28 October 2009


Autumn colour isn't just for trees: Zenobia changes colour too.

Zenobia pulverulenta, I mean. And she's a shrub.

With nodding white bell-shaped flowers exuding an exotic, spicy, almost cinnamon-like Syrian scent.

This Zenobia, however, is no native of Syria.

The shrub grows wild only in the moist sandy areas and bogs of the south-east USA. Still, she's a true queen, with gracefully arching branches and blue-green leaves covered with a fine silvery down -- hence her nickname of "Dusty Zenobia". The leaves are now just changing into their autumn finery, a mix of orange, red, and purple colours.

The Genus of Zenobia

Zenobia has her very own genus. As you would expect of an empress, it's a terribly exclusive club -- containing just the single species of shrub that bears her name.

Restoring Zenobia to her proper rank.

The privilege of bestowing a name on a plant lies with the person who first classifies it and publishes an adequate description in botanical terms. He (rarely she) may name it more or less as he pleases within the rather broad limits of a few botanical rules. For one thing, it is frightfully bad form to name a discovery after oneself. For another, it must appear to be in Latin (the ending of nearly all genus names makes them look like Latin -- even when the word is Greek or commemorates modern people and places).

Not all names stick. They can be changed, for example, by someone who manages to uncover a case of faulty classification of a known plant.

Zenobia was once misclassified -- and therein lies a tale.

She belongs to the family of Ericaceae, subfamily Vaccinioideae, and was placed among the tribe of Andromedeae as a mere subgenus, as if she were just another bog standard Lily of the Valley.

Naming plants after classical figures was all the rage in the early years of scientific botanizing. In fact, it happened that botanists so often honoured the three Graces (Charities) or the minor goddess Charis when they described a new genus -- and were enchanted by the beautiful flowers or graceful growth forms -- that the name was given to five genera in five different families.

Andromeda was a popular choice, too.

Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiope of Ethiopia, whose mother got the girl into terrible trouble by boasting of her beauty. She claimed that the princess was lovelier than the sea nymphs, thereby irritating their father, the god Poseidon. To punish this arrogance, Andromeda was chained naked to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. She was saved by the hero Perseus, who became her husband. The image of a beautiful virgin in chains to be eaten by a beastly sea monster was an irresistible attraction for artists throughout the ages (such as Titian, right) -- and to 18th century botanists.

Andromeda was established as a plant genus in 1753 by the famous classifier and namer of plants and animals, Carl Linnaeus, who gave the name to a little heath he found in Lapland. Gradually, as more and more species were described and included in the genus (some having three or four hundred species), it became apparent that it contained much too heterogeneous a collection of species.

In 1834, the Scottish botanist David Don published "A New Arrangement of the Ericaceae," in which he separated a number of species from the genus Andromeda, creating at the same time several new genera -- which meant, of course, that he was now allowed to give them new names. He followed in Linnaeus' footsteps and created bevies of classical females, such as Cassandra (that didn't stick either; she's now Chamaedapkne), Cassiope (the bragging mother of Andromeda), Leucathoe (daughter of the king of Babylonia who was changed by Apollo into a sweet-scented shrub; perhaps incense), and our Zenobia. Clearly, he thought that plant names should be charming rather than descriptive. And believed that, somehow, the romance of plants could be hidden in their names.*

Why Zenobia?

David Don left no obvious clue to explain why this American shrub should be honoured by the name of the third-century warrior queen of Syria.

He did clarify, however -- albeit in scholarly Latin -- that he had named the new genus after the highly honoured queen of Palmyra, valorous (or virtuous; the word is the same), learned, and famous for her misfortunes.** Perhaps he thought that spoke for itself, and added "whatever opinion may be formed of [her] title to rank as [a] separate gen[us], the arrangement of the species will, I trust, be found to be more natural than any hitherto proposed."

We agree.

What God has joined together, let no man separate (Matt. 19.6).

Enter the Dutch

Of all the gardeners on earth, the Dutch variety are least likely to leave well enough alone.

So it is hardly a foolish boast when the Dutch Garden Centre Esveld says, "Nowhere else in Europe will you find as many garden plants!" Zenobia is the proof of the pudding.

They offer three different kinds of Zenobia shrubs.

Left: the Zenobia pulverulenta that we know and love.

Right: Zenobia pulverulenta "Raspberry Ripple", with rose-flecked flowers.

Below right: Zenobia pulverulenta "Blue Sky", with blue-green leaves.

True, they are still of the same species, pulverulenta (= Latin for "Dusty" Zenobia).

But how long, dear reader, do you think it will take the Dutch to make a new species?

They're working on yet another variety as we speak -- the mysterious unphotographed Zenobia pulverulenta viridis. I bet it's going to be greener than ever!

A pity they didn't make it Z.p. virilis, ' Dusty Zenobia, Brave and Manly' in honour of our warrior queen.

* All the dirt on The Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants, by Peter Bernhardt, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2008; partially available on Google Books.

** The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Vol. 17, 159.


Top left: SC Gardener

Right: Titian, Perseus and Andromeda (1553-1559), Wallace Collection, via Wikimedia Commons

Below left: I am most grateful to Nurseries PlantenTuin Esveld for this and the following two photographs. Credit Nurseries PlantenTuin Esveld, Boskoop, Netherlands.

Below right: Credit Kwekerij R. Bulk, Boskoop.

Bottom right: Credit Nurseries PlantenTuin Esveld, Boskoop, Netherlands.


  1. This is fascinating. I had no idea that this little native shrub had such a classical background. I'm quite pleased if it was my photo that led to the writing of this post, because it led me to the discovery of a new and exciting blog. *adds to newsreader* Thank you.

  2. I followed scgardener here and enjoyed reading a number of your posts. I will be back again and again.

  3. Really useful piece of writing, lots of thanks for your article.


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