Garden Beasts

Garden Beasts, Imaginary and Real
Platycodon (plat-ee-KOE-dun) may sound like the name of a dinosaur, but it’s actually a charming plant more often called Japanese bellflower. Another common name, balloon flower, perfectly describes the spherical shape of the blossoms right before they open, and is much more memorable than its scientific name, unless you are familiar with its Greek roots: “platys” (broad) and “kodon” (bell).

Centaurea (variously sen-TOR-ee-ah and sen-taw-REE-uh) has been a garden resident for centuries, and was used to treat illnesses in medieval times. Perhaps its name sounds so much like a garden beast because of its origin in Greek mythology. Centaurs were a race of war-beasts who were half-man, half-horse. According to legend, one particularly peaceful centaur named Chiron used the flowers of this plant to heal wounds. Centaurea is better known as the bachelor’s button, for its use as a lapel flower, or cornflower, for its habit of growing in corn fields.

The delightfully-named liriope (lir-RYE-oh-pee) also derives from Greek mythology. Liriope was a naiad, or water nymph, and mother to Narcissus, the beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection. Although neither a grass nor a lily,

The echinops (EK-in-ops) is one garden “beast” named after an actual creature that can be found in gardens in some parts of the world. It derives from the Greek words “echinos” (hedgehog) and “opis” (appearance). The dense, spiny, globe-like flowers of this plant, commonly called globe thistle, certainly do resemble little, colorful hedgehogs.

Located nearby in the botanical dictionary, and similarly spiky, is the eryngium (air-ING-ee-um), from the Greek meaning “sea holly,” which is the plant’s common name. One particular variety, E. giganteum, is nicknamed “Miss Willmott’s Ghost” after the famous English gardener Ellen Willmott. Apparently she was in the habit of scattering seeds of these short-lived perennials, whose silvery flowers give them a spectral appearance.

The name antirrhinum (an-tihr-RYE-num) sounds like it’s straight out of Harry Potter’s Herbology class, perhaps describing a powerful counter-spell for a magic-induced illness. But it’s really just the scientific name for an old garden favorite, deriving from the Greek “anti” (like) and “rhin” (nose), for the flower’s similarity to a snout. The plant’s common name, snapdragon, describes an age-old children’s pastime. By pressing the sides of the flower, you can open and close the make-believe jaws of an obliging “dragon.”

Plant or Dreaded Disease?
If the plant name achillea (ack-ih-LEE-uh) reminds you of a foot disorder, you’re not far off the mark, because it comes from the same root as the Achilles tendon, which runs between calf and heel. Both names derive from Achilles, the hero of Homer’s “Iliad,” who supposedly used the achillea plant to heal his wounded soldiers. (Achilles himself was mortally wounded by an arrow to the heel — hence, a person’s fatal flaw is his “Achilles heel.”) Because achillea was believed to be particularly useful in treating wounds caused by iron, Civil War battlefield surgeons applied this plant to bullet wounds.

Echinacea (Eh-kih-NAY-shah or ek-in-AY-see-uh) — a description of the aches and pains accompanying a cold and the flu? Far from it! Echinacea or coneflower is in fact a time-honored herbal medicine that may help ward off such symptoms. From the Latin “echinatus” or prickly, the plant name echinacea, like echinops, ultimately derives from the Latin word for hedgehog. In this case, the little hedgehog is the not the flower itself, which is daisy-like, but the spiny “cone” or seed head that gives the plant its common name, coneflower.

Phlox (floks) isn’t an upset stomach, it’s a “phunny” name for one of the loveliest and longest-blooming perennials of spring and summer. From the Greek “phlox,” meaning “flame,” this name was originally applied to a completely different plant, now unknown (undoubtedly a reference to brightly colored blossoms or leaves). Somehow the moniker phlox became tied to an abundant, sweet-smelling North American native plant. Today phlox can be had in a huge variety of colors and bi-colors, both pastels and brights.