"No good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn. But particularly Gwladys," wrote P G Wodehouse. I have the same feeling about some plants. Is it possible to have an enduring relationship with a narcissus called 'Fairy Footsteps' or a rhododendron called 'Yum Yum'? I think not.
The naming of plants is a serious affair, ruled by the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. It is a subject of endless fascination to me. Alex Pankhurst's book Who Does Your Garden Grow? (Earl's Eye Publishing £10.95) unravels some of the mysteries surrounding the names that plants have, including that of Mrs Popple, commemorated in one of the most popular fuchsias ever introduced.
The Popples were neighbours of the famous nurseryman, Clarence Elliott, who between the wars had a nursery at Stevenage. The fuchsia, with big magenta and purple flowers, grew on a bank screening the tennis court in Mrs Popple's garden. Elliott admired it, but presumed, with its large flowers, that it could not be hardy and that the Popples were keeping it going by overwintering cuttings. When he learnt that the hedge had been in place for more than 20 years and never been frosted, he took cuttings himself and in 1934 showed the plant at a Royal Horticultural Society show in London. It immediately won an award and has been a favourite with gardeners ever since. The Popples' garden subsequently disappeared under the concrete and Tarmac of Stevenage New Town and nobody ever discovered how the fuchsia had first got there.
Some names are easy to unravel. Breeders like to stamp their plants, as their children, with their own names. Among the sweet peas you will still find Unwins: Charles and David. The Ballard name is perpetuated in asters and hellebores and the Williams family of Caerhays lives on among camellias. Other names, such as the roses 'Ellen Willmott', 'Sir Cedric Morris', 'Geoff Hamilton' and 'Hidcote Yellow' commemorate famous gardeners and their gardens.
The recent trend, to raid TV Times and Radio Times for names, is rather less felicitous. Although he's disappeared from the Eurovision Song Contest, there is still quite enough of Terry Wogan around without having him peeping winsomely from the garden in the guise of a sweet pea (pale salmon). 'Angela Rippon' makes an unlikely miniature rose. Even without the telly tag, there is something unwholesome in the thought of crunching on a lettuce called 'Fat Lazy Blond', a pale green lettuce grown since the 1850s.
There is, of course, enormous commercial potential in choosing the right name for a plant, if only to cash in on the vogue for giving appropriate plants as presents. Robinias, gleditsias, golden ivies, hostas, the golden climbing hop, hollies and the mock orange Philadelphus coronarius 'Aureus' are favourites for golden weddings. Artemisias, ballota, elaeagnus, the silver-leaved pear and willow now cluster in a thousand gardens to commemorate a thousand marriages that against insuperable odds have staggered through to the 25-year mark. If a hint is needed, try the iris 'Let's Elope'.
There's also the possibility of planting coded comments in a garden: perhaps the chrysanthemum 'Margaret' surrounded by a planting of the sempervivum 'Twilight Blues', or the rose 'Gordon's College' next to the hemerocallis 'Après Moi'. Almost subliminally, you could weave in some of the heavy moral messages that the Victorians liked to see in stained glass or illuminated manuscripts. Here the abies 'Prostrate Beauty' would be a natural, together with the rose 'Great Maiden's Blush'. Or 'Dick's Delight'.
Boot lickers have ample scope for matching plants to people. The Army, the Navy and the Church are all well represented in the nomenclature. With these hierarchical professions, the most effective way to go about things would be to pitch your gifts at the notch above the person
you're giving it to. A person who is only a Rear or a Vice should have the bergenia 'Admiral'. Send 'The Archbishop' aster to an ambitious bishop. The clergy feature heavily in plant lists and you will have no trouble in finding something to fit. 'Rambling Rector' (a rose) may fit all too well..........
There is also the possibility of matching plants with pretensions. The achillea 'Great Expectations' obviously needs a literary home as does the peony 'Ezra Pound'. The rose 'Picasso' should go to the leading light of the local art society and the tulips 'Giuseppe Verdi' and 'Berlioz' be used to mollify the ruffled egos of competing tenors. 'La Diva' (a cucumber) has endless possibilities.
The real purpose of this piece however, is to introduce a useful list for godparents, distant aunts, stray cousins or megalomaniac egotists to use when choosing plants as presents. This will neatly solve the problem for the whole of the coming year: Mother's Day, birthdays, christenings, thank-you-for-having-me, Christmas. Men do not feature so heavily as women on the list, but you may be able to plug the gap with some broader category such as 'Banker' (narcissus), 'Tubby' (campanula), 'Adonis' (agapanthus) or 'Exasperatum' (rhododendron). 'Fathead' (lavender) might be counter-productive. Each Christian name is followed by the categories of plants in which you will find cultivars of the same name. To find out where you can get the plants, you need an up-to-date copy of The Plant Finder (Dorling Kindersley £14.99).