When discussing plant identification and origins, I regularly tell people “The Latin never lies.” I get this constantly when discussing so-called “primrose” plants, where the flowers receiving that name in Georgia are drastically different from those here in Texas and from those in England. That’s because “primrose” is a descriptive term, not an actual name, referring to the first plant to flower in spring. Collect all of the various primroses known worldwide in one place, and put on nametags with proper Greco-Latin binomial nomenclature on them, and their complete lack of relationship becomes obvious, as would just looking at them.
The understanding of relationships is why I’ll make a point of bringing up Latin names when asked questions about carnivorous plants. Mention the common name “pitcher plant”, and I immediately ask “So…which one?” I don’t expect others to know the Latin for plants they saw casually in a garden center two years ago, but if they’re described as “a little bit like a calla lily,” it’s fairly clear that we’re both talking about Sarracenia, a North American pitcher plant. If the description includes “flat leaves with pitchers on long stems coming off the tips,” it’s invariably one of the Old World Nepenthes plants. And if the plant described matches the description of the South American pitcher plant, Heliamphora, or the Australian pitcher plant Cephalotus, my first question is always “And exactly WHERE is this garden center?”
And that’s where we come to one of my follies. A decade ago, when I was first started digging into the vagaries of botany, my wife and I joined her parents for a trip to the Parker County Peach Festival in Weatherford, just due west of Fort Worth. While everybody else was shivving fifth-graders for the world-famous peach ice cream (and I didn’t blame them a bit: those fifth-graders are just lethal when they have access to machetes, and they usually work in packs), I struck up a conversation with an event vendor selling odd plants near the town square. One of her offerings was a package of odd cuttings from some kind of succulent I didn’t recognize, and that she couldn’t identify. “The person who sold me the original plant called it a ‘corpse flower,'” she said as she was bagging it up. I didn’t hear anything else, as I was too busy screaming “Shut up and take my money!”, so that was about it.
The only good news was that I discovered why it had the name “corpse flower”. Those original segments rapidly and enthusiastically rooted and took over their containers, and dropped handfuls of segments every time they were moved. Right now, the greenhouse is full of descendants from that original package, and every autumn, they throw off these fascinating five-pointed blooms.
When they bloom, the name “corpse flower” becomes obvious. While the flowers don’t actually produce a stench per se, their scent draws in flies as pollinators, and on a warm day, the flowers can be practically dripping with flies that assume that they’re tracking carcasses. However, with the bloom buds being roughly the size of a pencil eraser, they don’t necessarily stand out from across the yard.
Care and maintenance were the easy part, so the ordeal started with the identification. At first, it appeared to be a member of the genus Stapelia, a group of succulents native to Africa and Asia. The blooms didn’t match any reference I could find, either online or in various books on succulents, and that’s when I discovered that Stapelia has two related genera, Orbea and Huernia, and the blooms and coloration don’t match any of those, either. The research continues, but in the meantime, the Czarina watches the blooms and comments “Wouldn’t these make great inspirations for jewelry?”