A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

The Name Game—Who Were They?

Marilyn Young is Horticultural Assistant at Wave Hill.

If you find Latin botanical names tedious, consider names that commemorate people. Horticulture namesakes tend to have wonderful stories. The Swedish Professors of Botany Olaus Rudbeck and his son Olaus the Younger befriended the young Carl Linnaeus when he was a poor unknown student. He became famous as the Father of Taxonomy and the person most responsible for codifying plant names. To honor their friendship, he named the native American black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia.

French cavalry officer Etienne Soulange-Bodin is best known for crossing the Magnolia denudata with M. liliiflora, producing the popular hybrid saucer magnolia, M. x soulangiana. Sickened by the Napoleonic wars, he founded and directed the Royal Institute of Horticulture at Fromont, near Paris. In 1819, he wrote, “the rising taste for gardening becomes one of the most agreeable guarantees of the repose of the world.”

More than 70 years after her death, Ellen Willmott is the namesake for many plants with epithets referring to her last name or her home. Here at Wave Hill, the white lilac ‘Miss Willmott’ can be found in the lilac border. Inheriting the family fortune and house at Warley Place in Essex, she had a willful way about her, eventually spending her entire family fortune on her horticultural pursuits. Eryngium giganteum is commonly known as Miss Willmott’s ghost because she was so fond of this short-lived perennial that she would secretly scatter seeds in the gardens that she visited!

Renowned British horticulturist Valerie Finnis was a lecturer at Waterperry Horticultural College for 30 years. The second wife of Sir David Scott, she and her husband built a remarkable alpine garden with an associated nursery. She is world-famous for discovering sports* and variants worthy of cultivation and has her name attached to several garden plants. In Wave Hill’s Marco Polo Stufano Conservatory, a lovely, light-blue grape hyacinth, Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’, is a favorite for potting and forcing for winter bloom. Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’ is pictured here.

Easy to force, it rewards winter-weary gardeners with fragrant, light-blue blooms.

Though an aspiring novelist, Reginald Farrer was also a gardener and plant collector who is credited with introducing alpine plants for use in the rock garden. He is best known for his two-volume book The English Rock GardenViburnum farreri is one of his discoveries. Pivotal in popularizing gardening and changing the way that plants are written about, Farrer died on a remote hillside in China. His story has been brought to life in A Rage for Rock Gardening by Nicole Shurman and makes for enjoyable winter reading and armchair travel.

Closer to home, a clematis thriving in Wave Hill’s Wild Garden displays exquisite, pale purple, bell-shaped and sweetly fragrant flowers as it blooms freely from summer to fall. First discovered growing in Albany, New York, in 1932, this viticella variety is named for an equally remarkable woman. Clematis ‘Betty Corning’ honors one of the founding members of Wave Hill’s Friends of Horticulture committee. Betty Corning also helped to form the Garden Conservancy.  She can be seen in the center of this picture (courtesy of the Garden Conservancy), flanked on the left by Angela Lansbury and Frank Cabot, who established Wave Hill’s Friends of Horticulture, and, on the right, Wave Hill’s founding Director of Horticulture Marco Polo Stufano and Frank Cabot’s wife Anne Cabot, at a 1989 planning meeting at Wave Hill.

These are just a few of the many horticulture individuals who have devoted their lives to the love of plants. Hardly forgotten, their passion lives on in the names of their beloved plants.

* A sport is a spontaneous variation within a plant—often just a single shoot which might, for instance, have flowers of a different color from the rest of the plant. Sports are prized by gardeners because they have the potential to be a source of cultivars, that is, new cultivated varieties.

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