Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Katherine Wagner-Reiss

What’s in a Plant Name? Scaevola aemula

Posted in Horticulture on August 30 2017, by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Katherine Wagner-Reiss has her certificate in botany from NYBG and has been a tour guide here for two years.


A shot of Scaevola aemula.
Scaevola aemula ‘Blue Fan’ near the tropical water lilies

Dale Chihuly has said that he enjoys displaying his art in botanical gardens because they can bring plant lovers a greater appreciation of art and vice versa.

I see this concept at work in NYBG’s CHIHULY exhibition. As you enter the Conservatory Courtyards to see Koda Study #3, you are treated to planters filled with complementary flowers. Quite striking is Scaevola ‘Blue Fan’, an annual whose common name is fanflower or, even more imaginatively, fairy fanflower. As you look down at the flower, it looks as though it has been cut in two; there is only half of a corolla tube But look closer and instead of a fan, you may see a left hand with five fingers.

As usual, I find the Latin name to be so much more exciting than the common name: Scaevola means “left-handed,” and aemula means “to imitate.”

Both Linnaeus (1707–1778), who is credited with naming the genus Scaevola, and Robert Brown (1773–1858), who named the species Scaevola aemula, most certainly knew the famous story of the Roman soldier Gaius Mucius: a man so brave that he thrust his right hand into fire and let it burn into uselessness to demonstrate his bravery when he was captured by the enemy. Astonished, the enemy released Gaius Mucius and, after that, he and his descendants were tagged with the surname of Scaevola. Even today, school children in Italy are familiar with this story.

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What’s in a Plant Name: Liriodendron tulipifera L.

Posted in Horticulture on June 21 2017, by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Katherine Wagner-Reiss has her certificate in botany from NYBG and has been a tour guide here for two years.


Photo of a tulip tree flower
Liriodendron tulipifera L. flower

The NYBG Tulip Tree Allée is a NYC Landmark. Twenty-six Liriodendron tulipifera L. were planted in 1903. While it is unusual for a Landmark to be composed of living things, people should be able to enjoy this Landmark for hundreds of years to come, since the trees were 10 years old at planting and individual tulip trees have been known to live for 500 years. These majestic trees are in the magnolia family.

As you face the Library Building, notice one tulip tree with a larger girth in the uppermost left-hand corner; as the Library was being built, this original tree was preserved and it may well have been the inspiration for planting the other 26.

Now, to dissect the Latinized name: Lirio derives from the Greek word for lily, dendron from the Greek word for tree, and tulipifera means “tulip-bearing.” Curious that both the leaves and the flowers have a tulip shape! Whenever I see the L. after the species name, I feel a close tie with history, since that signifies that Carl Linnaeus, the father of botany, officially gave that Latinized name to the plant.

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What’s in a Plant Name? Narcissus, Daffodils, and Jonquils

Posted in Around the Garden on April 18 2017, by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Katherine Wagner-Reiss has her certificate in botany from NYBG and has been a tour guide at the Garden for two years.


Flowering daffodils (narcissus) at NYBGDaffodils, narcissus, and jonquils can get jumbled in the mind, but they are easily sorted out.

Daffodil is the common name for spring-flowering bulbs in the genus Narcissus, of which there are over 50 species. One species, Narcissus jonquilla has its own common name, jonquil. When in doubt, you can never go wrong by calling any of these flowers “narcissus,” since they are all in that genus.

The name daffodil is an alteration of the name for another striking flower, the asphodel. No one knows how the initial “D” came to be added to daffodil. So lovely is the asphodel that it was said to grow in the Elysian Fields: blessed fields of the afterlife in ancient Greek literature. Asphodelus alba is planted in the NYBG Perennial Garden; I will certainly be looking for its bloom this summer!

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What’s in a Name? Paphs, Cyps, and Phrags

Posted in History on March 9 2017, by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Katherine Wagner-Reiss has a Certificate in Botany from The New York Botanical Garden and has been a tour guide at NYBG for the past two years.


Photo of a Paphiopedilum orchidThe Orchid Show: Thailand features a genus of lady’s slipper orchids native to Eastern Asia known as Paphiopedilum. The Latin name has a beautiful background story relating to the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, and fertility.

According to ancient Greek myth, Aphrodite was born out of the sea, and landed at the site of Paphos on the island of Cyprus. A great temple was built in her honor at Paphos (and ruins remain there today). This orchid’s shape and beauty would have made it a suitable slipper for the goddess of love; hence it was named Paphiopedilum (Paphio- for the city of Paphos, –pedilum from the Ancient Greek word pedilon, meaning slipper).

Cypripedium is a genus of lady’s slipper orchid native to most of the Northern Hemisphere, and it also happens to have a name inspired by the popular Aphrodite (Cypri– because Aphrodite was the Lady of Cyprus). Another common genus of lady’s slipper orchid, native to Mexico and South America, has a much more scientifically derived Latin name: Phragmipedium (Phragma is Greek for “division,” i.e. the ovary is divided into three).

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