This Week's Podcast: Name That Plant — with Wave Hill's Charles Day
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I once wrote an article on garden touring for the New York Times. I interviewed a woman who during a tour had a visitor come up to her and hand her a big bunch of plant labels. “My son helped you clean up the garden by picking up all these ugly labels,” she said. “You’re welcome!”
I’ve always had trouble with labels. Most of them just don’t last. Wood ones disintegrate, and so do most plastic labels that break down in the sunlight. Printed color labels fade. I got some gray labels made out of zinc that were very discreet. I put them next to my plants and when I went to look at the name, I couldn’t find them. They were too discreet. Back in the days of the Brooklyn garden, the blue jays used to pluck and carry labels away. In the New Jersey garden, the freeze thaw thrusts them right out of the ground.
Most people hate the look of labels, but you need to know the exact name of a species or variety, and often when you planted it and where it came from. In late winter, a label may tell you where a hiding herbaceous perennial is lying dormant so you don’t accidentally slice it with your trowel, or where it is when you want to find, lift and divide it to make more.
I spoke with someone for the podcast who has a lot of experience with labels, and he is also an expert in fruit-bearing trees. Charles Day is the Ruth Rea Howell Horticultural Interpreter at Wave Hill, the 28-acre public garden and cultural center in the Bronx, NY.
Wave Hill’s mission states that it is to “celebrate the artistry and legacy of its gardens and landscapes, to preserve its magnificent views, and to explore human connections to the natural world through programs in horticulture, education and the arts. Charles’s mission is horticulture, education and labeling. As interpreter, he says he explains the garden to people. And one of his principal tasks is to make and place labels. He is leading a group tour of Wave Hill that is all about the names of plants and labeling on July 23, 2016, and will again in the future. (Above, Charles leads a tour. For information, www.wavehill.org.)
Most of the labels at Wave Hill are installed temporarily to provide information on a plant that is blooming or looking especially striking. These may be laminated paper on metal stakes (like the one with the fern shown at the top), or laser cut aluminum. Most are removed to store and use again. Wave Hill has a label stable where rotating markers are stored on a wall covered with chicken wire (left).
I’ve never seen a perfect label for the home gardener, one that is inexpensive, inconspicuous and also lasts – at least as long as the plant does (or longer). Soon, I’m sure there will be an App for plant labeling with a GPS locator – point your phone and get the name.