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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Inula hookeri

This shaggy member of the daisy family, with its beautifully geometric spiral pattern of unopened central florets, originates from the Himalayas. In my garden it's a great attraction to bees, that appreciate the long period of pollen production that results from the sequential opening of all those florets.

I've been teaching botany since 1975 and over the last decade it seems to me that students have become increasingly frightened of Latin names. Maybe it's the purported British reluctance to learn languages, maybe it's because these days they see fewer plants in the field, which is the best place to associate a plant with its scientific name. Whatever the reason, it's a pity because Latin names often tell you so much about an organism and the people or places that are associated with it.

This plant's specific name commemorates Sir Joseph Hooker, who found it in the Himalayas and introduced it to British gardens in 1849. Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the most eminent botanists and explorers of his day, laid the foundations for botanical biogeography and became Charles Darwin's closest friend and confidante, as well as serving as Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew for two decades.

Joseph Dalton Hooker

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker has his own posthumous web site, created by Jim Endersby at the University of Sussex, for all those who appreciate the scientific achievements of one of the greatest of all botanists.

The generic name of this plant, Inula, has given its name to the carbohydrate inulin, which it stores in its roots instead of starch. Inulin - which is also present in Dahlia and Jerusalen artichoke tubers - has little effect on blood sugar levels and so is often used as a sweetener in foods for diabetics. Unfortunately - as anyone who has ever eaten significant quantities of Jerusalem artichoke will testify - it can generate acute attacks of flatulence for anyone who doesn't gradually add it to their diet.

Students often complain that Latin names are hard to remember. They're not when you decode them, when every name tells a story. Just remember to associate this flower with flatulence and Darwin's best mate and you'll never forget it...