What’s In A Name? Capsicum Annuum

Chillies are deliciously fascinating – their forms, colours and flavours tantalise the senses; their names alone are enough to make your tongue tingle in anticipation.

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The alluring colours of last year’s harvest

I’ve been growing far more chillies over the past few years than sanity should dictate. I’m drawn in by the evocative colour and spice of names like ‘Bolivian Rainbow’, ‘Numex Twilight’, ‘Machu Pichu’, ‘Trinidad Perfume’, ‘Peruvian Lemon Drop’, ‘Apache’, ‘Cayenne’ and ‘Prairie Fire’. There’s a gentle charm to ‘Russian Red Fatty’, ‘Bulgarian Carrot’ and ‘Chocolate Cherry’, and a sense of mystery behind ‘Ubatuba Cambuci’, ‘Albertos Locoto’ and ‘Aji Fantasy’. Once I’ve tasted an exciting name, it’s too late, I’m hooked.

 

 

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This year’s darker crop

Capsicum, the genus including both chillies and sweet peppers, is a member of the Solanaceae family which also includes tomatoes, potatoes and deadly nightshade. Chillies originate from South America; a fact reflected in many of their names. The origins of Capsicum are obscure, but it may have come from the Latin capsa ‘box’, referring to the pods (hence the name of chillies such as ‘Aji Bolsa De Dulce’ where bolsa is Spanish for ‘bag’ or ‘purse’ – literally the ‘chilli bag of sweetness’) or the Greek kapto meaning ‘to gulp’.

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Today’s chilli harvest…

When Capsicum is combined with annum ‘by the year’, I like to think of my chillies as my ‘yearly gulp’. I’m not sure whether this refers to the relish with which I sample the first ‘Comet’s Tail’ of the year (a chilli whose parent seeds have spent time in space on the Chinese Academy of Space programme to improve size and yield by exposing them to zero gravity) or the yearly uncomfortable swallowing motion experienced when I see the hundreds of tiny seedlings emerging every spring and wonder how I will:

a) accommodate them all until they can be transferred to the unheated greenhouse

b) explain the chilli invasion to my husband

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Chillies make everything OK!

Next year I’m planning to add a few new chilli labels to the collection with ‘Aji Habanero’, ‘Pearls’, ‘Fresno Supreme’, ‘Trinidad Chilaca’, ‘Loco’, ‘Hot Lemon’ and ‘Poblana Ancho’ and I’ll be sharing seeds from my current plants with others to spread a bit of chilli magic. With names like these, who could resist growing a few… and then a few more? Just don’t tell my husband!

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First batch of chilli jam

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What’s In A Name? Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Eva’

Dark, purple foliage draws me in to a garden, especially when it creates moments of stillness to punctuate an otherwise green border, so Sambucus nigra is one of my favourite shrubs, with its filigree lace leaves and deep luscious colour. The name Sambucus is derived from the Latin ‘sambuca’ which was the name of an ancient instrument made out of elder – often described as a small triangular harp of shrill tone, although it was also used to make pipes or flutes. Elder tubes (the wood with the pith removed) were also used as bellows to blow air into the centre of fires and this gave the elder its common name with ‘aeld’ deriving from the Saxon for ‘fire’.

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The foliage is a dark purple/black and the flowers open from purple buds to pink florets

So the genus makes reference to the plant’s heritage providing wood for music and fire-lighting, whilst the species ‘nigra’ makes reference to the black colour of the foliage and berries. However, the form (a subdivision in plants that suggests a plant having a minor variation to the species, such as leaf colour, flower colour or fruit) is ‘porphyrophylla’ from the Greek ‘porphyra’ meaning ‘purple’ and ‘phylla’ meaning ‘leaf’. So the plant is defined by having both purple and black characteristics in the species name and form.

 

Finally ‘Eva’ is the cultivar name (the plant is also often referred to as ‘Black Lace’). Both ‘Eva’ and the closely related ‘Gerda’ or ‘Black Beauty’ which has pinker, more highly scented flowers, arose from experiments carried out into gene flow by an East Malling researcher, Ken Tobutt, in the mid 1990s. The two cultivars were introduced in 2000 and were awarded AGM (Award of Garden Merit – the RHS seal of approval indicating that they perform reliably in gardens). Both ‘Eva’ and ‘Gerda’ offer the darkest Sambucus foliage which doesn’t fade, unlike other previously popular cultivars. I can’t find any information about the choice of names – maybe these Nordic names have a significance related to the origin of the plant, or maybe they were simply named after Ken Tobutt’s cats. If you know more than I do about the relevance of the cultivar names, I’d be fascinated to hear from you…

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Such an attractive contrast to an otherwise green backdrop

Sambucus nigra f. porphylophylla ‘Eva’ has one final gift to offer in addition to its attractive foliage and airy flowerheads (which can be used to make delicious pink elderflower champagne, wine or cordial), namely, its berries. They are loved by birds – so if you are creating a wildlife-friendly garden or border and want a shrub which will perform well, create impact and bring in pollinators and birds throughout the summer and autumn, then ‘Eva’ is a good choice. It grows rapidly, but can be cut back hard to restrict its growth and it will reward you with years of beautiful foliage at the back of the border.

What’s In A Name? Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst In Snow’

Centaurea montana is a useful plant for the late spring/early summer border. It has pollinator-friendly, delicate flowers with feather-like petals and was traditionally used to make a bitter tea to treat dyspepsia and as a diuretic. Originating in sub-alpine woods and meadows, the perennial cornflower has been naturalised in the UK since as early as 1597 when the herbalist John Gerard records growing it in his garden. The name ‘Centaurea‘ originates from the Greek ‘Kentauros‘ as the plant’s medicinal properties were first discovered, according to Pliny, by the mythical character Chiron the Centaur. 

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Centaurea montana

Centaurea as a genus encompasses between 350 and 600 species of thistle-like plants in the family Asteraceaea. Centaurea montana is also known as ‘perennial cornflower’, ‘great blue-bottle’, ‘mountain cornflower’, ‘batchelor’s button’, ‘mountain bluet’ or ‘mountain knapweed’, with ‘montana’  referring to the sub-alpine regions in which the plant originates. 

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Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ and ‘Amethyst in Snow’ from the garden

Centaurea montana does have a tendency to be an enthusiastic garden plant – it needs to be controlled by removing unwanted sections as it spreads out, but the named varieties are much better behaved in my experience. Although I love the colour of ‘Jordy’ with its deep plum purple flowers, I find they can get lost in a border when viewing it from any distance away. They work well as a cut flower and, as with all Centaurea montana, if picked regularly the plant will continue to produce flowers for a long period. My favourite variety is ‘Amethyst in Snow’ for its ability to create delicate highlights in a border, its contrasting amethyst eye, set in the snowy white petals and the silver-green foliage. ‘Amethyst in Snow’ was discovered in 2002 by Dutch seedsman Kees Sahin and it tolerates a little shade more happily than other varieties. It is supposedly the first bicolor knapweed and is similar (possibly identical) to another variety called ‘Purple Heart’.

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‘Amethyst in Snow’ shining out in a sea of forget-me-nots in my garden border

For a fully white flower there’s Centaurea montana ‘Alba’ and ‘Gold Bullion’ has blue flowers against chartreuse yellow foliage. ‘Carnea’ has soft pink flowers and ‘Violetta’ deeper violet purple flowers. This varied colour range means Centaurea montana has the ability to be combined with soft pastel planting or included in vibrant schemes with deep reds, oranges, blues and purples. A versatile garden plant, Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst in Snow’ combines elegance with a stout heart.

 

What’s In A Name? Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

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Ophiopogon in my gravel front garden

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, also known as black lilyturf, black mondo or black dragon, is an evergreen perennial native to Japan. Despite having a grass-like appearance, it is a member of the Asparagacaea family, as is the similar grass-like Liriope muscari. ‘Ophiopogon’ comes from the Greek ‘ophis’ meaning ‘serpent’ and ‘pogon’ meaning ‘beard’. The name presumably alludes to the linear leaves being the beard of the snake or dragon. ‘Planiscapus’ refers to the flattened scape or flower-stalk ending in a loose raceme of lilac flowers and ‘Nigrescens’ to the black colour of the foliage and scapes. In summer, after the flowers fade, blue to deep purple berries develop leading to the French name ‘Herbe aux Turquoises’ also referred to as the ‘barbe de serpent noire’.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ can be a tricky plant to use in a garden situation. Its deep purple/black foliage when used sparingly or dotted through planting can look straggly and disappear into the undergrowth. At its best, en masse, it is an attractive groundcover plant adding a deep saturation of colour to a design and setting off brighter, lighter colours well. It makes a pairing with plants with silver foliage like Stachys byzantina or, in my garden, Lychnis coronaria and Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tormentosum) and looks stunning alongside plants with orange foliage such as Libertia peregrinans and Carex testacea.

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Used as an edging plant in Regent’s Park

Ophiopogon also works well in erosion control, binding soil with its rhizomatous roots, and it thrives in containers. I’ve used it successfully in pots with dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’) and white violas as a winter combination and last year I underplanted my French lavender (Lavandula stoechas) with ophiopogon, then dog violets also colonised the pot. A rather random combination, but the silver and black foliage alongside the purple flowers looked attractive and the ophiopogon is increasing, a sure sign that it’s happy in its environment.

Containers with ophiopogon in my garden in autumn, spring and summer

Ophiopogon prefers full sun to partial shade, moist but well-drained soil and likes neutral to acid soil (but it seems to do fine in my alkaline front garden). So whether you want some foliage interest in a container or larger scale groundcover impact, the black serpent’s beard with flattened scapes is a good way to add some lustre to your garden this year.

More images of ophiopogon in Regent’s Park border designs