In His Own Words

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When Larry Mellichamp spoke at the 2022 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference, he invited people to come up and talk to him. “I’m not contagious. I’m not venomous . . . I’m not poisonous. So stop and talk to me wherever you can.” A prolific author, among his works are six books including the comprehensive Native Plants of the Southeast and with co-author Paula Gross, The Southeast Native Plant Primer.

Keep Up the Good Work. Do All the Things You Can Do., by Larry Mellichamp
Get a Handle on Pronouncing Scientific Names, by Larry Mellichamp
When Larry was President, by Larry Mellichamp
Links to Resources and Reminiscences

Keep Up the Good Work. Do All the Things You Can Do.

by Larry Mellichamp

Video of Larry’s farewell speech. (Video by Roger Vilardaga, Duke University. Used by permission.)

The following is a transcript of his farewell speech.

I thank the steering committee for letting me have five minutes and they called it lunch.

I want to talk to you about a clarification, a little reminiscence, and a word of inspiration. Dan Pitello and I are probably the only ones here who’ve been coming for forty years.

I’ve loved every minute of it and every person I’ve met here. I need to let you all know so there won’t be any secrets; I have terminal cancer. This will probably be my last time here. And I’ll miss you all. And what I want to say is: Don’t be afraid to come talk to me here. It may be the last time I can sign books and talk with you. I’m not contagious. I’m not venomous. And since I stopped chemotherapy three months ago, I’m not poisonous. So, stop and talk to me wherever you can. I’ll be around these whole days [at Cullowhee] – I’m leading a little trip in the morning, probably my last time I’ll be able to physically walk in the woods to see things out in the wild. I want to remember four special things as a reminiscence for those of you who have been coming a long time here at Cullowhee. The first one of these was in 1995 when I gave a demo on making a bog garden. And I said: “I’m getting hot. I need to take my pants off.” So, I proceeded to unzip my lower part of my pants. There’s a YouTube video on that that’s still circulating on the internet.

The second reminiscence was when I was director in ‘03. We gave out lighted pens for everyone. The night we did that, everybody held up their lighted pens. A ray of 400 people something to be seen. Bobby Hensley had become associate director [of Continuing Education, Division of Educational Outreach at Western Carolina University, location of the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference]. I would go to him and ask him for all kinds of money for things when I was director. And he would say we can’t do that. But he always found a way to do whatever I wanted, just at a lower price. So, he was willing to buy us the lighted pens.

That same year at the Friday night picnic, of all surprises, Mary Painter, who was entertainment director, asked me what I wanted special for the picnic. So, I said, “I like tiramisu. Let’s have tiramisu for dessert.” That’s the equivalent of asking for some personalized painted donuts as if we were all English royalty. Well lo and behold that night at the picnic there was the tiramisu. For everyone. Somehow Bobby found the money for that.

The final thing I want you to remember is that we had just moved into this building two years earlier and it was always cold. You had to wear two or three layers of clothes. Not everybody remembered to do that. One day, I went down to the main office and there were all the workers there. I went into the control room. And I asked, ‘Which one of these buttons am I supposed to push to make it warmer in there?’ You never saw somebody get up from behind the desk so fast to come up to see what buttons I had pushed in the control room. Well, I hadn’t pushed any buttons, but we were warmer that year. They came out and did something.

So, this is my encouragement to future directors: “Don’t Fear. Just go try to do something and see what you can get.”

So, I’ve been blown away by the enthusiasm of the young people, talks that I’ve heard, the students I’ve seen, the interns. I think Cullowhee is going to have a great future. I would encourage you to continue for another 40 years. I wish you all a bright future.

Keep coming, keep supporting this tremendous amount of work that’s built up since forty years ago. We were just beginning – that was the beginning of the native plant movement, the first Cullowhee meetings way back then. I think it’s come a long way to see all the results of that. I wish you all very well. Keep up the good work. Support environmental education. Thank you for 40 years of memories. I’ll stop now. I’ll miss you all when I’m gone. Thank you.

Get a Handle on Pronouncing Scientific Names

by Larry Mellichamp

Whythesolongnames? Whatever your reaction to the preceding “word” is probably your reaction to Latin names of plants. Did you try and figure it out, or did you just take one look and say: “not for me!” 

Scientific names can, of course, be difficult to pronounce and understand, especially if you don’t use them every day. You probably accept that the two- part name of each plant-a genus and a species name-is a necessary component of botanical science and that they are widely used and understood by professionals; but you hesitate to use a name when you want to talk with someone because you’re afraid you’ll say it wrong. Take heart, you are not alone. Just remember, Linnaeus began using this binomial nomenclature in 1753, not because he wanted to make things harder for you, but because Latin was the language of science and medicine (as well as religion and other fields) at the time. Believe me, his two-part name for each species was a great simplification over the multi-word phrase names used earlier (sometimes involving a dozen or more Latin words, literally a mini-description of the plant). Today, Latin allows knowledgeable people around the world to communicate about plants, no matter what their native tongue, and without the confusion of common names.

Actually, Latin names are not as difficult to pronounce as you might think. After all, most of the vowel sounds are similar to those in English words (that is, with long i and e); and you can think back to Latin names you already know when trying to say a new one, such as the familiar Rosa, Tulipa, Astilbe, Geranium, Hosta, Spiraea (remember this one for later!), Salvia, Sedum, Lobelia, Cyclamen, Crocus, and many more. There are long or short “a’s,” “u’s,” etc., and enunciation is controlled by these sounds. The other thing you can do is break the word into syllables, just as you would an English word, putting a vowel between two consonants and trying to sound them out. English has a great many difficult words and pronunciations, so we shouldn’t let the fact that a Latin word looks different give us the notion that it is more troublesome to pronounce. I get more variations on “Mellichamp” than most Latin names I hear people try to pronounce. 

Latin names still give us problems, just because they are usually so unfamiliar. How do you learn to correctly pronounce a strange scientific plant name? That question is analogous to asking someone how to get to Chapel Hill. You ask three different people and you’ll get three different answers. It all depends on where you are coming from, how well you can remember details, your past experience, how much time you have, and whether you can practice. My advice is that you ask three experienced people, and take the best two out of three pronunciations. Much of the way people say Latin names depends on their experience-how they first heard it pronounced. You can apply various rules of Latin pronunciation, but there will always be variations and differences of personal preference. There are two ways of pronouncing Latin; the so-called original Roman way practiced by Latin scholars; and the modern adaptation more-or-less to the speech people use today. We tend to “Englishize” Latin words to make them easier for us to pronounce; and since not all scientific names originally come from Latin, we have to “Latinize ” these words to fit our way of talking. For example, the genus name for pine is Pinus. In strictly correct Latin you would say PEA-noose; whereas, we tend to say PIE-nus. The latter is certainly easier to remember. [In this article, capitalizing a syllable indicates it’s the one to stress.] 

I encountered frustration as an undergraduate student taking my first systematic botany course where we had to identify wild species using the “Guide to the Flora of the Carolinas” in the late sixties at UNC Charlotte. I had not paid much attention to pronouncing scientific names before, but I did not hesitate to try. As usual, you learn more from your mistakes; and I learned a lot! My first eager effort was to pronounce Cardamine (spring cress) as “CARD-amine,” by referring back to the more familiar word “histamine.” You wouldn’t think of saying “hist-AM-in-ee;” but that’s exactly how you pronounce Cardamine. One of the rules of Latin is to pronounce as many syllables as you can, by pronouncing every vowel. So that extra “e” on the end gets pronounced. There are significant exceptions, as we’ll see, but that’s a good rule to start with. Practice on: Silene, Chelone, Anemone. 

The second rule of pronunciation requires you to break the word into syllables, which can be a feat in itself, and then to enunciate the third from the last (the antepenultimate) syllable, unless you know better. That is, you have to decide which sylLAble to put the emPHAsis on. Thus, Cardamine would be pronounced “car-DAM-in-ee,” not “car-da-MI-knee.” There are many familiar examples you can recall, such as kris-ANTH-e-mum (Chrysanthemum), LIL-e-um (Lilium), ah-NEM-on-ee (Anemone), del-FIN-ee-um (Delphinium), PRIM-you-la (Primula), ger-AIN-ee-um (Geranium) and cam-PAN-you-la (Campanula). See how funny they would sound if you put the emphasis on the second-from-last syllable. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, though, both familiar and unfamiliar. Try Rho-do-DEN-dron, Cor-e-OP-sis, Hi-BIS-cus, Ver-BE-na, and Por-tu-LA- ca. See how these would sound if you tried to enunciate the third from last syllable. The rules are: There are as many syllables as vowels; words of two syllables are stressed on the first; of three or more syllables, on the next-to-the-last (penultimate) if the vowel in this syllable is long; if this vowel is short, accent may be on the third from last (antepenultimate). How many of the above names follow the rules?

So, how do you know which is the correct way on an unfamiliar name? You don’t, until you hear someone pronounce it and then accept it for yourself as sounding right. Take the evening primrose genus for example, Oenothera. I learned to pronounce it “een-oh-THEAR-ah,” but was shocked to later hear a British botanist say “ee-NOTH-er-ah.” Which is correct? The third from the last syllable would be in keeping with the rules, but here in America most experts emphasize the second from last in this case. There are many examples of this. Is it just tradition, or what? Perhaps it has to do with making the words sound most like they would as ordinary English words. I recently worked with a high school student on tree identification. He had taken three years of Latin and he pronounced plant names somewhat differently from me; he was applying rules that I didn’t even know. We almost had a breakdown in communication. 

Two examples of mispronunciation that hurt my ears the most involve Crassula and Clematis. These are very common generic names, and frequently used. The “correct” way is to emphasize the antepenultimate syllable in both: CRASS-you-la (not crass-OO-la) and CLEM-a-tiss (not cle-Ma-tiss). Think about it. 

Before we get too far away from the British style, let me point out another difference upheld by the Atlantic Ocean (but often heard in Canada). It is the pronunciation of “ch” as a hard “k” versus a soft “ch” as in “church.” Americans tend to prefer the hard sound. Thus in Britain you will hear Chionanthus (fringe tree), Cheilanthes (hairy lip fern), and Chenopodium (pigweed) with a “ch” sound as in “chutney”; while we in the States would be more familiar with “ch” as in “chiropractor.” But, then we tend to say Chaptalia (sun bonnets) and Chelone (turtle head) with a soft “ch” (as in chapstick and cheese). Where is consistency? Makes things harder, doesn’t it. 

These two rules take care of many ordinary pronunciations. But here are additional cases you will encounter. Many species are named after people. There are two situations: generic names and specific names. It would be nice if we could pronounce the Latin plant name so as to preserve the name of the person being commemorated. Sometimes that works well, as in Lobelia (after the 17th Century herbalist l’Obel), Tradescantia (after 17th C. royal gardener John Trades- cant) and Sarracenia (after 18th C. Quebec botanist Michel Sarrasin). But what about our silverbell tree, Halesia. It was named after the Rev. Stephen Hales, yet we usually say it hal-EES-cia, rather than HALES-ee-ah. And the beautiful garden perennial stoke’s aster: some say stoke-EES-cia rather than STOKES-ee-ah. Would people like to know about Dr. Jonathan Stokes? Or would they even know what name you were saying? When you say the words the way they look, you often lose something. 

Similar variations concern the hard and soft pronunciation of the “ti” of such genera as Stewartia, Tradescantia and Sabatia. We say stew-ARE-tee-ah (or stew-ART-sha), and trad-es-CAN-tee-ah (or trad-es-CANT-sha), but sa-BAIT-she-ah (or sa-BAIT-sha); can the “ti” go either way in every case? Or should we try and preserve personal names? 

The second situation deals with species names ending in i or ii, like Senecio smallii, Lilium grayi, and Sarracenia jonesii. Those i’s are added to Latinize a non-Latin word and they should be pronounced, both of them. Thus: SMALL-ee-eye (not just SMALL-eye), GRAY-eye (the y counts as one i), and JONES-ee-eye (not joan-ESS-ee, as I have heard). Here preserving the person’s name, with one or two “eye” sounds added, should be the rule. The tendency among inexperienced people is to pronounce only one “eye.” 

Sometimes, given alternative ways of emphasizing syllables, you would want to preserve a component of the name that refers back to a structure for which the name was chosen to reflect. For example, in the white-top pitcher plant Sarracenia leucophylla the species name means “white leaf”) should be pronounced lew-co-PHILL-ah to preserve the Latin word “phyll” that means leaf (rather than saying lew-COPH-ill-ah as the antepenultimate Latin rule would have). And in another example, the genus of filmy fern Trichomanes, so-called because it has a hair-like, or trichome-like, central vein in the spore capsule, should be pronounced trike-OHM-an-knees, rather than trike-oh-MAIN-ees.

Now, for the important exception I alluded to earlier, that is, when to NOT enunciate every vowel. There are plenty of examples in Latin, just as in English, of diphthongs: a double vowel pronounced together as one. The most important diphthong in Latin names is “ae,” though you will find plenty of examples of “eu” (Eupatorium), “oe” (Coelogyne), and here you do pronounce all of the latter vowels sea-LODGE-eye-knee, a tropical orchid), etc. The first place you encounter “ae” is in plant family names: Asteraceae, Rosaceae, Geraniaceae, etc. The “ae” is pronounced invariably as a long “e,” as in “bee.” (The classical Roman pronunciation would be as a long “i,” as “eye.”) So, as-ter-A-see-ee, and ger-ain-ee-A-see-ee. All family names end in -aceae, which is pronounced -A-see-ee (not A-see-ah), but as if it is written “a-c-e” and given the pronunciation of those exact letters). There are countless examples of generic and species names with the “ae” diphthong: enchanter’s-nightshade, Circaea (sir-SEE-ah); white-cedar, Chamaecyparis (came-ee-SIP-ah-rus); and hawthorn, Crataegus (krat-EE-gus). Do not be confused by the occurrence of “ea,” which is NOT a diphthong normally, in such genera as New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus (see-ah-NOTH-us) and chestnut, Castanea (cass-TAIN-ee-ah), not cass-tan-EE-ah). As a self-quiz on this rule, try to pronounce the family of climbing fern: Schizaeaceae. [By the way, all family names are plural, and should be accompanied by plural verbs. For example: The Schizaeaceae are a family of ferns.] (answer: sky-zea-A-sea-ee). 

I hope this brief lesson has helped. I’m sure you will know more examples, exceptions and variations than I have listed here. I realize it is tedious to try and put in writing the pronunciations of words and syllables, but if you are interested, you will spend many hours reading and trying to learn them. Find a willing companion, get a copy of Dr. Ritchie Bell’s wildflower book (for the pictures!) and practice saying the names. 

These references will be most helpful: 

Bailey, Liberty Hyde. 1933. How Plants Get Their Names. 181 pages. [Clear, easy to read, interesting; names with pronunciations.] 

Fernald, M.L. 1950. Gray’s Manual of Botany. [gives pronunciation and meaning of generic and specific names of northeastern plants.] 

Johnson, A.T. & H.S. Smith. 1972. Plant Names Simplified. 120 pages. [Names, pronunciations and meanings.] 

Smith, A.W. and W.T. Stearn. 1972. A Gardener’s Dictionary of Plant Names. 391 pages. [very good; extensive lists of pronunciations.]

This article first appeared in the North Carolina Native Plant Society 1991 fall edition of Native Plant News.

When Larry was President

Larry Mellichamp was president of the North Carolina Native Plant Society from 2015 to 2017. During that time he wrote reports in the Native Plant News, one of which appears below.

President’s Report – Spring 2017 Native Plant News, by Larry Mellichamp

Greetings on a very warm, rainy, mid-January day in Charlotte. There are no native plants – not a single one- in bloom now in my garden during this warm spell (they know better, winter will likely come again soon). But there are some beautiful non-natives in flower that originate from warmer parts of Europe, China, and Japan, such as Japanese Apricot (Prunus mume), Winter-Sweet (Chimonanthus praecox), Snow- drops (Galanthus), Winter Iris (Iris unguicularis), and Christmas-rose (Helleborus niger). These exotic species need less cold to stimulate flowering, and they are delightful non-invasives in the cooler upper Southeast.

Our earliest showy natives to flower will come along in late February or early March, depending on the warmth. Why do they not bloom earlier like the Asian species? One rea- son is that our natives may be adapted to a consistently colder winter climate, and their innate hormones keep them from flowering before the days are a certain length to protect them from blooming during an abnormally warm spell and then getting zapped by a hard freeze. Their flowers are precious, and it is risky to bloom in the most severe cold. In addition, the innate need for a cold dormancy requires most natives to be subjected to a certain number of hours below 40 ° F to “break dormancy.” Most species in the temperate zone have these cold-dormancy requirements. Some just need longer cold than others. For example, species from farther north need a longer period of cold because winters are longer.

Our Southeastern species need fewer hours, and if this requirement is met earlier, such as before December and early January, they are ready to bloom as the days get longer and the temperatures warm up in February and March. For example, trillium species require a minimum of 80 hours below 40 degrees (see the excellent book Trilliums by Frederick W. Case, 1997). In my garden, Trillium decipiens, from south Georgia, is already up with leaves and buds. The flowers will not open for several weeks, but there it sits, ready to go. It has a low chilling requirement. On the other hand, I once rescued dozens of Trillium grandiflorum from Michigan, planted them in Charlotte, and not a one every came up. Why? It was never cold enough, long enough, to meet the chilling requirements for a species native to severe cold hardiness Zone 5.

I caution people to NOT bring natives from up north (above Zone 7) or from the high mountains, or purchase from northern nurseries as these may not adapt to our warmer summers and winters. Hot summers are especially bad for cold-adapted species as they never get the proper rest they require on hot summer nights to store energy for growth and flowering, and they slowly “melt away” as authors Allan Armitage and Michael Dirr so aptly note in their writings about growing such plants in the South. Take heed!

Another reason to wait on flowering is that our native insects – bees, flies, butterflies and moths – are not out and available in January. They will be coming along in February and March as the weather warms – they have the same requirements for a dormant spell. You may have seen honeybees on your Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), but these non-native insects have no cold dormancy requirement. Most seeds of natives also have cold dormancy and day-length requirements for germination, but some do not. This is a subject for a future article.

So, realize that local climate plays a major role in the thriving of natives and note where your plants come from. On the other hand, your membership in the N.C. Native Plant Society has no dormancy requirement, and you can become involved in local and state activities any time of the year. I join you now in looking forward to showy late winter- flowering native wildflowers such as Skunk Cabbage, Hepatica, Bloodroot, Trout Lily and Spring-beauty.

Links to Resources and Reminiscences

Here are resources assembled by the NCNPS newsletter team for you. Learn more about native plants and more about Larry Mellichamp’s contributions to environmental advocacy.

Here is a playlist of YouTube NCNPS videos by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross. Topics are what to plant where, what native plants make good garden plants, and  Larry’s favorites.

Watch a video of Larry Mellichamp’s farewell speech at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference, “Keep Up the Good Work. Do All the Things You Can Do.” 

Two of Larry’s recent books about native plants are on this Timber Press website. 

Earn a Certificate in Native Plant Studies by enrolling in a program Dr. Mellichamp helped create at UNCC Botanical Gardens. 

Join a NC Native Plant Society chapter near you and be an advocate for native plants.

Use these lists of NCNPS recommended native plant species, many of which were written by Larry.

The North Carolina Botanical Garden presented its Flora Caroliniana Award to Larry Mellichamp in summer 2022.

Here are tributes by Johnny Randall and Paula Gross.

Read Sharing the Loss of Dr. Larry Mellichamp by Jeff Gillman, director, University of North Carolina Charlotte Botanical Gardens.

Learn more about Dr. Mellichamp in Thomas Lawrence Mellichamp, “Dr. M”by Paula Gross with Audrey Mellichamp.

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