Gardening: Desperately seeking Sophie: A rose by another name would smell as sweet, but if it's named for a child even sweeter. Anna McKane scours the plant catalogues to raise a family of flowers

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The Independent Online
DO PLANT breeders agonise as much over the names of their creations as parents do over naming their children? Does the rose breeder who gave a hybrid tea the name 'Sexy Rexy' lie awake wondering whether it was really right? And what on earth was in the mind of the grower who, having raised a beautiful new pelargonium, decided to christen it 'Video'?

The breeders ought to agonise a bit because plants are sometimes stuck with some peculiar names. 'Blairi No 2' and 'Parkdirektor Riggers' don't stand much chance against 'Peace', a name which must have contributed something to that rose's long success.

Years ago, when a display of violas and violettas first appeared at the Chelsea Flower Show, I was poring over a catalogue of these entrancing flowers and found one called 'Felicity', the name of our new baby.

It suddenly became vital to acquire plants of Viola 'Felicity', which has beautiful scented mauve and cream flowers. They eventually fell prey to slugs or rot, as violas are prone to do, but started me on a search for plants sharing the names of our three daughters, Camilla, Sophie and Felicity.

Lists of violas and violettas were one of the most fruitful areas of search, presumably because girls' names seem to suit these little plants. There are more than 100 names represented in the viola family, including some boys' too. My name is there, as is Sophie. And all three of their second names are represented - Sarah, Laura and Christabel, although the latter is a different spelling.

It was a little harder to find plants sharing a name with our eldest daughter, but a search among the lists of pinks - another useful group for anyone trying to collect plants for a 'name border' - turned up Dianthus 'Camilla'.

Then I tracked down Primula 'Camilla', but have to admit I haven't yet bought that plant. It turned out to be an alpine auricula, beautiful but probably rather fussy, and it may be difficult to find exactly the right surroundings to suit it. Rather the same as with teenage daughters.

The huge list of rose hybrids includes dozens of children's names, with the bonus that many have interesting stories. 'Felicite et Perpetue', a vigorous rambling rose with clouds of small white flowers, is well worth growing anyway, but is extra special to me because of its name. It was bred by A A Jacques in France in the early 19th century and named after his daughters. They had been given the names of two early Christians, Perpetua, a high-born lady, and her servant Felicity, who were martyred in Carthage in AD 203.

'Sophie's Perpetual' is a China rose found in an old garden by the rose lover Humphrey Brooke and reintroduced in 1960. It has globular deep pink flowers, and while it is not so perpetual as some of the China roses, has pride of place in one of our borders.

Apart from roses, herbaceous perennials grown mainly for their flowers are the best groups to search for names. Hemerocallis, dahlias, dendrathemas, as florist's chrysanthemums must now be called, all have scores of 'name' varieties. The novi-belgii group of asters includes dozens with girls' names, including a 'Felicity'. I was excited recently when I thought I had found an aster 'Sophie', but further inquiries revealed that it was misprinted in the list, and is actually called 'Sophia', which doesn't count. Lists of some bulbous flowers, particularly lilies, tulips and narcissus make good hunting grounds.

Searching in lists of evergreen shrubs is a waste of time: they tend to have names like 'Abundance', or 'Dark Knight'. Exceptions to this are the clematis, hebes and the azalea group of rhododendrons, where quite a few names turn up. Among the hundreds of varieties of hebe I found a 'Christabel', so named because it is a wild hybrid collected near Lake Christabel in New Zealand. It is nice to think of these names going round in circles: the lake was probably named after someone's daughter.

There are a few names, such as 'Janet' and 'Susy', among the hundreds of hosta varieties, but, generally, breeders of foliage plants seem to have felt that girls' names don't suit them.

There are unexpected successes. I was delighted when looking at a list of potentillas to find among the 'Red Aces' and 'Clotted Creams' a 'Sophie's Blush'. It is a medium-sized shrubby potentilla, with pink flowers fading to white, so it should team well with its namesake rose.

Any Dianas wanting a name border will have the easiest task. There are so many Dianas in the plant world it would be possible to fill a whole garden with namesakes. Even among the ivies, which generally have strange names like 'Duckfoot' or 'Congesta', there is a Hedera helix 'Diana'.

Wendy Francis has been collecting flowers sharing her name for several years for her garden at West Wickham in Kent. Her pride and joy is a delphinium 'Wendy', which is very rare and took her some time to track down. It seems to have disappeared from nursery lists, so she is delighted to be keeping this particular variety alive. She also has a saxifrage, a sempervivum, a viola, a veronica and an auricula with her name. Most of these are too little to make a Wendy border, but she plans to grow as many as possible in a Wendy trough. Every year she scours new plant lists to see if more varieties have been bred, but she avoids anything other than simple Wendy, and rejects, for example, the rose 'Wendy Cussons'.

If girls' names do not appeal, there are plenty of other groups of names that might be fun to search for. Music lovers could start with roses 'Handel' and 'Eroica', Dianthus 'Carmen', Pelargonium 'Bolero', and, of all things, Pyracantha 'Mozart'.

Art lovers could consider the roses 'Picasso' or 'Little Artist', Narcissus 'Rembrandt', and Dahlia 'Murillo'. Birds are another interesting group, with plenty of flowers or shrubs including the name robin, but with enough others, such as 'Seagull' and 'Canary Bird' roses, Narcissus 'Dove Wings', and Iris 'Arctic Tern' to make an ornithologically varied border.

The more one searches through lists, the more one speculates about quirky names. Who would want to grow the conifer 'Tsuga Coffin', the red hot poker Kniphofia 'Toffee Nosed', or fuchsias called 'UFO' or 'Software'? Or most incongruous, in the lists of houseleeks - rather low-key little fleshy rockplants - there is one named grandly after a distinguished claret, Sempervivum 'Gruaud Larose'.

Wendy Francis's garden in Croydon Road, West Wickham, is open on some Sundays and by appointment through the National Gardens Scheme. Inspired by Sissinghurst, it includes several small gardens individually designed for colour. Details in the Yellow Book.

'Find That Rose', published by the British Rose Growers Association, lists all the roses, about 1,500 of them, currently available in Britain, pounds 1.60 from rose growers.

(Photograph omitted)

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