What's in a Name?

By Paul James

Ever heard of a Gallant Soldier, Fat Hen, or Good King Henry? Although they could pass for the names of British pubs, they are in fact common names of plants. And like most common names, they typically require some explanation. Take, for example, the tomato known as ‘Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.’

During the Great Depression, Marshall Cletis Byles of Logan, West Virginia, owned a radiator shop cleverly situated at the bottom of a steep hill where trucks regularly overheated. In his spare time, Byles – who went by the moniker Radiator Charlie -- experimented with cross pollinating tomatoes, and after six years of breeding he wound up with his prize: a disease-resistant tomato capable of producing four-pound fruits that were downright delicious. Word quickly spread about ‘Radiator Charlie’s’ tomatoes, which he sold for a whopping $1 each, and over the next six years he was able to pay off his mortgage with the proceeds, at which point he changed the tomato’s name to ‘Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.’ And by the way, the variety is easy to find to this day and is definitely worth growing.

Other oddly named veggies include ‘Howling Mob’ corn, a turn-of-the-century variety that was named by the breeder after he’d sold out of seed one day at the market, which caused customers to get quite unruly. Then there’s ‘Lazy Housewife,’ one of the first stringless pole beans that saved time and effort in preparation. The names ‘Mostoller Wild Goose’ and ‘Turkey Craw’ beans have similar origins, as both were found in the gullets of birds that had been shot for dinner. And another tomato, ‘Myona,’ was brought to America by an Italian immigrant who sold his prized crop from a pushcart on the streets of New York. When asked if the variety had a name, he replied, with a thick accent, “It’s a my own a.”

Among flowers, the aforementioned Gallant Soldier, a member of the daisy family is a corruption of its botanic name, Galinsoga. Fat Hen is another name for Lamb’s Quarter, a common weed that chickens and turkeys are known to gobble up. And Good King Henry is a species of goosefoot that’s also called Poor Man’s Asparagus, Lincolnshire Spinach, Markery, and English Mercury.

Then there’s Bastard Toadflax, Butter and Eggs (AKA Yellow Toadflax or Brideweed), Turkey Corn (a type of bleeding heart), Mother-in-Law’s Cushion (a cactus!), Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate (prized by Thomas Jefferson, it’s a pretty member of the genus Persicaria, and can be invasive), and Love-in-a-Puff (whose seed pods burst to reveal a heart-shaped internal structure).

And yes, there are numerous common names that have been around for centuries, but which might cause more than a few readers to blush, as they refer to various body parts, both male and female. I’ll leave you to do your own research into the naughty ones. There are also legitimate botanical names that have entered the lexicon and continue to cause a stir, notably (and my personal favorite) the Latin name of a flowering shrub that is a Heath, but which is known taxonomically as Erica canaliculata.

Honestly, I'm not making this up.