Autumn in New York
Why does it seem so inviting?
Billie Holliday sang the praises of fall in the Big Apple, and if a recent weekend was any indication, it would be hard to disagree (though some might this year, thanks to hurricane Sandy.) There is something agreeably evocative about brownstone stoops strewn with cast off foliage and planetree leaves chattering down the sidewalk on a fresh breeze. On the way to JFK after a weekend with family, I took a detour to Brooklyn Botanic Garden to revel in the sunshine and autumn color, and while the grounds had sadly suffered a number of tree falls from the storm, it was nonetheless a lovely afternoon.
The Garden was quiet and felt particularly dignified, perhaps due to the somber hues of drying leaves and the lack of energetic floral activity. However, one stop on my circuit of the Plant Families Garden sent me into fits of decidedly indecorous laughter. A grand, gnarled old tree – perhaps the largest and oldest on the grounds, and a species I was previously unfamiliar with – was earnestly labeled with its scientific name, Pterocarya fraxinifolia, and its common name, Caucasian Wingnut.
While “Caucasian Wingnut” is a label some might choose to apply broadly, it seems a bit unfair to condemn an entire species to derogatory snickers and finger pointing. But at least the CWs, as I will mercifully abbreviate them, have plenty of company. Many a plant has endured a lifetime of awkward introductions at cocktail parties. Pity the poor Mountain Misery, Midnight Horror Tree, Beggar’s Tick, Corpse Flower, Mal Mujer, Crybaby Tree, Lousewort, Fly Poison, or Pleuro amparoana, also known as the Toilet Bowl Orchid.
Deservedly or not, other species have fared quite well in the name game, such as Balm of Gilead, Fairy Petticoats, Sorrowless Tree, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Venus’ Looking Glass, Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate, and a favorite here on the Museum's grounds, the Rattlesnake Master. Euphorbia leucocephala has it particularly good. Its many common names include Snows of Kilimanjaro, Christ Child, and Little Christmas Flower. Other plants must get a lot of confused stares from doormen and receptionists: Ramping Fumitory, Moses in a Boat, Napoleon’s Hat, Monkey Puzzle, and Rat Stripper to name a few.
There are scientific names – always Latinized – that take the cake in both lyricism and absurdity. Consider the poetic qualities of words such as Dasylirion, Mandragora, Bauhinia, Ipheon, and Vitex agnus castus, which translates to “chaste lamb of life.” Dread the doubtless horrors of Dracula nosferatu and Monstera deliciosa. Or, try some lingual calisthenics with a couple of cactus species, Weberbauerocereus cephalomacrostibas and Austrocephalocereus dolichospermatichus. Quiz tomorrow. Spelling counts.
But back to New York and our dear CW. No matter how ridiculous its name, the tree I visited that afternoon was remarkable – venerable, steadfast, antediluvian. Perhaps we should thank Sandy for sparing it, but then, the tree has surely stood strong in the face of many storms. And perhaps, with maturity, it’s learned to laugh at its awkward moniker and even appreciate the chuckles of passersby. They say laughter is the secret to long life. Maybe this Wingnut is living proof.