“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Juliet, in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Act II Scene ii

I’ve been pondering plant names recently. I love The Bard, but in this case, at least in gardening, I have to disagree. Yes, rename your favourite rose “thugwum” and it would indeed still smell as sweet, would be exactly the same plant, but there can be such a rich romance to plant names, and for me at least they play a part in plant choice. Names matter. Not to the exclusion of characteristics such as habit, growing conditions, flower colour etc, but they play a part. When a new plant – or its name – has a story to it this adds richness and interest. I love it when a plant has been named for the grower’s Great Aunt or favourite dog, or something stranger! I was entranced by some plant names on a walk back in early November.

Wickwar Community Orchard

A few years ago our Parish Council bought an extra plot of land adjacent to the existing playing fields. Part of this has been given over to allotments – though sadly only 19, 9 used as full plots the rest sub-divided. Needless to say there is a very long waiting list… However, there is also a Community Orchard, planted with 49 different varieties of apple, plum, pear, quince, damson and nut.

Orchard Information Board

I knew that cobnuts were a cultivated variety of hazelnut , but had never heard of filberts. What a wonderful name! Apparently filberts are the oblong fruit of Corylus avellana pontica and C. Maxima whereas cobnuts are larger and round, coming from C. avellana grandis, all European natives. There is a certain poetry to the Latin names of plants, but I love the word “filbert”, it seems so very earthy and anglo-saxon. Except that it isn’t! It actually comes from the fact that Hazel blooms in February on St. Filbert’s Day and in Turkey, Greece and Italy, where over 90% of the world’s crop is grown, “Filbert” became the local name for the plant. Quite why it has found its way into a Gloucestershire orchard I’m not sure – perhaps because of the name?

'Wick White Styre' Cider Apple
'Pedington Brandy' Cider Apple

Planted over the past four years, this is largely a traditional Gloucestershire orchard, full of varieties with strange and romantic names. ‘Wick White Styre’ originates from Berkeley Vale, just up the road from here, and ‘Peddington Brandy’ comes from Oldbury-on-Severn, again very close by. I love the fact that the children from the village primary school school – who produced the display board above – are getting to know apples that come from places they probably know well.

The first (very small!) apple harvest happened this October, when the local children picked the apples and then squeezed them for their juice. I assume they didn’t turn it in to cider! Gloucestershire, together with Worcestershire and Herefordshire, have a rich tradition of cider making. Apples are known to have grown in the UK well before the Romans arrived, but it was after the Norman Conquest in 1066 that cider became the drink of the common man. By 1300 cider was being produced in counties all over southern England. Every farm would have a few cider apples and would make their own cider, and at one time labourers were rated according to the amount of cider they drank, and it often formed part of their wages! According to the Gloucestershire Orchard Group 75% of Gloucestershire’s orchards have been lost in the past 50 years. I’m glad our village – with the help of a grant from South Gloucestershire Council – is preserving a small part of the county’s heritage.

'Judge Amphlett' Perry Pear
'Hendre Huffcap' Perry Pear

Cider is made from pears as well as apples, although strictly speaking this is called Perry not Cider, and is an increasingly popular drink. Gloucestershire is home to one of the three National Collections of Perry Pears, established with Heritage Lottery Funding at Hartpury. Perry pears are very bitter, virtually inedible when unprocessed, but make a rather lovely tipple. ‘Judge Amphlett’ is named for Richard Amphlett, an Assizes court judge in the 1800s. ‘Hendre Huffcap’ originated in the Gloucestershire villages of Bromsberrow and Haresfield.

I think the strangest names are those of the plums though. ‘Rodley Black Jack’ comes from the village of Rodley, and is small and black, so perhaps the strangeness belongs with the village name itself, which is a whole other story. ‘Rowel’s Pruin’ comes from Arlingham, a village on the bend of the River Severn, and nobody seems to know where the name originates. I couldn’t even find a definition of ‘pruin’, just an alleged example of its use – “Now I go in to oyle my bells and pruin them”, which sounds a little scary. My favourite though – and I’m willing to bet it was chosen to interest the children – is the charmingly named ‘Shit Smock’ plum, which comes from Chaxhill. Apparently named for the effect of over indulgence in said fruit…

21 thoughts on “The magic of names

  1. Brilliant post Janet, you’re right, names do matter and knowing why something is called as it is can be very helpful in understanding what its characteristics might be. Latin names really help even though they are sometimes difficult to remember!
    I think your council are to be highy praised for creating a new orchard and including the school children to make posters makes it even better. Christina

    1. Thank you Christina – though I can’t help thinking it would have been better if I’d remembered to turn the spelling checker off before I posted! What a mess… I do agree though, the council did a very good thing when they gave this grant.

  2. Dear Janet, What a marvellous idea the Community Orchard and what a wide variety of trees are contained within it. The names of some of the fruit trees are so romantic…..but others far less so!! I am pleased to see that there seems to be something of a revival of old apple and pear varieties and the most wonderful ciders and perries coming from them.

    1. Hello Edith. I agree, the romance is sadly lacking in one case at least! Though I suppose one could argue that it is good for a plant to carry it’s own health warning… I’m hoping that in later years cider and perry will be made from these trees, albeit in very small quantities.

  3. Filbert is the name used for these nuts in the US, at least the mid-Atlantic. You are absolutely right about names. I introduced a hosta as “Roger’s Gift” (because Roger gave it to me), and it didn’t sell. When I changed the name to “Carolyn’s Chalkstripe” people went wild for it (double quotes because unregistered). It is frustrating to me as a nursery owner when people choose plants more for their names than their inherent qualities as plants. There are so many plants I would rename. It is especially difficult to sell a plant with no common name. I am tempted to make one up. I would also like to make up cultivar names for straight species to make them sell better. I resist. Carolyn

    1. Hello Carolyn, thank you so much for stopping by and giving the nursery person’s perspective. I suspect you could have a lot of fun making up common names… How sad about “Roger’s Gift”, that would mean so much more to me – assuming I knew the story – than your perfectly lovely but less meaningful new name. I love it when plant and seed catalogues add the personal touch in their descriptions.

  4. I love exploring names like you do. When I was at Oxford I read History, and I remember once studying the clues that place-names in Britain can give us about the patterns of settlement by Danes, Saxons, Angles etc. Fascinating stuff. The context of the word “pruin” sounds as if the word ought to be “tuin” (Tune?) as in I’ll just go and oil my bells and tune them up”!

    1. Hi Mark. I have vague memories of my Mum trying to interest me in place names and what they reveal about when they were settled and by whom. Of course nowadays I find that really fascinating!

  5. Hi Janet, I love our strange place names, love rolling them around in my head whenever we drive past a new interesting name. I faintly remember learning at school about the origins of -ham and -ton and the other well used suffixes and they have always fascinated me (though the memories are rather hazy now!). Here in Wales the language makes some of the names even more entertaining, albeit usually unintentionally. I like spotting the roots of them here too, though, and their links with the region’s geography such as aber- which means river mouth, while blaen- indicates the source of the river…

    Fruit trees do have some wonderful names, and I love the efforts that GOG are putting in to keeping old local varieties alive – when we were looking for apple information it was them we turned to as our most local source of knowledge, and I was really impressed with all the projects that they had, as well as their well versed and friendly members. Perhaps Pruin is a corruption of Prune?

    1. Welsh names can be so lyrical – then again, Welsh can make even the prosaic sound poetic! We never got very far in learning Welsh when we lived on Anglesey, just enough to learn how to say “I am a parrot”…

      I should have guessed that it was GOG that you went to for apple advice! I’d wondered about pruin meaning prune, but decided that was my gardening obsession coming to the fore yet again…

  6. I think I would love perry over cider any day. Pears are so good and such a treat whereas apples last all the time and are always available. Never heard of cobnuts. Very cool!

    I’m going to check out the alliplugs. It sound pretty neat! The tape is fine but messy and like I said in the post I waited too long so it is not sticking as well as it should. When sealed completely inside the greenhouse the bubble wrap actually seems to be keeping condensation inside the greenhouse and not on the greenhouse itself. I was more worried about mold on it than the plants, though one plant is affected. I put a fan in there to circulate the air a bit. Greenhouses are hard and there is a definite learning curve. Glad we’re learning together!

    1. Hope you find some alliplugs – or the US equivalent. It made the bubble wrap very easy to put up, and it is easy to take down without wrecking the wrap too, so I decided well worth the expense. I am going to try some of that silver-backed insulation board you talked about on the North side of my greenhouse, perhaps just floor to eaves. Looking forward to swapping learning notes as we both go on!

  7. When I was a child we were allowed to drink Cider with our Christmas meal – and very much we enjoyed it too! It’s sad it is now associated with over-drinking. It’s sad too that children can’t make it and drink it . . . or maybe not . . . not sure school made cider would be . . ,


    1. I agree Esther, cider – quality cider anyway – is far to lovely a drink to deserved its current role in our binge drinking “culture”. I think it could be rather good for the primary school children to first experience it as something they helped make from local apples. It might give them a better perspective on drinking in general and cider in particular!

  8. Wonderful post – I’m so glad I didn’t name my daugher Filbert though! My friend is convinced that the names of plants are Harry Potter spells – you could just hear the magical folk calling out ‘Corylus avellana’! Wonderful that the kids picked the apples we use to do that when I was ‘wee’ and lived in England (Oxfordshire) – miss it very much. You’re so right – names matter!

    1. Hi Fay, I suspect your daughter is even more glad! Though it might make a good name for a hen or even a dog! I know what you mean about Harry Potter spells.

    1. Thank you! I know what you mean about the rose – I know next to nothing about them, and this one is in a pot, but I am hoping it will do really well next year.

  9. I have to confess that I have bought plants on the name alone – I do think names are important both for the lyrical beauty – and as Christina said above the latin names tell us so much about the plant.

    Sadly I got thrown out of Latin at school for being a complete dunce and never got further than the soldiers marched around the hill with their spears – or some-such rubbish!

    1. Hi Karen. Could be worse – I only passed Latin because I loved writing about the gladiators and the Roman Baths. The only Latin I can remember now is “versipellis”, which means werewolf. Not really very helpful…

  10. A most delightful and informative post Janet ~ have made a mental note to avoid plums originating from Chaxhill :) I wonder if you have come across ‘The Apple Source Book’ . Not only does it contain a gazetteer of local varieties listed by county but there are also various apple based recipes, including one for apple bread and one for apple and rosemary hearthbread.

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