L is for: An essential guide to Latin, lime and lily beetles


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The Independent Online


The common names of plants are often wonderfully vivid and carry all kinds of information about their past uses. Goosegrass for instance, the clinging, sticky annual weed that is once again springing up in the garden, is called that because it used to be chopped up and fed to newly hatched goslings.

But the problem with common names is that there may be a huge number of them, all referring to the same plant. Marsh marigold once had about 80 different names in various parts of Britain, 60 different ones in France, another 140 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

That diversity is in itself interesting. But if you are trying to find out about a plant and exchange information with like-minded people, you need to know you are talking about the same thing. Way back in Renaissance Italy, where the serious study of plants first happened in the universities at Pisa and Padua, scholars could already see that any system of naming plants had to be universally applicable.

At that time, Latin was the Esperanto of Europe. Anybody who could read, read Latin as easily as their native tongue. So in a European culture, the simplest thing was to use this universal language to forge a system that, eventually, could accommodate everything that lived on earth.

Latin is not taught in schools as widely as it once was, so we stumble over Latin plant names because we don't know how to say them. But in their own way, they also provide information about the plants we buy.

Campanula means 'made like a bell'; Acer palmatum, the Japanese maple, tells us that the wood was hard enough to be sharpened into spears by the Romans ('Acer' equals sharp) and that the leaves are hand-shaped. Get a grip. Buy Stearn's Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners compiled by the late, great William Stearn (Cassell £20).


If letters columns are any indication, this seems mostly to do with neighbours. Common complaints are the state of boundary fences and the space taken up by overhanging trees. The law should always be the last resort. Simple bribery with a couple of bottles of wine will prove less aggravating and usually more effective.

On the matter of trees, the law allows you to cut down a neighbour's tree where it is overhanging your boundary, but not a centimetre beyond. In a much publicised case, a tree owner won damages from a neighbour who had inadvertently cut the offending branches 15cm the wrong side of the boundary wall.

You are not legally entitled to any wood you cut off. You must deliver it to your neighbour, which may only add insult to injury, but that is what the law demands.

Boundaries can only be checked with title deeds and even these may let you down. If no clear owner is marked, the fence or boundary is deemed to belong to the person on whose land the fence posts stand. If that is not you and you want something done, offer to share the cost of renewing the fence. That will not make it yours, but may be better than waking up each morning to a sight that makes you want to scream.

Lily beetle

I found the first ones on 18 April this year, rather earlier than usual. But where had they come from? They were all (five of them) on the new shoots of lily bulbs that I planted in a pot last autumn. The bulbs were fresh, the compost was fresh, so I'm puzzled how they got there. If they had appeared on lilies growing in the ground, then I'd have supposed they'd hatched from the hideous grubs that cling to the undersides of the leaves, then drop to overwinter as adult beetles in the soil.

Once it was thought that this pest would find conditions too cold for it outside the southeast of Britain, where it was first discovered. Unfortunately not. Over the course of spring and summer, a female lily beetle can lay 200-300 eggs. Larvae hatch 10 days later. And eat. And eat. And eat.

Fortunately the adult beetles, being bright red, are easy to see. Once I've found the first, I patrol the garden almost every day, catching and crushing them. They are slow, but drop to the ground if you disturb them. Then you can't see them because they lie upside down, black side up.

The best defence is vigilance, early in the season. The more adults you can catch, the fewer disgusting larvae you'll have to wipe off foliage later in the summer. I prefer catching to spraying. Provado Ultimate Bug Killer is said to be effective. I tried it once, but it distorted the foliage of the lilies I treated and they looked worse than they do when they are nibbled by beetle.


Some plants love it, others curl up their toes at it. The plants that hate lime are called calcifuges and include some of the most popular of spring shrubs, such as rhododendrons. The lime in the soil locks up certain plant foods which they need to thrive.

In the long run, it's better not to struggle to grow lime-haters in limey soil. Although there are corrective medicines such as chelated iron (Sequestrene), it's better to go with the flow. Gardening will suddenly seem less problematical.