Amo, Amas, Amat in the Garden

Zanthoxylum clava-herculis

The further I get into this horticulture life the more I realize how little I know, especially of its outer edges; all that Latin derivation and categorization stuff.

That used to bother me. People forever mistake me for an expert. I’m about over it. I’m in my Old Guy Mode. Sure, it’s important that somebody somewhere in a dim, dark library put the Zanthoxylum clava-herculis in its proper referential and botanical place. I am not a willful idiot about such. I will use all nine syllables as absolutely needed.

So, let’s hear it for Carl Linnaeus, the very-interesting binomial nomenclature inventor, if not Miss Rader, my petrified high school Latin teacher, who would cringe and shake her head “No” as the jock in the back of her class tossed paper airplanes out an open window.

At my current age, however, I’d just rather someone else work out the Latin derivation. My fun now is in randomly coming across Zanthoxylum clava-herculis on page 1310 of Mike Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants and moving on from there to learn the more interesting stuff about it. Like the tree’s somewhat less foreign names are “Hercules’ Club,” “Prickly Ash,” or “Pepperwood.”

Beyond that, the early pioneers and Native American locals called it the “Toothache Tree” or “Tingle-Tongue Tree” because chewing on its leaves, twigs or needle-pin thorns caused the mouth, tongue and gums to go numb when the nearest dentist was back in Philadelphia.

Or that the Toothache Tree’s American relatives grow wild across warmer sections of our country, and its Asian cousins have bright red berries that when dried and roasted are used in Sichuan seasoning.

I had no idea. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one.

‘Black and Blue’ Salvia

Much the same rigorous botanical exploration took place after happily digging up my ‘Black and Blue’ salvia (Okay Salvia guaranitica) to save for next year.

The South American native is one of my favorite plants. Its cobalt-blue flowers lead the way to my walk to the mailbox all summer, its anise-like fragrance is stunning and, thumbing its nose at its zone 8-10 horticulture designation, it will often come back on its own in my zone 6-7 garden in that fabled sheltered site. But I don’t always want to risk that renewal – and I love the digging-up part.

And, yeah, the “salvia” part comes from a healing salve, and ‘guaranitica,’ as it turns out, comes from Guara Brazil – population 20,210. But my learning curve peaked upward with the revelation that its nickname is “Hummingbird Sage.”

You’d think a garden expert would have known that.

But my best, up-from-ignorance moment this year came after walking out of the house following our first hard frost and seeing a deep circle of yellow ginkgo leaves on the ground – all having fallen in one evening from the now naked limbs above my head.

I had once borne witness to this. Indeed, one of my favorite all-time garden remembrances is standing beneath our ginkgo tree one frozen autumn morning as those golden leaves rained down on my head and softly bathed our ceramic garden art, stone owl and handsome blue mailman; my arms outstretched to mimic those naked limbs.

Fallen Gingko biloba leaves

As we all know, of course, the Ginkgo biloba checks in at about 270 million continuous years on earth, and its female fruit smells like a pile of dead skunks. And yes, “Ginkgo” comes from the Chinese yin-hing  for “silver apricot” and ‘biloba’  from that two-lobed leaf.

But what’s with that over-night leaf drop – the fabled “Ginkgo Rain.”

Rigorous research took me to the truth. The stems of leaves on deciduous trees are known as petioles – from the Latin peciolus or “Little Foot.”

Because Mother Nature is a lot smarter than any of her children, these petioles, on most trees, slowly create a protective layer of cells that work like a scar to keep out disease as the leaves randomly fall to the ground.

Once there, they are collected by eager, hopeful parents and resentful children armed with plastic, non-biodegradable rakes, and stuffed in paper bags for environmentally-pure disposal in a landfill of some sort or another.

Truly hopeful parents might even try composting, which is a step or two up from burning them, but I sure miss that smoky, drifting, autumnal fragrance. Maybe each American town should be allowed a one-hour leaf-burn a year just so the kids will know.

Ginkgo trees, with the collective wisdom of 270 million years, form that protective layer of scar tissue all at once. Then, come the first hard frost, they all tumble down at once.

On the good years, right into my waiting arms.

Mirabile dictu.

Photo credits: Salvia by Aaron Carlson. Zanthoxylum clava-herculis  via Wikipedia. Gingko by the author.


  1. Of coarse, botanical Latin is not just Latin. Along with plants named after people, classical Greek is used as well. My favorite plant name is Arctostaphylus uva-ursi. The genus is Greek and the specific epithet is Latin. Loosely translated, the name means ‘bear berry – berry bear.’ Appropriately enough, one of it’s common names is “Bear Berry.” Another is the Algonquin name “Kinnikinnick.” Kinnikinnick, bear berry berry bear. Names don’t get much better than that!

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