Creative plant names add fun to your landscape

What’s in a name? Some plants have acquired names that boast fascinating back-stories, while others have monikers that are so descriptive, they’re irresistible! Here are two of my favorite examples.

Degroots Spire arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)

It’s fascinating to discover how plants came to be given certain names. Take arborvitae as an example. Translated from the Latin, it means “tree of life.” One might assume there is a spiritual or religious reason for a plant to be blessed with that name. However, the origin is far more down to earth.

According to legend or history (take your pick) the plant was named by the 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier who learned from Native Americans that its foliage could be used to treat scurvy because of the high content of what we now call Vitamin C.

Scurvy particularly affected sailors who spent months at sea without access to fruits and vegetables. You might recall that the British navy learned to carry limes on long sea voyages for the same purpose, allegedly giving rise to the nickname “Limeys.”

Cartier noted that the Native Americans used the leaves in various medicines and boiled the foliage to make a medicinal tea. When he realized the restorative powers of the plant, it seemed only natural for him to dub it “the tree of life.”

Arborvitae is a cedar that comes in many varieties. One of my favorites is Degroot’s Spire. It is the ideal tree if you have a small or narrow area that needs some enhancement but cannot accommodate a wide-spreading tree. Degroot’s Spire will climb to a height of about 20 feet but has a spread of only 3 feet, resembling an elegant church spire or steeple pointing skywards. 

Degroot’s Spire tolerates shearing to create a stately tailored column. You might have seen it planted in narrow spaces between tall buildings such as office complexes. For the homeowner, an ideal location would be between the house and garage or other outbuildings. It can also be very effective as a screen hedge.

The foliage is a dense, medium-green that takes on a purplish tinge in the winter. It can grow in direct sun or partial shade and has moderate water requirements. 

Robust Male Fern (Dryopteris filx-mas undulata “Robusta”)

In this case, it’s not the Latin name that I find fascinating – it’s almost too long to remember, anyway – it’s the common name: Robust Male Fern! Some plants have names that sound downright sissy, but not this one. It sounds like it might get up and kick your butt if you’re not careful!

If the name brings to mind visions of John Wayne-style heroes, you’re not far off. This fern is a tough guy that is fairly self-sufficient, grows fast and stands tall: around 4 feet at maturity.

I like the way this fern really enhances the more colorful characters in a large herbaceous border. It can also come to your rescue (as tough-guy heroes should) if you need to prevent erosion on steep hillsides or riverbanks. It works well as a low-maintenance and attractive groundcover in a woodland setting when you want a natural, rugged look.

Robust Male Ferns thrive in cool, moist, shaded locations, the long, leathery fronds unfurling in shades of yellow-green, maturing to a deep emerald.

If you like to mix and match, consider adding similar plants such as Japanese Holly Fern or Shield Fern. As always, let me know if you need help finding these plants.