallis have names I would be embarrassed to introduce into the garden . I love the Rose ‘Maiden’ s Blush’ which the French call ‘Cuisse de Nymphe emu’. That would be one for Gill’ s naughty border.

    • June 3, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      Another daylily could also be the one called ‘Aphrodite’s Nightie’! 🙂

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