What’s in a Name?

Hyacinth Bucket (boo-KAY)

Giving flower names to girls at birth has a long history. Boys are less commonly named for plants, and then it is generally for trees (former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh comes to mind). Exceptions exist, including the rather Edwardian-sounding Eglantine, which is an old name for the sweetbriar, a variety of rose (Rosa rubiginosa or Rosa eglanteria).

On the old British television comedy Keeping Up Appearances the main character, Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced ‘boo-KAY’), has three sisters: Daisy, Violet and Rose. The personalities of each sister seemed to match the reputation of the flowers for which she was named. Daisy was a plain, straightforward woman without affectation. Violet was a bit like an African violet: fussy, difficult and somewhat fragile. Rose was flamboyant, temperamental and loud. Hyacinth’s obtuse, pretentious and entirely boorish personality jibes with her namesake’s bright colors, overpowering scent, and fleshy leaves and blooms. It is easy enough for a television screenwriter to match names and personalities, but actual parents must be either naming their child based on a flower’s beauty or perhaps based only on the beauty of the flower’s name.

Daisy Miller

In the case of Hyacinth, the female children are named for the flower, but the flower itself was named for Hyacinthus, a Greek mortal and a bosom pal of the god Apollo, who was killed when a thrown discus went a bit further than intended and split his head open. The god in his sorrow caused a flower come up where Hyacinth’s blood had spilled and the plant, which was something more like a lily than our modern hyacinth, was named for him.

The flower name “daisy” is a slurring of the original English name for it: “the day’s eye.” Daisy was apparently fairly popular as a given name in the early 20th century, but then lost favor until recently. Like the similar sounding Maisie, it may be used as a nickname for Marguerite. Henry James heroine Daisy Miller of his eponymous 1878 novella is characterized by a commonness or earthiness that flies in the face of the sophisticated society that she is trying to enter in expatriate Switzerland. She is from, of all places, Schenectady, New York.

The color violet is actually named for the flower, the Latin name of which is viole, although the genus name is Viola. The stringed instrument’s name, although identical in spelling, has a different root that may be onomatopoetic. The girls – those named both Violet and Viola – are likely named for the flower and not the color or the instrument.

Holly Golightly

Some botanically-themed names are so commonplace that we hardly remember their other meaning when they are used as given names. These include Holly (associated with the fictional Holly Golightly and the actual Holly Hunter; the name Leslie means “garden of the hollies” in Gaelic); Lily (from the Anglo-Saxon word for the flower, but used in various forms throughout Europe including the much-recorded German song “Lili Marleen”); Hazel (from the Anglo-Saxon hæsel, and perhaps most firmly associated with the maid played by Shirley Booth in the 1950s television series of the same name); Cicely (the name of an herb, actress Cicely Tyson and the town in Alaska where the television show Northern Exposure took place); Dahlia (named for Swedish botanist Anders Dahl); Bethany (which means “house of figs” in Hebrew). Fuschia (named for German botanist Leonhart Fuchs and the given name of the tempestuous heroine of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast); Laurel (which with both Laura, Lara and Lauren is derived from the Latin laurus, the word for the shrub that the Romans made into wreaths for victors, and Russian form of the name is enshrined in the name of the heroine of Dr. Zhivago); Clover (an Anglo-Saxon word for the ground cover, the nickname of the beloved and unfortunately benighted wife of Henry Adams and the name of one of the heroic [male] rabbits in Richard Adams’ Watership Down) and Heather (Middle English hather and a wildly popular name to give girls during the 1960s and 1970s and made into a wildly popular teen movie Heathers, in the 1980s.

Clover Adams

There are also botanically-based names that serve as both given and surnames: Barclay (which means “birch wood” in Old English); Briscoe, (which means “birch wood” in Old Norse); Delaney (associated with singer Delaney Bramlett and derived from de l’aunaie or “from the alder grove” in Norman French).

Some botanical names must be chosen for their pure sonic beauty; it is simply a pleasure to say them: Acacia, Althea, Amarantha, Azalea, Carissa, Flora, Gardenia, Jasmine, Lavender, and Zinnia.


Forcing Spring

The Dutch connection

In the winter of 1994 the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York premiered its “Dutch Connection” exhibition, during which thousands of forced bulbs bloomed en masse in the conservatory of Eastman’s mansion. The mid-winter explosion of tulip, narcissus and daffodil flowers was the brainchild of then-landscape curator Deirdre Cunningham. In February 2008 the succeeding curator, Amy Kinsey, oversaw the 14th annual Dutch Connection.

Cunningham learned that while still a young tycoon George Eastman had gone on a bicycle tour of the tulip-growing region of the Netherlands. He had been so impressed by the colors and verdure that year later, after he moved in his East Avenue home, he began ordering thousands of bulbs every year, forcing them in his greenhouses and displaying them in his home.

Eastman kept meticulous records of all his domestic activities. Copies of every bulb order he ever placed through the years were saved and sixty-two years after his death Cunningham found them in the archives of the George Eastman House, which had opened as a photography museum in 1949.

Dutch tulips

Several of the tulip varieties that Eastman ordered in the latest 19th and early 20th century were no longer available in the late 20th century. Cunningham was actually able to go to same Dutch company that Eastman had ordered his bulbs from, but had to either accept substitutes suggested by the company or find out what the antique varieties looked like and find modern varieties with similar blooms in their catalog.

Tulip beds

The varieties had gone out of style in part because improvements to the plants and in part because of mere changes in the tulip-buying public’s taste. Over the years tulip breeders had produced blooms that lasted longer and stems that held up the flowers better.

In the matter of taste, it is interesting that at the Eastman House volunteers had also tried to put together a cookbook composed of Mr. Eastman’s favorite recipes – because these were meticulously written down and preserved as well – and were surprised to find most of them inedible. Just as Americans’ taste in flowers had changed over the decades, so had their tastes in desserts (which were formerly not as sweet as they are now).

Once the bulbs were ordered and received they had to be forced. Eastman’s greenhouses were no longer extant on the property, so Cunningham had to look else where for facilities. The parks department of Monroe County allowed her and her staff, Andy Joss and Berna Ticonchuk, as well as a host of volunteers to store the bulbs in their roots cellar and then pot them up and set them out in the county’s greenhouses.

In general, in order to have bulbs flower in February, they should be potted up by mid-October. They first have to be stored in a cool (35˚F–50˚F) place for 12 to 16 weeks. In milder climates this place can be a shady cold frame on the north side of a building. In Rochester and other seriously cold climates a dry basement is a better location.

Forced narcissus

After the “cool period” elapses the pots can be moved into the sun where it is warmer (60˚F–65˚F). Flower buds should appear within three to four weeks. In order to make the blooms last longer, the pots should then be moved into indirect sunlight.

The Eastman House landscape staff had to time the blooming of the bulbs so that they would come in successive waves; the “Dutch Connection” exhibition has varied in length between two and three weeks over its 14-year history. New plants were put in vans and brought over from the county greenhouses as the blooms on the older plants begin to fade.

The leaves fall from the trees in Rochester in mid-October and the ground is often frozen by early to mid-December, whether or not the ground is covered with snow. Although the East Avenue neighborhood and Rochester in general is lushly planted with evergreen shrubs and trees and it does not present a bleak visual aspect through the winter, there is no smell.

When visitors enter the Eastman House during the “Dutch Connection” they are shocked by the smell of greenery in the middle of February. It reminds everyone how wonderful spring will be when it finally comes.