Forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica). Photo: seedcorner.com
On this Valentine’s Day, the celebration of love and affection, I thought it would be interesting to dedicate the blog to plants whose name evokes love … and there are actually quite a few of them.
How could I not start with the forget-me-not. This is the common name for Myosotis sylvatica, the charming little biennial plant with sky-blue, white-eyed spring flowers. The legend behind the name is absolutely charming. Here’s how it goes.
A French knight was walking along a river with his lady. He bent down to pick her a pretty little blue flower, but his heavy armor caused him to lose his balance and he fell into the current. Before sinking forever, he tossed the flower to his ladylove, shouting “ne m’oubliez pas” (forget me not)! And that was how the forget-me-not got its name.
The name lives on not only in English and the original French, but in other European languages as well: Vergissmeinnicht in German, no-me-olvides in Spanish, nontiscordardimé in Italian, gleym mér ei in Icelandic, etc.
There is also another legend that explains how the forget-me-not received its name … but it’s not nearly so romantic.
It is said that God had assembled all the flowers in order to give each one a name until there was only one tiny plant that remained. Then God turned as if to leave, causing the little plant to cry out: “Forget me not, O Lord!” “That shall be your name,” he decided.
The most common variety of our gardens and fields is the forest forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica), of European origin, but it long ago escaped from culture in temperate regions all over the world where it is seen as either a beautiful wildflower or an annoying weed. Most seed catalogs carry it and it is hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8. It grows best in humid locations, in the sun or in partial shade.
There are about 75 other species of forget-me-not, both of temperate and tropical origin, so no matter where you live, there is probably at least one species you can grow, at least, if you have a spot with that isn’t overly dry.
The common bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis, now Laprocapnos spectabilis) is a big perennial well known to most gardeners—and lovers!—because its flowers really do look like little hearts, with two upper rounded lobes fitting snugly together. The flowers dangle prettily from an arching stem on a thin pedicel, giving a most charming effect. The normal form has pink flowers, but you can also find ‘Alba’, with white hearts and ‘Valentine’, with red hearts, as well as ‘Goldheart’, with pink hearts and golden foliage.
Perfectly suited to temperate gardens except in the most arid climates, the common bleeding heart is a long-lived perennial that our grandparents knew well. It’s hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9. Plus, there are many other bleeding hearts to try in the genus Dicentra, many being low-growing groundcovers … and all with heart-shaped flowers.
String of hearts (Ceropegia woodii)
This is a popular houseplant, also called hearts-on-a-string and rosary vine (for the small hanging tubers it produces). It’s grown for its long, drooping stems and its small, succulent, clearly heart-shaped leaves. The leaves are very decorative, purple underneath and green with silvery veins on top. And it has curious little lantern-shaped flowers as well. It’s a succulent plant well adapted to dry conditions and grows with little care other than the occasional watering, although it does require a sunny location.
Passion Flower (Passiflora spp.)
Although the name might seem to invoke the passion of carnal love, in fact, the name passion flower comes from the passion of Christ. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish missionaries in South and Central America used the bloom of the native passion flowers to teach the crucifixion of Jesus to the local peoples.
The 10 petals and sepals were said to represent the 10 faithful apostles (minus Peter the denier and Judas the betrayer), the filaments symbolize the crown of thorns, the ovary evokes a hammer and the 3 stigmas are nails, while the 5 anthers are supposed to represent the 5 wounds Jesus received. If flower parts aren’t enough for you, the pointed leaf tips are said to be lances while the tendrils … well, what else could they be, other than the whips that flagellated Christ? I find the whole description that rather horrifying, but apparently it was a great help in converting pagans!
In spite of its strictly religious origin, the name passion flower remains very evocative and thus it has since become the symbol of passionate love. And the fruit of the passion flower, called, of course, passion fruit, has long been considered an aphrodisiac.
There are over 500 species of passion flower, generally climbing plants. Most are strictly tropical, but you can grow them in temperate climates as houseplants or annuals. There are, however, a few fairly hardy varieties, like maypop (Passiflora incarnata) and P. ‘Incense’, adapted to USDA hardiness zones 6 to 10.
Love-in-a-Cage (Physalis alkekengi)
This perennial with a papery orange inflated seed capsule has a profusion of common names: Chinese lantern, Japanese lantern, winter cherry and several others, but I like love-in-a-cage best. It’s a popular dried flower, used in many indoor arrangements, but it can be quite invasive in the garden, spreading through numerous suckers that pop up from its creeping roots. The name “love-in-a-cage” comes from the fact that, if you don’t harvest the stalk for drying while the capsule is intact, its papery outside will gradually disintegrate, leaving only thin netting like bars of a cage through which you can see the little red fruit inside; the “love” of the name.
It’s a tough and easy plant to grow for sunny spots in hardiness zones 3 to 9.
Love-Lies-Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)
In the language of flowers, love-lies-bleeding stands for hopeless love. Sigh!
What a striking plant! And what a tragically romantic name! The name comes from the long dangling flower stalks that can trail downward for over a meter (4 ft). The effect lasts all summer, as the red flowers give way to red seed capsules. It makes a great dried flower and pretty much all parts of the plant are edible, including the leaves and seeds, the latter used to make amaranth flour. An easy-to-grow annual, vegetable and cereal grain, sow it outdoors (warm climates) or start it indoors (colder ones). It likes warm temperatures, so wait until the soil and the air have thoroughly warmed up before sowing it or planting it out.
Love apple (Lycopersicum esculentum)
This is another name for the tomato. Legend has it that the designation dates back to when a Spanish sailor brought back the first tomato seeds from the Caribbean to offer them to his fiancée, the love of his life, hence the name. Another belief, however, claims the name “love apple” comes from the aphrodisiac powers of the fruit. And indeed, the Catholic Church tried to banish this fruit in the 16h century for fear that its consumption would lead to debauchery.
That said, it’s most likely that the name “love apple” is in fact due to a long-ago misunderstanding. At the time, the Italians called the tomato “pomo d’Mori” (apple of the Moors, although they now call it pomodoro, “golden apple”), because the fruit came from a distant land. A visitor to Italy, hearing the name for this new fruit, apparently misunderstood and heard not pomo d’Mori, but “pomo de amor” or love apple.
What can I say about love apples except that we all grow and eat them … as tomatoes.
Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis)
The botanical name says it all … if you understand Greek, that is! Agrostis means grass and I think we all know the sense of eros. Put it together and you get “love grass.” It’s one of the most diverse and widespread genera of grasses in the world, with over 350 species, including both annuals and perennials, ornamental plants, grasses grown for animal fodder and, well, weeds.
Purple love grass is of the ornamental category, a perennial mounding grass with narrow green leaves turning reddish in the fall and with airy, hazy purplish panicles rising above the plant in summer. Its hardy from USDA zones 5 to 9.
Purple Heart (Tradescantia pallida)
Yes, the leaves are purple and maybe, with a bit of imagination, you could seem them as heart-shaped, although a very long, narrow heart! It’s a kind of extra-large-leaved spiderwort or wandering jew, which you may know better under its former botanical name, Setcreasea purpurea. It makes a great houseplant and basket plant when placed outdoors for the summer, or a groundcover in milder climates: zones 8 to 10.
Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena)
This delightful old-fashioned annual has very airy threadlike foliage with blue flowers (or red, pink or white ones in more modern cultivars) nestled in a ring of deeply cut, lacy bracts: the “mist” of the plant’s name. Just sow this easy-to-grow annual in a sunny spot where you want it to grow and it will do the rest. The dried flower capsules are often used in arrangements.
Sweetheart Vine (Philodendron hederaceum)
Well, that’s what some people call it. I’ve always known it as heartleaf philodendron … also appropriate for Valentine’s Day. It has changed botanical names so often that it’s hard to keep track (P. cordadum, P. oxycardium, P. scandens), but apparently P. hederaceum is the right one!
Probably the easiest of all the houseplants, this oh-so-common climbing plant is most often used in hanging baskets. It will grow under almost any combination of indoor conditions that don’t involve cold temperatures. Just keep it watered and it will survive, even in those shady spots where nothing else sill grow.
Love-in-a-Puff (Cardiospermum halicacabum)
Also called balloon flower and heartseed vine, this is a fast-growing climbing plant sold as an annual in cooler climates. The flowers are barely noticeable, but the puffball like seed capsules are quite striking. Inside, once you decorticate the seed shell, is a perfectly heart-shaped seed. Grow it in full sun. Be careful in the tropics, zones 9 to 11, where it can become invasive.
Sweetheart Hoya (Hoya kerrii)
The sweetheart hoya, also called the Valentine hoya, is a tropical climbing plant grown as a houseplant with thick, tough leaves that are distinctly heart-shaped, and it is definitely catching on as a Valentine’s plant. The plant is easy to care for, at least if you have a relatively well-lit window, although it’s very slow-growing.
Some merchants even sell sweetheart hoya leaves in pots as a Valentine’s gift. These leaves do take root, but are “blind” and will never produce an actual plant (or only very, very rarely!). So, as long as you water them a bit, they just sit around and collect dust for a few years until they finally die. You can call a rooted leaf that never grows or changes a houseplant if you want (and some really desperate people with black thumbs probably do!), but I think it’s a very sad and desperate life for any plant to live.
Heartleaf Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Well, there’s nothing truly romantic about that name, because it’s merely descriptive. The leaf of this perennial native to northeastern North America simply has leaves in the shape of a heart. And the botanical name says so: that’s what cordifolia means. In fact, there is a whole long list of plants with cordifolia or cordata (heart-like) as part of their botanical name: heartleaf (Houttuynia cordata), heartleaf bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia), heartleaf peppervine (Ampelopsis cordata), heartleaf hornbeam (Carpinus cordata), etc.
Happy Valentine’s Day to lovers all over the world!