Memory Aids for Gardeners

This heap of horticutural hash is a tasty blend of spicy irreverance and nutritious facts. It was originally published in the June 2022 issue of Cross Pollination, the newsletter of the Halton Region Master Gardeners.

By Bev Wagar, Halton Master Gardener

Horticulture! It sweeps you off your feet, showers you with affection, and sheet-mulches your back yard. But when it moves in—that’s when you realize its suitcases are stuffed with strange nouns and adjectives. Horticulture packs a lot of language!

Oh the dictionary writers would have us believe it’s the “art of cultivating plants”, often with a patina of science or at least a good dollop of seriousness. But the truth is that horticulture’s wordy baggage can suck the joy out of the simple act of mucking about in the soil.

All that Latin! All those syllables!

Before you throw down your “Complete Gardener’s Dictionary” (Barbara Ellis) or “Botany for Gardeners” (Brian Capon), do try using memory aids or, if you like irony, “mnemonics.” A mnemonic (nuh·mo·nuhk) is a learning technique that helps us retain or remember information. These techniques are based on the observation that, compared to the usual abstract or impersonal methods, the human mind more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, physical, sexual, humorous, or otherwise “relatable” information.

Here are a few to get you started.

Phloem. This is an easy one. PhlOem flows. Stuff, in general, flows downwards. Phloem tissue enables the transfer of energy from the top of the tree down to the roots. Unlike trickle-down economics, the good stuff literally phloems down.

Xylem. Xylem are the specialized cells in tree trunks that move water from the root system to the leaves. Quite coincidentally, xylem rhymes with asylum. So imagine you’re in an asylum—some days it’s not that difficult. It’s an old-fashioned asylum with a tall fence, a guard named “Turkle”, and a musty library full of horticultural dictionaries and pronunciation guides. You’ll need to climb up that fence to get out. Xylem moves up. So climb that big fence up out of the as-xylem!

Glabrous. Something glabrous is smooth, with no hairs of any kind, like lilac leaves, or your legs for about two minutes after getting them waxed. Sorry guys—here’s a more inclusive metaphor: Glabrous is glamorous, like Joan Crawford or Lana Turner. Did these glamorous women have fuzzy upper lips? Wierd hairs on their chin? No they did not—they were glabrous.

cartoon image of glamour girl with chin hairs
Glamour girls are glabrous. Image copyright Beverley Wagar.
You rue the day you let those rue-gose mint leaves into the back yard!
Image copyright Beverley Wagar

Rugose. Wrinkly. The leaves on ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) are rugose. So are the leaves of the mint (genus Mentha) that escaped its container two years ago. Now it’s got an armed bunker in your back yard (see “stolon” below) and demands your unconditional surrender. You rue the day you planted mint—now you rue-those rue-gose leaves.

Stamen. The male fertilizing organ of a flower, typically consisting of a pollen-containing anther and a filament. A stamen often wears bright yellow lipstick and powders his nose, but he’ll always stay (a) man.

Pistil. These are the female organs of a flower, comprising the stigma, style, and ovary. Pistil rhymes with Crystal—your niece the wannabe model who took 583 selfies last year. Crystal’s female organs are hard to forget once they’ve been aimed at you, like pistols, er, pistils.

Dioecious. This word describes plants that have the male and female flowers on different plants. You need two of them, a male and a female, for pollination and proper fruit set or viable seeds. Holly (Ilex) and Spicebush (Lindera) are dioecious shrubs. It’s pronounced “dah·ee·shuhs” as in “Dice! Shush!”, a phrase often heard at casinos and back-room poker games. Just remember that you need two dice—a male and a female. Sometimes they’re hard to tell apart. Look for the one smoking a cigar. That’s the female.

Monoecious. A monoecious plant has both the male and female reproductive organs (flowers or cones) on the same individual. Both sexes are on one plant. The non-intuitive pronunciation (“mah·nee·shuhs”) reminds us of muh-nee (money) which, despite much imaginative googling and two glasses of wine, resists any association with plant reproduction. So look at the spelling instead: “mono” = “one” as in monolith, monopoly, monorail, monologue, monochrome, monogamy, monotony…

Stolon. A stolON is a type of plant root that travels ON top of the soil. Sometimes called “runners”, stolons create new daughter plants when the bud at an apex touches the soil. Examples of stoloniferous plants include: creeping charlie, ajuga, strawberries, and many other plants sometimes used to cover the ground we don’t want to look at.

Rhizome. A rhizome’s home is in the loam. Rhizomes are modified stems that travel horizontally, underground, sending up shoots along their length. Many pernicious weeds spread by rhizomes: quack grass, vinca, lily-of-the valley, that stuff your mother-in-law gave you in 1986. One the worst weeds ever invented, Japanese knotweed, is rhizomatous. Plants with rhizomes proliferate on streets with gullible and generous gardeners. Bettina, for example, used to tell her neighbours “it’s not invasive in my garden” and now no one talks to her.

The horticulture world writhes with pesky nouns and adjectives. Cranky and persnickety, they like to corner you at parties and roll their eyeballs when you forget their names. Summon your courage! Crank up your imagination and devise some mnemonic devices—soon you’ll be ready to face those binomials with confidence and flair. Give it a try!

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