Each Month in my Garden: December – The Right Weather & Plant Names

The Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine arrived at the beginning of the month and I was struck by the fact that most photographs of gardens in winter are actually pictures of interesting weather. Mist, bright sunlight, frost and snow all make for great photos. Less so the greyish days we usually get. Christmas trees brighten everything but it’s usually the fairy lights that do the brightening rather than the actual trees. So there won’t be any photos of my garden this month.

The magazine also had an article on the change of rosemary’s Latin name. It is now to be part of the genus Salvia, and Rosmarinus officinalis has become Salvia rosmarinus. I see the logic behind the change but I mourn the loss of officinalis which, according to William Stearn (Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners) means ‘Sold in shops; applied to plants with real or supposed medicinal properties’. Nowadays plants are sold in a vast array of shops, not just in nurseries and garden centres but almost everywhere from gift shops to supermarkets, but historically officinalis conferred a certain status on plants. In Botanical Latin William Stearn expands the definition, writing ‘It is derived from opificina shortened to officina, originally a workshop or shop, later a monastic storeroom, then a herb-store, pharmacy or drug-shop’. The name gave rosemary a sense of importance which it has now lost, presumably because common sage, or Salvia officinalis, got there first. 

Russian sage has also been absorbed into the genus with Perovskia atriplicifolia becoming Salvia yangii. What would have been wrong with Salvia perovskia? Poor Russian General V. A. Perovski, 1794-c.1857, (according to William Stearn), loses his credit, which seems rather harsh. But then the RHS Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening describes him as B. A. Perovskii, a Turkestani statesman. Both are books I would normally trust without question. The internet, which I don’t necessarily trust credits Vasily Alekseevich Perovsky, who seems to have had an interesting life fighting in Turkey followed by time on the then Russian Empire’s south-eastern border, extending the frontier with varying degrees of success. It seems unlikely he had time to go plant hunting so perhaps he doesn’t deserve the credit. Another count, Count Lev Alekseyevich von Perovski, who lived at the same time, has given his name to the mineral perovskite. His Wikipedia article starts with the following charming warning:  

Not to be confused with Lev Nikolaievich Perovski, Aleksei Alekseivich Perovski, or other Counts Perovski.

As the RHS article points out plant labels tend to be printed in large batches so it may be several years before the changes appear on retailers’ shelves anyway. By the time we’ve adapted there may well be further discoveries……


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