…as well as reviewing (and riffing on) some genuine inspirations
One of the neatest parts about becoming a parent is getting to name another human being. You can pretty much seal your child’s fate with a shrewdly befitting (or not especially beneficial) name. We might be overselling that power a bit, true, but plant breeders bear a similar responsibility when naming the cultivated varieties they create.
Of course, rather than goofing off on the topic of nomenclature for nursery introductions, we could dig into the many appealingly strange to wildly funny common names for regular, found-in-nature species. Some of these monikers are snicker-worthy in ways, um, tangentially related to breeding, but we’ll save that one for another time (or not).
When it comes to generating chuckles from cultivar names, we gravitate toward those begging for pop-culture connections. Crassula ovata, the succulent stalwart known as jade plant, gets the gold-plated statuette for most entertainment-friendly monikers. We’ll start with ‘ET’s Fingers’ (“We must phone home to confirm there’s room in the garden for 10 of these fleshy plants with tubular red-tipped leaves.”)
Now for the Tolkien duo, starting with ‘Gollum’ (“We mustn’t let filthy little hobbitses steal our precious jade. We wants it!”) and ending with ‘Hobbit’ (“Come on, Mr. Frodo, I can’t carry all these jades for you, but I can carry you!”) Finally, there’s ‘Ogre Ears’, presumably a reference to the title ogre, er, character from the “Shrek” movies.
This description of Hobbit jade has the 411 on the Tolkien duo’s origin story. For the name of a gasteria-aloe hybrid, Altman Plants succulent breeder Kelly Griffin managed to tie together pop culture and plant form characteristics.
“I know Gastrolea ‘Twilight Zone’ I named because of the old Rod Serling TV show. In the intro to the show, it had those white stars coming at you, and the plant reminded me of that,” he says.
More often, it seems, the references aren’t as direct or even intentional. Echeveria ‘Andromeda’ is not so named because its inventor, our very own Renee O’Connell, is a huge fan of author Michael Crichton’s novel “The Andromeda Strain” (or the idea of deadly extraterrestrial germs). It’s because “Andromeda,” as in the Andromeda constellation, was deemed a nice-sounding alternative to “galaxy.”
“I can’t say that my methodology for deriving cultivar names is very scientific,” O’Connell says. “It depends upon my mood, how much I like the plant. Sometimes plant characteristics, sometimes nothing to do with the plant’s characteristics. I do like to try to use the name to describe something about the plant, if possible. But for me, it also has to be a name I like in print or like to say.”
She’s fond of colors.
“Particularly odd-named hues that will send people scrambling to their dictionaries. ‘Dark Moon’ started out as ‘Black Azurite’. I try to borrow Elvish words (speaking of Tolkien) or words from other languages if I like the sound.”
Could ‘Dark Moon’ be a thinly veiled nod to Pink Floyd? We’ll leave that to your imagination. Whether or not there’s a particularly clever or cringe-worthy pop-culture joke to be made from a name, Griffin says catchiness is good, especially when the plant itself is a winner.
“A good name can make or break the success of a particular plant. I have seen great plants with lousy names and lousy plants that tie up good names. Ideally the perfect plant meets the great name and a star is born.”
To close, below is a selection of riffs on 11 succulent cultivar names. All connections made are entirely our own, without any deliberate links to actual and/or commonly accepted meanings.
- Agave ‘Baccarat’ — A card game fancied by one James Bond. Also played at Rick’s Café Americain in “Casablanca.”
- Echeveria ‘Crimson Tide’ — Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, and submarines. Bonus Tolkien reference: Viggo Mortensen, portrayer of Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, is also in this Tony Scott/Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson masterpiece. We’ll also accept University of Alabama athletics.
- Crassula ‘Tom Thumb’ — Bob Dylan’s landmark “Highway 61 Revisited” album includes the song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” There’s a character from English folk tales called Tom Thumb. Lastly, Charles Stratton, better known as “General Tom Thumb,” gained celebrity as a diminutive circus performer for P.T. Barnum during the 19th century.
- Echeveria ‘Lola’ — Popular rock song of unlikely romance by the British band the Kinks.
- Echeveria ‘Raindrops’ — “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” an Oscar-winning song Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
- Euphorbia polygona ‘Snowflake’ — A phrase used today to disparage those seen as overly sensitive or fragile. We’ll leave it to you to flesh out the context. Or read this USA Today College piece.
- Graptoveria ‘Bashful’ — One of Snow White’s admirers.
- Kalanchoe beharensis ‘Fang’ — Fang is the name of Hagrid’s oversized “bloody coward” of a dog in the Harry Potter series.
- Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ — Just a measly “r” from matching the title of a Jean-Claude Van Damme martial arts flick.
- Sedum ‘Burrito’ — One of the yummiest foods ever invented, and it’s no mystery why, but the plant’s mysterious origins call into question whether it should or can be regarded as a cultivar.
- Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ — Actress/activist Angelina Jolie, of course, sorta still one half of the acting duo known as Brangelina.