English is not an easy language, nor does it make much sense. In the end you “get it” or you don’t, as was clear when my children started primary school and the teacher gave them lists of English anomalies which just had to be learned, as they couldn’t be explained. Above: Eschscholzia ‘Thai Silk Champagne’.
The naming of plants is even more eccentric but learning them by rote does seem to work. I am no longer troubled by Eschscholzia californica because I have been mildly obsessed with it for about a year. When I was on my Wrags* training last year at a Northamptonshire Manor, the head gardener asked me very casually to pass him a tray of Eschscholzia. “I beg your pardon?” I said “Shesholtzia” he pronounced, confidently. “It has a silent e.” He was very reluctant to say Californian Poppy. I have seen Derry Watkins talking about Eschscholzia Lemon Blush: she is American and is fine with using the common name. Not so keen on the common colour of orange: “Introduce just one to your garden,” she urges. “This one.”
The plant stall lady at the village fete a couple of months later was selling trays of “eskoltzia” as she put it, unmoveable on its pronunciation. When I see a word with too many consonants I tend to look no further than the first three letters and the word is never pronounced. This is a bit like learning Latin, which non-Romans translate back and forth but rarely converse in. I tracked down my Latin teacher from school and asked her about the naming of plants. I knew that she would know:
“Johan Linnaeus, 19th century Swedish botanist, devised a system of classifying plants (taxonomy) which has never gone out of use,” she explains. “It has the grand name of binomial nomenclature, ie two names. First is the genus or kind of plant, second the particular individual species, and he turned the words into a rather odd Latin. Eschscholtzia was named after a German named von Eschscholtz.”
While we’re on the subj, I ask why we can’t say “dahhhlia” instead of day-lia, which to my mind keeps this queen of flowers rooted firmly in the island bed tethered to a bamboo stick. Mrs Raphael again: “Dahlias, I believe, were named for another Swede called Dahl, like Roald, so using a flat ‘a’ may be correct, but a bit pretentious, don’t you think?”
I like being pretentious so I’m going to start saying “dahlia” as in Roald, from now on.
*The Women’s Farm and Garden Association organise very interesting training schemes in all kinds of gardens, called Wrags. Not just for women.
Thanks for reading!