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Into the Garden: You can call him Bob, but his real name is Robert

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Latin names are important to gardening. Many plants have similar common names, and checking the Latin name can save you from making a serious gardening mistake.

Here's an example: I received an email from a reputable garden purveyor, Heronswood Nursery. I've always respected their plant suggestions, and the commentary on their website is always interesting.

Here's what the email said:

"Deer Proof Your Shade Garden! Create a long-lasting garden with deer-resistant perennials. These selections lend vibrant color to gardens in dappled shade."

The plant they pictured was lovely to look at, and I didn't recognize the Latin name, "Lysimachia Clethroides 'Heronswood Gold.'" So, I looked it up, and much to my dismay, its gooseneck loosestrife!

Clicking through to the website, I read the description.

"Pure enchantment. Upright clumps carry foliage imparting a glowing gold-on-green radiance. Tapered 4-inch to 8-inch gooseneck spikes are dense with tiny saucer-shaped white blossoms from July to September. A four-inch pot is $12.95 and it's listed for zones three to eight."

Well, I was appalled when I read that they are selling loosestrife -- it's a terrible invasive. So I did a bit of research.

Lythrum salicaria L. (Lythraceae) is the purple loosestrife that is invading the wetlands of our country. Totally different plant than the one on the Heronswood website.

However, looking at many gardening websites, blogs and boards online, there are a lot of folks who don't like the Heronswood version of loosestrife either.

The University of Arkansas Department of Agriculture says:

"The Website-based public opinion poll shows a divided gardening electorate. About one-third have a negative view of gooseneck loosestrife, one-third are positive and one-third hasn't made up its mind. Many in the neutral category have grown it for only three to four years so their opinion may become more negative over time.

"Gooseneck loosestrife's detractors uniformly condemn its invasive root system. It spreads widely by white rhizomes, especially if planted in moist, fertile soil. About 15 years ago I planted a plant in a dry, partially shaded bed where oak roots predominate; today the clump is about 6 feet across. If you don't like, or are afraid of bamboo, then you probably should not plant gooseneck loosestrife.

"Gooseneck loosestrife should not be confused with purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), the escaped ornamental that has become a common weed of waterways in the northern states. Purple loosestrife and gooseneck loosestrife, though they share a common name, are in completely different families."

On DavesGarden.com, one post reads: "Do not plant this. Hiding behind its innocent white flowers is an evil plant that will torment you for the rest or your gardening days. I loved the way it looked at one time. This plant is Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction."

Another post: "All my friends warned me, but I was so taken by clusters of gooseneck loosestrife that I had seen in a nearby public garden that I planted it anyway. Thank heavens it was at the back of one of my borders, so it could only spread in three directions and not four. The blossoms are amazing, especially if they catch the wind. But it has proved very difficult to contain. Those runners -- which feel suspiciously like red rubber cables -- go everywhere. It has not been fun digging them out from a nearby shrub rose every year."

I think I'll refrain from planting this one.

Another example of common name confusion is the niger/nyjer seeds, often sold as birdseed as it is a favorite of finches. When awful, painful-to-pull thistles showed up in the garden, I blamed my husband's bird feeders. I was wrong.

According to Wikipedia, in the birdseed market, nyjer is often sold or referred to as thistle seed. This is a misnomer resulting from early marketing of the seed as "thistle" to take advantage of the finches' preference for thistle.

"The Wild Bird Feeding Industry has trademarked the name nyjer so as not to confuse it with the less desirable thistle seed," it says.

"In 1982 the USDA ordered that imported niger seed must be heat sterilized to kill the contaminant dodder seed. This treatment, however, was insufficient to kill seeds of other federal noxious weeds, including Asphodelius fistulosus (onion weed), Digitaria spp. (includes African couchgrass), Oryza spp. (red rice), Paspalum scrobiculatum (kodo millet), Prosopis spp. (includes mesquites), Solanum viarum (tropical soda apple), Striga spp. (witchweed), and Urochloa panicoides (liver-seed grass). In 2001 a new treatment required that imported niger seed must be heat treated at 120°C (248°F) for 15 minutes.

"In 2002 the variety EarlyBird Niger was developed and adapted to the United States by Glenn Page. Guizotia abyssinica is not a federal noxious weed and is now in commercial agricultural production in the United States."

Gary Gibson, who's worked with West Virginia plants/invasives for years, once put this common/scientific name problem into terms I could understand.

"You can call someone Bob, but his real name is Robert." Always look for the "real" name -- the Latin name -- when planting.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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