When it comes to love, people -- both real and fictional -- have been saying it with flowers for centuries. For example, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare used the juice of love-in-idleness (pansy) to make Titania fall for Bottom, despite the fact that he looked and brayed like a donkey. (Of course, it didn't last).
And even when a suitor uses flowers with loving (or lusty) common names, the intent can be misinterpreted, as common names for a single flower may vary from place to place.
"Some flowers have more than one common or folk name," explains Chris Fleming, co-author of Finding Wildflowers in the Baltimore-Washington Area (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, $15.95). "Which is why we teach Latin names for things."
"Pansies have a lot of different names to do with love," adds Sylvan Kaufman, horticulturist at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely. "They're called heartsease, call-me-to-you 2 / 3 cupid's delight, jump-up-and-kiss-me-quick and cuddle-me-to-you."
To add to the confusion, some flowers share common names.
"Centaurea cyanus, globe amaranth, double-flowering buttercup and Ranunculus acris are all called bachelor's buttons," notes landscape designer Kath-ryn Meehan, former Smithsonian Institution horticulturist.
And then there is common forget-me-not (Myosotis arvensis), as distinct from the Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile).
"Love flower" names run from the yearning kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Polygonum orientale) to the slightly naughty kiss-me-behind-the-garden-gate (pansy again) to chaste touch-me-not (Impatiens noli-me-tangere).
Some names are fanciful -- romantic but not immediately apparent without crib notes. For example, virgin's bower (Clematis virginiana) bears unspotted (virgin) white flowers on a gently matted vine, which could ostensibly shield an innocent assignation. Others are more straightforwardly connected to their looks. For example, the tiny pink flowers of bleeding heart (Dicentra exima) look much like a series of cracked-open hearts strung on a clothesline.
"It also has a tiny little stamen that looks like a drop coming from its middle," says Kaufman.
Then there's bleeding heart's first cousin, Dutchman's-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). Our common name for it doesn't mention love, but the plant was a Menomini Indian love charm. The suitor lobs a small bouquet of it at his intended, who is supposed to be smitten on contact. Or, he chews the root, then circles her, seductively breathing out the scent -- a kind of blow-in-my-ear-and-I'll-follow-you-anywhere approach.
For those who feel a bit foggy about romance, there's love-in-a-mist (Nigella) aka love-in-a-puzzle with beautiful lace-edged flowers, like an Elizabethan ruff, that are partially veiled by netted foliage. Love-in-a-puff (Cardiospermum halicacabum) has delicate appeal for the reticent.
"It's not a showy flower," says Marilyn Barlow, owner of Select Seeds in Union, Conn. "But it makes big fresh green seed capsules. When you pop them open after they've turned wheat-colored, inside you'll find three black seeds, each with a creamy white perfectly-shaped heart shape on it."
Hearts and honey vine (Ipomoea luteola) opens fire-engine red trumpet flowers with buttery throats interspersed among heart-shaped leaves. For the broken hearted, there's love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus cauda-tus), which is more like love-stands-bleeding since it grows upright 3 to 6 feet tall. Regardless, its ropelike claret blooms spill out of the foliage like blood from a wound. But it's not only bloom and seed that inspire romantic folk names.
"With hearts a-bursting (Euonymous americana), it's the fall fruit," says Fleming. "It looks like a bursting heart."
While passionflowers (Passiflora) sound like they are part of this ardent group, their name refers not to romantic love but to Christ's passion. Its incredibly complex bloom is filled with Easter symbolism.
Most of the above love flowers are annuals, though the Ranunculus acris bachelor's button is a perennial and hearts a-bursting is a native shrub. All are available through catalogs and in garden centers as seed or plant. Together they can make a romantic love garden with long-lasting appeal. Some bloom early, then develop seedpods or change leaf color for lingering attraction. Others, like some suitors, take a while before they reveal their true beauty.
"Kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate is very tall, sorta lanky, with big leaves, and a jointed stem," says Barlow, "and you think, This plant isn't that great. But it builds. They get showier and showier every day throughout September and October until frost."
It also self-seeds modestly, renewing itself year after year. A good metaphor for growing love.
Select Seeds Antique Flowers
180 Stickney Hill Road
Union. CT 06076-4617
12610 Eveland Road
P.O. Box 100
Ridgely, MD 2166
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Road
Mansfield, MO 65704
425 Wildflower Hills
P.O. Box 3000
Fredericksburg, TX 78624-3000