“Plants aren’t complicated, and gardening should be fun,” says Allan Armitage.
Deciphering the pronunciation of a name like Centaurea cyanus probably isn’t the most welcoming way for a newbie to enter the world of plants.
But telling a story about how this common roadside weed with fuzzy blue blossoms came to be known as “Bachelor’s Buttons” is a lot more likely to keep an audience engaged.
Sharing the stories behind plant names is the focus of Dr. Allan Armitage’s latest book, “Of Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots: The Stories Behind the Common Names of Some of Our Favorite Plants,” released in March (2017).
“If you have a walkabout with me, it’s going to take us 15 minutes to get through two plants because I’m always telling stories,” Armitage said.
Over the years, he’s been told by audiences to write down the stories he has accumulated through years of research.
In 2001, he and co-author Linda Copeland told 46 plant-name origin stories in their book, “Legends in the Garden.”
While that book focused on people and places in history, “Of Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots” takes a humorous look at some of the wackier names to be found in the garden.
The book is emblematic of the friendly, familiar approach Armitage has become known for in his more than 30-year career in horticulture.
Through his academic writings and teachings, his work on plant trials, 13 books, countless magazine articles and his more recent foray into digital media, Armitage has solidified a reputation as a world-renowned horticultural expert.
But he’s also managed not to let his lofty credentials turn him into an inaccessible bastion of knowledge for only those folks who know how to pronounce names like Eutrochium perfoliatum.
Armitage is a full-fledged plant evangelist. He travels the world talking to garden and plant enthusiasts, but he’s just as fascinated with the challenge of introducing new people to the joy of watching something grow.
“My goal in life is to share what I know with people and to try to have a good time doing it,” he says.
Keep it simple
Armitage is a big proponent of making clear that gardening is for anybody and everybody, and that all efforts should be made to assure newcomers that it’s not rocket science.
“We have made gardening extraordinarily complicated,” he says of the horticultural industry. “We have made people intimidated to say a botanical name. People are intimidated to ask about something because they are afraid they’ll mispronounce it.”
His advice: Keep gardening simple and fun.
“The garden of tomorrow is the deck, it is the barbecue area, the place you want to sit out and enjoy the outdoors,” Armitage says. “While we still have a ton of people that have half-acre gardens are out there getting dirty every day, we have a bazillion decks, verandas, patios and apartment balconies that people are putting plants on.”
These smaller spaces can be a gateway that helps people catch the gardening bug, making them prime customers for garden centers and other horticultural businesses in the years to come, he said.
“We have to make it truly convenient, easy and inexpensive,” he says.
Reach people where they are
Armitage has created a smartphone and tablet app to try to combine resources for plant enthusiasts of all levels in a format they can have with them everywhere.
Plants Map is one of the many resources available within his app for iPhones and Android devices, “Armitage’s Greatest Annuals and Perennials.” Available for $4.99, Armitage says it puts an enormous amount of information on annuals and perennials in a format that fits in your pocket.
Garden centers can list themselves for free on the app, so that users can find out where to buy a plant locally with just a touch on a screen.
Armitage said some garden centers have their staff members carry the app around on their phones to serve as an added resource for customers.
“I think people are only going to get there if we take them by the hand,” he says, “and the hand today is the smartphone.”
A common goal
This focus on using digital tools to engage more people in the world of plants, and of celebrating the stories of all of the plants around us, is a theme that unites Armitage’s approach with the goals of Plants Map.
Armitage has both a professional and a personal profile page on the site. He says both Plants Map and his own work with the app and other digital communication efforts are part of what the horticultural industry needs to do more of.
“The only way as an industry we are going to get them coming to us is by taking us to them,” he says.
In the same way that Armitage preserves pieces of American botanical history with the stories he tells in “Of Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots,” Plants Map allows users to document the stories of the plants in their own lives, whether that be a plant grown from seeds passed down through generations within a family, or a prized iris that won notable awards.
“The reason stories are popular is because people can share them,” Armitage said. “They allow people to spread our word.”
To learn more, follow Dr. Allan Armitage on Plants Map.
Copies of “Of Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots” ordered through allanarmitage.net can be signed and personalized by the author.