Smut and deadheads

by Terry Kramer

AS A WRITER I AM NATURALLY INTRIGUED by the nature of words and phrases, especially those tossed about by gardeners. Garden jargon is as graphic, colorful and diverse as the plants gardeners grow. Simple words that mean one thing in everyday life are a horse of a different color in the horticultural world of common names.

Take the word smut, for example. It is not a thing you would want to have in your home, but it might be lurking about in your garden. Smut in the garden is not a sign of debauchery, but rather a fungal disease that can attack bulbs and corn. You can read all about smut in the garden and not feel a twinge of guilt!

Deadhead is another graphic horticultural term that can confuse some. It is a verb meaning to pick off spent blossoms, not the noun meaning a devout follower of the Grateful Dead.

Most of us on the North Coast think of Honeydew as that sleepy Southern Humboldt town that gets a lot of rain each winter. In garden lingo it is what comes out the back end of aphids, scale and mealy bugs.

And stool layering is not what it sounds like at all. It is actually a useful form of plant propagation where shoots are taken from a root stock that has had soil earthed up around it.

Some garden words can get one into trouble if not used correctly. If the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department discovered you were growing potherbs, they might not believe the crops in question were spinach, collards and kale.

Gardeners also have a propensity to apply graphic descriptions to certain tools and plants. Most gardeners do not call a string trimmer as such, but rather weed whipper or weed whacker, words which reflect their feelings toward the unwanted plants.

They call gladiolus, glads, chrysanthemums, mums, and flowering crab apples, flowering crabs. The latter can conjure the image of a dungeness crab sprouting camellia blossoms if you lack garden-ese.

A sucker is not candy on a stick or a stupid person, but a piece of plant anatomy. Green manure is green but not manure. It is a euphemistic description for cover crop -- green plants that are planted in the fall and turned under each spring to feed the soil.

There is also a fascination with blood in the garden. Aside from using blood meal to feed the soil, gardeners have named a number of beautiful plants bloody names.

Bleeding heart, love-lies bleeding, bloodberry, blood-flower, blood-leaf, blood lily, bloodroot and bloodwood tree are a few that come to mind. There is also the bloodwort family, Haemo-doraceae, and the plant bloody butchers, an old-time term used to describe the beautiful Trillium sessile.

Then there is sex. Two plants in the Amaryllis family have very suggestive common names. Brodiaea capitata's common name is blue dicks. The description in Sunset Western Garden Book offers a clue: "Deep blue or violet blue flowers in tight, headlike cluster surrounded with purplish bracts. Thrives in poor soils, summer-baked locations. Pretty spring flowers for sunny banks."

You could also have naked ladies cavorting in the garden. That is the common name for Amaryllis belladonna, being so named because in the late summer reddish naked stalks emerge from a fat bulb that produces trumpet-shaped fragrant pink flowers. Foliage appears after bloom. Consider this: With proper hygiene one could have naked ladies and blue dicks in the garden, but no smut.

There are whimsical garden terms, too. Cuckoo spittle is an old-fashioned name for the froth the spittle bug leaves on a plant. Old timers used to think it was frog spit. The lilly pilly tree has a fanciful, Dr. Seuss-like ring to it, far more colorful than its Latin name, Eugenia smithii.

Gardeners have also named certain plants, or weeds, after notable people. Jim Hill mustard is a type of yellow flowered mustard weed common along railroad tracks. It was named after Jim Hill, a great railroad entrepreneur of the last century.

Sweet william, an old-fashioned fragrant perennial of the carnation family, was named after William, Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765). But since he defeated the Scots in the Battle of Culloden (1746) the denizens of Scotland apply the moniker "stinking billy" to the flower.

One of my favorites is the Joe-Pye weed. What used to be considered a gangly perennial weed years ago is tres chic in the perennial world today.

It was named after the Native American Joe Pye who is said to have cured typhus fever in New England with the plant. The botanical name is Eupatorium purpureum.

Personally, I think of a eupatorium as the place where nutty gardeners belong.

December Garden Checklist

Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.

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