Sandy’s Garden ... What’s in a Name?

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Browsing through the huge display of plants in one of my local garden centres, the name Andromeda struck me as an unexpected name for a plant.

In Greek mythology, Andromeda was the beautiful daughter of Cassiopea and Cepheus, the king of Ethiopia, whose kingdom was threatened with destruction by a sea monster. Acting on a suggestion that the monster could be bought off by being given Andromeda as a gift, Cepheus chained his daughter to a sea-side rock to await her fate. As luck would have it, Perseus, flying by on his winged shoes … as one does … chanced upon her, fell instantly in love and killed the sea monster so that he could marry her. Sadly, Cepheus had already promised Andromeda to his own brother, Phineas who, upset that he was not going to be able to marry his niece, spoiled the wedding by picking a fight with the bridegroom, a fight which Perseus won by turning Phineas into a stone statue, as one does. Perseus and Andromeda became the king and queen of the city of Tiryus and, after their deaths, were transformed into constellations in the night sky.

Now, given that the plant Andromeda is better known as bog rosemary, it is clearly not named after a constellation of stars. And it turns out that the eminent Swedish botanist Carl von Linné … the botanist who formalised the modern system of naming organisms called binomial nomenclature … greatly admired the species, and christened the plant Andromeda … after the Greek heroine … when he was introduced to it by the waterside in Lapland in 1732.

In point of fact, its common name of bog rosemary comes from no more than a similarity between its leaves and those of rosemary, to which it is not in any way related. Andromeda polifolia, to give it its full Sunday name, is a species of flowering plant native to northerly parts of the northern hemisphere. It is the sole member of the genus Andromeda, and is only found in bogs in cold, peat-accumulating areas, where it is widespread. A small, evergreen shrub, it usually grows to a height of between 10 and 20cm … say, 4 to 8 inches in old money … with narrow, leathery leaves and clusters of small white or pink bell-shaped flowers in spring and early summer. It was undoubtedly these delicate, soft-coloured flowers that enchanted Linné. In late summer small capsules containing numerous seeds appear.

A declining species which was once common in central Britain… from mid-Wales (especially Cardiganshire) to southern Scotland … and was one of the special plants of the central Irish peat-bogs, its former familiarity led to its being adopted as the county flower of Cardiganshire/Ceredigion, County Tyrone and Kirkcudbright. Indeed, it is still a particular feature of the much-reduced bogs and flowers of Galloway. Bog rosemary spreads readily in the right conditions, has few disease or insect problems and, as befits a wild plant, needs virtually no care in the garden. And yes, it can be grown in wet parts of gardens where it is in partial shade and very acid soil. In those circumstances it will spread slowly along the ground, sending up slender upright twigs. These arch as they age, becoming more twiggy and dense until a sort of mat is formed. Numerous cultivars have been developed for garden use, the cultivars ‘Compacta’ and ‘Macrophylla’ having been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

However, despite the ease with which Andromeda can be cultivated, the tiny size of its beautiful flowers mean that it is not a showy plant; and few gardeners include it in a bog garden. It is worth knowing that the leaves of this shrub are poisonous to humans.