Our local paper features great garden articles written by Bill Finch. They are always very interesting. This particular article was very interesting. Every gardener I spoke to over the weekend was a buzz over it. So here is the article in its entirety:
A plant with too many names for its own good
Friday, April 10, 2009
When I was tending yards for pocket money as a teen, the gardeners in my hometown would beat me with a rake if I called Philadelphus anything but "English dogwood."
When I went away to college in North Carolina, the gardening ladies would look at me as if I'd said a cuss word everytime I called their dear Philadelphus "English dogwood."
Why, everybody knows that's a mock orange, they'd in sist. And the gardening books were no help. They called Philadelphus "syringa."
As it turns out, none of these "other" names for Philadelphus is accurate, and all have lead to needless confusion.
There's no easy explanation for why people chose to call Philadelphus "English dogwood." It is not even remotely related to dogwoods — it's actually closely related to hydrangeas. And England has no special claim on Philadelphus — most of the world's 60-odd species of Philadelphus are native to the United States or Asia, and none to England or Western Europe.
To compound the mystery and the confusion, the English gardeners who grow Philadelphus call it "mock orange," and that bad habit seems to be gaining currency in the South.
I suppose gardeners could be forgiven for seeing some slight resemblance to an orange blossom in the Philadelphus flower — as long as you ignore the fact that the Philadelphus flowers are many times larger, with rounded, spreading petals that really look nothing like an orange blossom, and smell nothing like orange blossoms (many Philadelphus have no odor at all).
Trouble is, we also call a lot of other plants mock orange in the South, and none of them are even distantly related. Ask for a "mock or ange" in the South, and you're as likely to end up with a rough and gangly tree, the Osage orange or "bodock" tree, which is called mock orange because its ugly fruits resemble a lumpy, unripe grapefruit. Or maybe you'll end up with an evergreen shrub from Mexico, the choisya. Or a thorny wild shrub from the Southeast best known as buckthorn.
All are frequently referred to as mock oranges, and none have the beauty of the plant pictured on the front of this section.
If that weren't confusion enough, some people used the old name "syringa" for philadelphus — even though syringa is the more or less official name for the lilac, which doesn't even remotely resemble Philadelphus, and is entirely unrelated. This bad name seems to be a holdover from poor plant identification dating way back to the Middle Ages.
This babel has been going on for decades, if not centuries, and it's somehow comforting to know that the world's great new high-tech source of completely unreliable information, the Internet, has only worsened the identity crisis. Do a search for mock orange or English dogwood, and you'll discover a thousand lost sheep trying to figure out what in the heck all the other lost sheep are babbling about when they say "mock orange," "English dogwood," or "syringa."
So to be sure, it's best to call a Philadelphus exactly what it is, a Philadelphus. If it helps you to remember, Philadelphus is not named for the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, but rather for one of Cleopatra's boys, the king of Egypt Ptolemy Philadelphus. He apparently earned the name "Philadelphus" — that is, "brotherly love" — for marrying his sister.