My friend Anne knows her flora and fauna. You walk through the woods with her and she doesn’t say, “Look at that beautiful tree!” She says, “Look at that aspen. Look at that red spruce. A black ash. Wow!” Plus she can identify birds. “See? At the feeder? That’s a male rose-breasted grosbeak.”
When she doesn’t know the name of something, she grabs her National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds or her Field Guide to North American Trees and learns the names. I love that she does this. Many summers ago, I bought the same books intending to learn. But they have sat on my bookshelf, mostly unread, for years.
I’m a bit better with plants. I know the names of the ones that grow in my garden. I love their names. Shasta daisy. Rosa rugosa. Hydrangea. Lily. Lupen. Loosestrife.
But I don’t know the names of all the things I’ve planted. A tall, red, feathery flower that appeared this year next to the peonies? What is it and when did I plant it? Same thing with a pretty green plant with curly spikes of white that’s behind the rhododendron. I know I got it from my friend, Judy, in Connecticut. She dug it from her garden and gave it to me. But what is its name?
Last week I was at Santa’s Village in Jefferson, N.H., a clean, family-friendly Christmas theme park, perfect for little kids. And pretty enough to keep adults happy, too. And I saw, in big planters that were everywhere, purple and white daisy-like flowers, which none of the staff (and I asked everyone) could identify. The flowers were tall. They were showy. They were bountiful. And no one had a clue what they were.
So I took a picture to show to Ralph Polillio, who owns Polillio’s Garden Center in Stoughton, which is where I get my flowers because the plants there are cared for and the selection is vast and because Ralph Polillio knows even more about flowers than my friend Anne.
But, before I could get to Polillio’s, someone, I wish I could remember who, told me about an app that identifies flowers and trees. It’s called PlantSnap and here’s the background: Back in 2012, Eric Ralls, an inventor from Colorado, was at a barbecue. He saw a flower and didn’t know its name. He asked his friends and they didn’t know its name either. There should be an app for that, he thought.
Five years later, when technology made his idea possible, he launched PlantSnap, a mobile app, which, with a few clicks, identifies plants and trees all over the world. It has 585,000 species and 150 million images in its database so far. There’s a free version and a paid-for version ($1.49 a month for the first three months). Both are simple to use. All you do is download the app, open it, snap a picture of the flower, leaf, or tree whose name you don’t know, and in seconds, your plant is identified. The red, feathery flowers next to my peonies? It’s scarlet bee balm. The plant with the curly spikes of white, which my friend Judy gave me? Gooseneck loosestrife. And the purple and white flowers from Santa’s Village? Pericallis senetti. No wonder no one knew its name!
So why do we need the names of flowers? Why do I need their names? I love saying them. Sweet William. That’s one of my favorites. I need their names, too, to know what they like. Sun or shade? Dry or wet soil? When do they bloom, spring or summer or fall? How long do the blooms last? And are they annuals or perennials or biennials? Poisonous or invasive?
This morning I took a picture of something I have never seen in my backyard. It’s pale green and is growing in the shadows next to the lily of the valley. PlantSnap says that it is Morrow’s honeysuckle and that it is highly invasive.
I suppose I should pull it up. That’s what you’re supposed to do with invasive species. But right now it’s pretty. And in the spring honeysuckle smells like magnolias — or so I read online.
And then there’s its name: Honeysuckle.
I pick up the phone and call my friend Anne. She doesn’t answer so I leave a message. “I just found honeysuckle in my back yard!” It’s not as if I have spotted a rose-breasted grosbeak, I know. But the word honeysuckle is sweet on the tongue. Plus there’s the promise of its sweet fragrance next spring.
It’s this, the promise that is in my garden, the promise that is in all living things, that makes me want to learn their names.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.