Photo: Mary Pickford admires a namesake orchid. Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Flowers, like actors, sometimes have short-lived celebrity. Once their aura of uniqueness fades, many languish or fall by the wayside. Some disappear. Others continue to thrive because of their hardy nature, popularity, or beauty.
Breeders and growers of flowers have struggled to develop attention-grabbing names for their plants for hundreds of years. Many name discoveries after themselves; others give monikers to plants that resemble the person they are named for or might help it prosper. Most plants that gain popular names are hybrids developed through luck or discovery.
Growers take cuttings from two plants in the same species and crossbreed them, creating a hybrid that hopefully possesses the best qualities of each parent. When hybrids are created, these seedlings must be given names. Many breeders attempt to publicize or popularize their plants by naming them for famous people, either celebrities or important players in the field. This draws the public to buy the plants. For these names to become official, they must be registered with the governing body regulating the species, the repository of all knowledge regarding the growth of that flower.
As early as the 1920s, many flowers gained the monikers of famous movie stars. The May 20, 1926, Los Angeles Times noted that a prize-winning purple dahlia was named for actor/scholar Milton Sills by grower George V. Warren. “While Sills and the First National Co. were filming “Men of the Dawn” in Santa Maria, the Minerva Club held its annual dahlia show there…. Dahlias were also named for Viola Dana, Charles Murray, Bessie Love, and others.” It appears that either the growers never registered the plants with the official dahlia society or they sold poorly, as these names do not appear in the list of registered names.
In 1932, the Los Angeles 13th annual Dahlia Show exhibited the Anita Page dahlia. As The Times described it, “O. C. Tarabochia, show manager, says the Anita Page dahlia measures ten inches across and is of the variety known as the semi-cactus. Excellent white dahlias are rare this year, he points out and states the Anita Page is recognized by experts as one of the outstanding introductions of the season.
”The Anita Page will be given a place of honor at the show, occupying a box in the Galeria de Honor where the prize blooms of the show will be placed on exhibition.”
It appears that many dahlias named for celebrities were intended as blooms for bouquets or to enter in competition, as they were huge and showy. Other stars gaining namesakes included Arthur Godfrey, Bette Davis, Deanna Durbin, George Burns, Ginger Rogers, James Mason (semi-cactus and showy), Dinah Shore, Doris Day (dark red doubled flowered with narrow pointed petals), Carol Channing and Groucho Marx in 1956.
Tulips also possess hybrids named for such stars as Gloria Swanson (enormous crimson with blue center introduced in 1935 but no longer active), Anna Magnani (parrot or blood-red, introduced in 1960), Barbra Streisand (a pink tulip baptized in 1960), and Joanne Woodward (a red tulip introduced in 1993).
Camellias also followed along, with such blooms as Dr. Zhivago (orchid pink and introduced in 1965), Bob Hope, (black red bloom created in Altadena at Nuccio’s Nurseries in 1969), and an Angela Landsbury, a white blossom introduced in 1995.
Orchids, a showy breed, introduced a Mary Pickford bloom in 1928. Pickford posed with her namesake at the 1938 Orchid Show in New York on March 18, 1938. The snipe on the back of the print states, “Mary Pickford, who christened an orchid named after her ten years ago, is shown with one of the Mary Pickford Orchids, exhibited by Edward Manda of West Orange, N.J., as she visited the Silver Jubilee International Flower Show in Grand Central Palace here, March 18.” They also feature a few other star names, with a mauve one named for Raymond Burr, a white cattleya named after Barbara Billingsley, and of course a violet colored Ascocenda named after Elizabeth Taylor.
One of the most popular and beautiful flowers, roses, possesses many star breeds. Stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Helen Hayes, Gracie Allen, Brigitte Bardot, Gina Lollobrigida, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, George Burns, Claudia Cardinale, Charlotte Rampling, Jeanne Moreau, Julie Andrews, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan find their names on blooms. There are also the Dolly Parton rose, a tea rose which is very tall, fragrant, and possesses reddish orange blooms, the James Mason rose, dark crimson with a yellow center, the Barbra Streisand rose, a delicate pink flower, and the Elizabeth Taylor rose, pink with dark pink at the edges.
Some breeds possess almost no celebrity driven names. There is a Cher Iris, a Glenda Farrell rhododendron, which is bright orange red, a Janet Blair rhododendron, very pale pink and mauve, the Bette Davis Eye day lily, creamy pink flowers with burgundy eye, and lime green throat, and the Dorothy Gish azalea, described as “a brick red with rich red markings in the throat” in a 1946 Los Angeles Times ad, also described as a bright, showy flower.
As the world becomes more advertising and brand-driven, many growers will probably baptize their plants with names matched to those of popular celebrities with huge followings, hoping to give longer life to their seedlings.