Franklinia alatamaha Marsh. [adapted from W. Bartram, 1788]

Franklinia alatamaha Marsh. [adapted from W. Bartram, 1788

The phone rang late one night in early winter, just about the time I am usually reaching for the book by my bedside or guiltily opening the Netflix envelope for a bit of mindless entertainment. It was a gardening friend, and I could tell by the tone of his voice that I should stop fumbling with the little red packet and pay attention.

“Marianne.” He said very seriously. “I have two words for you, and I want you to tell me everything that comes to your mind when you hear them.”

I agreed cautiously and he cleared his throat with great relish.

“John…Bartram,” he declared with the dramatic flair of a seasoned name dropper.

I played for time. This, obviously, was a name I should know. A name that, by its very mention, should have conjured up great images and sparked conversation late into the night.

It didn’t.

I desperately scanned the library surrounding me, and mumbled weakly, “Did you say John Bartlett?” (His notable volume of quotations is never more than an arm’s length away.)

There was an imperceptible (and perhaps incredulous) pause, and then, “Bartram. John Bartram.”

This time silence from my end of the cordless.

John Bartram by Howard Pyle

John Bartram by Howard Pyle

“The 18th century American botanist?!?” continued my friend, his moment of triumph lost to my shattering ignorance.

Ahhh……the botanist. For this is where, my knowledge base falls a seedling short of a flat. I mumbled something futile like, “so many books so little time” and sank deeper into my chair, waiting for a deserved admonition.

In due course it materialized that my friend had managed to put together a private lecture and visit to the remarkable garden of John Bartram outside Philadelphia. The lecture I would eventually attend. The field trip, due to a spousal business trip, two children and all sorts of ridiculous laws about leaving them unattended for two days, I would not. But that phone call, and the subsequent lecture were enough to remind me that however green my thumb, there was one great field upon which I could not stand with my head held high – the field of Botany.

Photo by Daniel Weil

Photo by Daniel Weil

Botany: the science of plant life and the study of form, structure and various other characteristics that require a photographic memory and a taste for Latin. Granted, I am a die-hard gardener, my memory is good, if not photographic, and whether my friends can understand it or not, I am constantly studying my botanical Latin – yet I have never done more than dip my little toe into the deep waters of botany.

Botany is not a required subject for the gardener who dibbles and dabbles and generally enjoys plunging his hands into the soil. It is not even a required subject for those who wish to join gardening clubs and throw Spring Flings with an impressive guest list. But when you’re bending over the herbaceous border and wondering why you cannot remove the Lemon Balm from your garden with anything less than a blow torch, it helps to realize that square stems and two lipped flowers clustered in the axils of leaves puts it squarely in the mint family – and we all know what that means.

Photo by Daniel Weil

Photo by Daniel Weil

John Bartram made his living studying these relationships during the Eighteenth century. Linneaus’ system of taxonomic classification was in its earliest stages during his career, and Bartram’s explorations of the fairly new colonies in North America provided specimens over which European collectors drooled. He left an impressive legacy for those who would come after him – a body of knowledge that can help even the most amateur of gardeners make sense of a myriad of choices while browsing nurseries for native and non-native plants.

Even a rudimentary study of Botany introduces the gardener to vocabulary that can aid him or her to observe, identify and discuss unfamiliar plants with others. And when one has a strong grasp of these terms, one’s life in the garden takes on a deeper dimension. Pretty soon, you may even find yourself discussing flowers in terms of their perfection or imperfection – although to this gardener at least, the latter term seems nothing more than a wicked contradiction.

Photo by Daniel Weil

Photo by Daniel Weil

So I bought a new book – a couple of them in fact. Let’s face it; I usually don’t need a terribly good excuse to add to my library. And by the time I am finished exploring their pages, I may not be qualified to lecture for the Royal Horticultural Society, but at least I’ll know the difference between a culm and a caudex.

If you are new to Botany – but you love to garden – do yourself a favor and become a student again. The knowledge gained, however slight, can only help you on your green adventure – and perhaps save you from embarrassing phone conversations on late winter evenings.