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An Amateur’s Guide to Plant Nomenclature
(originally published in the Weeder's Digest)

Michael Hillman

Long before I ever met her, gardening has been a passion for my wife. I'm not sure if it’s her English ancestry or a result of some early childhood event, but Audrey just can't seem to get enough time in the garden. While her life as an apartment dweller did put some natural limits on what she could and couldn't grow, even still, the oxygen level in her apartment was always higher than the air outside, even with the windows open!

With the purchase of our farm however, all bets were off. From the moment she first stepped foot on it, Audrey began to draw her plans. Slowly but surely, she has managed to turn this old plain tenant farm into a botanical wonderland, full of plants and flowers of every shape, size, color, and purpose . . . the names of which, in spite of Herculean half-hearted efforts, still elude me.

At first, Audrey tried to teach me the proper Latin names for her 52,000 varieties of plants. But my inability to comprehend her thoroughly lucent dissertation of the basic structure of plant categorization, namely: Kingdoms, Divisions, Classes, Orders, Families, Genus, Species, Subspecies, etc., etc., left me so frustrated that I found myself yearning for a bottle of gin and two hours alone in her garden with a weed whacker.

Unwilling to admit to my own ineptitude, I began to sneak into the garden and study the nameplates under each of the plants. At first, all went well. Every chance I got, I would strut around like a peacock spouting off my new found knowledge. Occasionally a visitor would try to probe below my impressively shallow level of knowledge, but drawing upon my nuclear power background, I would quickly fall back on the old trick of ‘If you can’t dazzle with brilliance, baffle with techno babble . . .’

" . . and this is another subspecies of Lemon Verbena . . . "

"Um . . . it looks like a mum to me . . ."

"To the uneducated eye it appears to be a mum, but in reality, it a member of a genetically manipulated class of the Verbena subspecies that was formally part of a small cross-dressing Varity of Lemon Verbena. I picked it up in San Francisco."

"Hum . . . are you sure its not a mum?"

"Definitely. You don’t live with a Certified Master Gardener Extraordinaire and not pick up a few things. Interestingly enough, this Verbena subspecies is an common additive to good gin. Speaking of gin, care for one?"

Aware that my charade was beginning to wear thin, I set my sites on doubling my knowledge base. Unfortunately, by the time I got around to picking a second plant to memorize, Audrey had absconded with the nametags, forcing me to create my own naming convention, which over the years, I've had ample time to hone and refine.

According to my theory, all plants are divided into two main groups, Pull’um Annums, and Keep’ums. I tend to prefer the Keep’ums myself, for once they’re in the ground, they tend to stay there. No matter how pretty they are in the spring and summer, plants of the Pull’um Annum grouping tend to get ripped out and thrown into the compost bin every year, and plants of this grouping always entail copious amounts of cash out lay in the spring to replace.

While plants in the Pull’um Annum category are always in that category, the same unfortunately cannot be said for plants in the Keep’um category. While Audrey swears that it’s one of the finer points of Master Gardening, just what causes a plant to change sides still eludes me. Every year, at least one plant that has been a staple in the garden for years is suddenly and inexplicably torn out by its screaming roots, only to be replaced by an identical sibling, the difference of which only genic mapping could reveal.

All Pull’um Annum plants destined for the compost heap, are further categorized as Cloggers or non-Cloggers. Cloggers are usually long slimy plants that instantly clog under-powered chipper-shredders when inserted, thereby requiring frequently shutdowns and clean outs. Non-Cloggers on the other hand are a fantasy made up by wives to keep their husbands at their mulcher duty stations.

Plants are next categorized as Subterranean and Freez’ums . Subterranean plants are plants considered too weenie to survive our winters. Electric Company’s are big fans of Subterranean plants, especially when they are stored in basements filled with hundreds of grow lights. By the time Audrey is finished, the basement looks like a tropical jungle, and the electric meter is spinning faster then a ‘45 at a sock hop.

After rigorous analysis, and countless gin and tonics, I’ve come to the conclusion that the size of the Subterranean plants is inversely proportional to the weather and the number of plants left to be carried down into the basement. I can usually count on Audrey performing a triage type categorization around 10:00 P.M. on the night of first frost of the year. Which for some reason, also is always a night before a important presentation, which of course, I’ve managed to procrastinate in preparing until 9:55 P.M.

While the Subterranean plants are nothing but work for Audrey, they are a source of nonstop amusement for me. Cut off from the natural cycles of the sun, they are held hostage to the latest science fiction movie I’ve watched. One day they may be on Vulcan time, where day turns to night in a blink of an eye, and the basement reminds one of a 70's style disco. Another time one might find them on Mercury time, where days last forever. Throw in the occasional power outages, where the basement looks like the dark side of the moon, and by spring, most of the plants aren't sure whether they should be blooming or dying, which come to think of it, might account for why such a considerable percentage of them soon end up becoming members of the Pull’um Annum grouping.

Another important category in our garden is the grouping of plants into That`s a Plant and That’s a Weed. Plants in That’s a Plant category invariable include those that I've pulled out while putting in some non-supervised weeding time. That`s a Plant almost always include ones Audrey has been waiting all summer to see what they would do.

Plants in the That’s a Weed category usually are those plants I've thoughtfully stopped by the side of the road and picked, in response to criticism that I never bring her flowers, and often go by such names as Goldenrod or Poison Ivy.

Another major grouping in the garden is the Eat’um, Non-Eat’um, and the occasional, lets try it but have the number for poison control handy. At first, the split of this group was along traditional vegetable/herb and non-vegetable lines. But slowly flowers of one sort or another began to show up in salads, then in pasta dishes. By the time they made it into cookies and jams, teas and herbal remedies were not far behind.

Almost any new plant in the garden it seems is a candidate for the Eat’um category. All they have to do is pass the dog test, which is: will the dogs eat it? Given that dogs spend their day devouring horse manure, this might seem like a rather low threshold to pass, but having been around horses for 25 years, and not exactly being known for washing my hands before every meal, it's a threshold my taste buds can relate to.

Which strangely as it might seem, leads me to the last major grouping of plants in the garden, which is by far the most relevant to me and most of my friends: the Bacchus and Useless groupings. Bacchus plants are those plants that when mixed with fermented sugars, enhance one's appreciation of the garden and just about everything else in the world. Strawberries are the most popular example of a Bacchus plant in Audrey’s Garden, followed by the ever-present Corona bush. Useless plants as far as I’m concerned are anything that can’t ad value to a bottle of Spirits, and thus should be banned from a garden.

With winter just around the corner, Audrey is busy putting her gardens to bed. When completed, like all good gardeners, she’ll spend the winter planning how to outdo this year’s extraordinary display of colors, smells, and tastes. I of course will be beginning my ritual lobbying for more Strawberry Daiquiri plants . . 

Read other Humor stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman