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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Using Appropriate Words in the Garden and Elsewhere

The market for perennial plants in Montreal, and surrounding regions is divided into 75% French-speaking and 25% English-speaking gardeners.To print the common names of flowers on nursery plant tags in both languages would take up valuable space needed for technical information. Consequently, only the Latin names appear prominently. Few local gardeners pay attention to the common names that might, or might not, be added in finer print. This sensible, commercial decision has been in place for over 50 years; there is no misunder- standing about what plants we refer to when we communicate with each other. As a result, I am not familiar with the common English names of most plants.

However, when I read a blog written by one who uses common names, I am annoyed that I cannot always identify the plant. Similarly, those who do not know the Latin names are equally angered when a common name is not used. Recently, I picked up a newly written gardening book by one whom I believe to be an eminent horticulturalist and was dismayed to see that the writer used common names. Clearly, the writer and publisher must have a very narrow view of the universe. Don’t they know that in a technologically redefined world, one must use language that is universally understood? Don’t they care about the book’s lost sales in other English speaking countries where these common names are unfamiliar? I guess not.

I am stretching the connecting of dots here, but a lack of agreement in the usage of appropriate words reminds me of the story of my wife’s grandmother who, when asked where she came from, would answer that she was Austrian. Yet, her place of birth is so far away from Austria that such an answer appeared preposterous.

However, Grandma Lisa was a very pious woman and never lied. She carried a passport issued by the government of the Austrian Hapsburg Emperor, and baked yummy strudel in a way only the Austrians and Romanians know how to make. [She lived close to the Romanian border]. Even her personal deportment, it is told, was that of a refined Austrian lady.

When she arrived in Canada, Lisa met immigrants from other European countries; it became clear very quickly to both her and the others, that they were understandably different from one another. Some considered themselves better than others.  Perhaps there was a cultural component to this judgmental observation. My father had explained this fascinating development to me, for he experienced it as well, when he arrived, as a little boy, from Europe.

Before and after the First World War, immigrant neighborhoods in some North American cities became breeding grounds for an interesting social phenomenon: - one European national group would ascribe a social ranking to another. As a result, a pecking order of immigrants developed, giving the Austrians the highest rank. Lisa, who was born into a world where members of her community had identified themselves only by their city of origin, now had a nationality ascribed to her, by virtue of her passport. She was proud to call herself Austrian.

Years later, the debate about Lisa’s country of origin continues to stimulate dinnertime conversation at family reunions. Most of the grand-children are empiricists in their intellectual pursuits, with no background in history; they did not know that old Empires, stretching over great distances, once embraced many nations and ethnicities. However, by sourcing historical maps on the Internet, they are now able to understand how an honest person could state a fact that she sincerely believed to be true; a fact that is factually, politically, and technically, correct but geographically questionable.

A map from the year of her birth, places her province of origin, Bukovina, [No. 2, above] and another town she moved to after marriage, comfortably inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even though they were located at its far eastern tip. Her passport, engraved with the insignia of Austrian Emperor, Franz-Josef, confirms that she was indeed a citizen of the Austrian Empire. From the time of her birth in the late 19th century, during her immigration to Canada in the early part of 20th century, and continuing until after the Second World War, there were continuous changes made to national boundaries in Europe. Today’s map reveals that Lisa’s place of birth is in the Ukraine and the town she moved to now belongs to Poland. The grandchildren also notice that Vienna, the capital of both the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and contemporary Austria, is very far away from where their grandmother was born. For this generation, it will take a detailed course in European History to explain why Grandma Lisa was indeed using appropriate words when she called herself Austrian.

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Reader Comments (4)

Interesting, for me and my family it is indeed a "familiar" story, because now we live in Italy, I was born in Italy but the same area (next to Triest) was Austria as all my grandparents were born, they felt sure austrian even if they spoke italian at home..... !

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Wow -- my great grandparents have a very similar Ukraine-Poland-Austria story! They were born and immigrated from the same town, but depending when in time you look at the map, it was part of each of those countries.

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Tychonievich

Very interesting piece of history Allan. My mother was from Ireland and she didn't want to admit to the fact that Ireland was invaded by so many other countries. As far as latin names are concerned they are intimidating to new gardeners. I try to use a combination of common and latin so that they can relate to what they manytimes already know.


September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGatsbys Gardens

I like the way you connected the dots here, Allan. In my Introduction to Sociology class, we have been talking about ethnocentrism - the tendency to see one's own culture as superior to others and to judge other cultures by the standards of your own. Using only common names in writing about plants can be interpreted as a form of gardening ethnocentrism, assuming that only those who share your own horticultural culture are worth communicating with. On the other hand, I think using botanical Latin is sometimes seen as "putting on airs" and treating those who don't share the cultural language of horticulture as inferior.

October 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJean

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