Isle of Beauty

I was at a pub quiz once when the quizmaster asked contestants the former names of a series of places: Ghana (Gold Coast), Istanbul (Constantinople), Iceland (Bejam!!!)* I was reminded of this trick quiz question when I came across two plants within a week bearing similar species names** deriving from the word Formosa, the name given to the island of Taiwan by Portuguese sailors in the C16 and in common use by English speakers until well into the C20. Thinking it would be a jumping off point for a blog about a couple of plants sharing the old name of this island to the east of mainland China I started to dig into the subject. I discovered I was mistaken about at least one of the plants in question originating in Taiwan. Formosa means beautiful in Latin, so the botanists who named it were referring to its attractive appearance, not geographical origin!

For the last three years, in February, I have pruned all the late summer flowering shrubs in a garden in Teddington. One of the largest shrubs there is Leycesteria formosa, a spectacular deciduous shrub which is sometimes called Himalayan honeysuckle. Forming a thicket of upright branches, it can reach heights of 2m and bears tapered dark green leaves. At or near the the tips of the branches hang flower ‘spikes’ measuring up to 10cm long made up of white flowers threaded between dark purplish-red bracts. Pruning is easy: like Buddleia and hardy Fuchsia, the bare branches (which are hollow and bamboo like) are cut down to the base each winter. The RHS Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants states that it originates in cliffs and mountain woodland in India, China, the Himalayas and Myanmar, with no mention of Taiwan. This plant is named for its beauty not its native territory.

Thankfully though my romantically named island theory does apply to Tricyrtis formosiana which hails from Taiwan! The common name of this woodland herbaceous perennial is toad lily. Whether this is because its purple spotted flowers resemble a particular species of toad I have yet to find out. I recently refreshed the planting in a client’s shady cottage style front garden by introducing some shade loving ground cover (Brunnera macrophylla Jack Frost and Epimedium perralchium Frohnleiten) and thought it would be fun to throw in something more unusual in the form of a toad lily. The cultivar I chose is called Dark Beauty and flowers in August and September growing to approximately 60cm. Apparently young plants can be susceptible to slug and snail attack, so it would be good to think there might be some real amphibians in the vicinity to see off the gastropods!

Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that I am fascinated by the history of plant names. Studying these two plants has taught me that it pays to look beyond the words used, because the obvious meaning is not necessary the correct one.

This is a rare post without photographs as neither plant flowers until later in the year. I’ve made myself a note to revisit this post when I’ve had a chance to take photographs of both.

*In January 1989, frozen food retailer Bejam was bought by its rival Iceland.

**Most plants bear names consisting of two words. The first is the genus name to indicate the group of plants it belongs to. The second is the species name and is usually descriptive of its origin, colour, appearance or other distinctive feature.

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