What's in a name?

Departments - Native tongue

Some native plant common names are curious but entertaining to research.

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October 29, 2019

Calycanthus floridus has several common names, including sweetshrub, Carolina allspice and sweet bubby bush.
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Native plants get many of their common names, sometimes even localized, for many different reasons. And there is a long list of natives referred to by names we may have no idea of their origin. When I first set up shop in western North Carolina, my new friends called Mt. laurel (Kalmia latifolia) “ivy” and rhododendron (R. maximum) “laurel.” I was confused then and sometimes I still am. When I talk to folks around the mountains now, I sometimes use “ivy” and “laurel,” too.

Throughout western North Carolina, those names are in many places: Big Laurel, Laurel Park, Laurel Branch, Laurel Creek, Little Laurel Run, Big Ivy, Little Ivy, Little Ivy Creek and more. And I was told that if any patches of these plants were extremely thick, they were called “hells.” If you have ever tried to get through one of those patches you know why.

I have asked and done my research trying to find out a little history of where these names came from. Even the older generation who learned how to cut back, dig, and burlap ivy and laurel from their fathers said it’s always been called by those names. So, it seems that is just what the mountain folk call these plants. And of course, red laurel is catawba rhododendron (R. catawbiense).

Flame azalea (R. calendulaceum) is called honeysuckle. That one took me a while to figure out, too. One of our staff members says it’s because he was taught as a kid to suck on the blossoms of flames like people do for honeysuckle. He also says it doesn’t taste as good. The flowers do resemble that of honeysuckle — a little. Maybe that’s it.

What about doghobble (Leucothoe fontainsiana)? It’s the arching branches that are doghobble’s primary claim to fame. These often root at their tips, creating an extensive and sometimes large tangle that can be all but impenetrable. The story goes that black bears fleeing hunting dogs will intuitively head for a doghobble tangle situated on a steep slope. Going uphill, a bear can easily bound through the patch. But the pursuing dogs and hunters will be severely impeded by the rooted branches and sharp leaves. It is also called fetter bush — fetter is defined as something that confines.

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) has been found in American gardens since colonial times, including in the gardens of both Jefferson and Washington. It is also known as Carolina allspice, but the best name is sweet bubby bush. Apparently, mountain women used the strongly aromatic flowers as a perfume by first crushing them and then placing them in their bosom which consequently gave rise to the nickname “bubby,” as an old form of the word “boobie.” Telling that story always brings a smile and many older folks know it by that name.

There are many native plants that have nice histories and it’s fun to know. Once you smell the leaves of spicebush (Lindera benzion), you know how it got its name. The fragrance is very distinctive. Aronia arbutifolia got one of its names, choak cherry, from Thomas Jefferson. Now it is referred to as chokeberry. The name sourwood was recorded in 1709 as used by American colonists because of the taste of the leaves. Sourwood shoots were used by Cherokee and Catawba tribes for arrow shafts, as were the branches of arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum).

The name New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) comes from the American Revolution. The leaves were boiled and used as a substitute for tea. At Carolina Native, we put the seed of New Jersey tea in boiling water as part of its stratification process and it certainly smells like tea, but we don’t know if it tastes like it. Inkberry holly has black berries, but they were not used as ink. It is also known as gallberry. This alternate name derives from the fact that black ink was once made from the galls of oaks. Candles were and still are made from the berries of wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera). You can buy them online today. Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) is named so because George Washington planted it all over Mount Vernon.

It’s fun to learn some of the more traditional plant names, as well as where and how they came about. Most earned their names one way or another. But then some, like ivy and laurel, may remain a mystery forever.

Bill Jones is president of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville, North Carolina, a specialty grower of native shrubs, perennials, ferns and grasses. www.carolinanativenursery.com