Sunday, May 1, 2011

Gendered Plants

A few days back, editing the blog I posted about the irises in my garden here, it suddenly occurred to me that I think of, and refer to, most plants as having a gender.  "He" or "she" become my pronouns of choice when I'm not using the plant's real name.  Rarely, if ever, do I use "it" to refer to the plant under discussion.

So the big question is, WHY?  Why do I do that?  Am I just really that much of a great big gardening wierdo, or do other gardeners subconsciously apply a gender to most plants?

If I accept that I haven't ventured alone out into Spookyville, the next huge question becomes, HOW?  How do I decide on the gender of a particular specimen?  I've given it some thought over the past few hours and I can't find any sure pattern to my gender nomification.  (Now I'm really scared because I thought I just made up the word "nomification," but apparently it has roots in philosophic discussions of reason.  It means "the assumption that because it has a name, or that because you can give it one, it has actual existence."  So, because I consider a plant female, is it then female?).

'Heritage', male or female?
I don't believe that I'm responding just to flower color, but that is probably a big part of the picture. It is true that I consider most darker or brashly-colored flowers to be male and the pale yellows/pinks/pastels female.  Is the fact that I use "he" to describe the purple and white iris 'Rare Edition' and "she" to describe iris 'Lemon Pop' merely a byproduct of my cultural upbringing and biases, just as the nurseries for my daughter and son were painted pink and pale blue, respectively?  Rosa 'Madame Hardy,' who is white, refined, nicely scented, and delicate, is undoubtedly female in my mind, as is the more modern white hybrid tea rose 'Honor'.  Does that make 'John F. Kennedy', another white hybrid tea, a transvestite?  Maybe not, because grandiflora 'White Lighting' is certainly male in my mind.  Some of my color bias transmits to other species because purple clematis 'Jackmanii' is undoubtedly male, while white 'Guernsey Cream' is undoubtedly female.  Lilac 'Wonderblue' is male while 'Nadezhda' is female.  As I think of roses, I'm pretty sure that David Austin is guilty of my gender-assignment transgressions because most all of his dark roses have male names while the apricots and pastels have names like 'Lady Emma Hamilton' and 'Mary Rose'.  The one exception that comes to mind, 'The Dark Lady', just applies a smoking-hot Senorita persona to a dark red rose and that makes it okay.

What of non-flowering, or inconsequentially-flowering plants?  Boxwoods and junipers are mostly males to me, as are yews and hollies (whether it is Ilex 'Blue Girl' or 'China Boy').    Cornus stolinifera is male, while Cornus alba 'Ivory Halo' is female.  And what about trees?  Cottonwoods are female, I think, while Maples are primarily males.  Sycamore trees and Burr Oaks are very masculine, while Pecan trees are female.  Here's a good one; Purple Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Purple Fringe’) is male, while yellow Cotinus coggygriaAncot’ is female to me.  I've lost my senses, haven't I?

It's certainly not just the name of the cultivar. Turning back to roses,  'Earth Song', a fuschia Buck rose, is a male to me (shouldn't it be female...i.e. Mother Earth?).  But I view 'Carefree Beauty', a softer pink Buck rose, as a female as you would expect.  'Prairie Star', a gender-neutral name of a soft-blush rose, is undoubtedly female.  Here's a test for you:  What is the Bourbon rose  'Variegata di Bologna'?  Male, right?   Am I okay with accepting magenta 'Mme. Issac Pierre' as a female or do I really, deeply, think of the Mme to be Mmmmmmm Issac Pierre" in my Midwestern drawl, and so she's a "he" deep in my mind, a deep magenta named as a man while I ignore the Mme. prefix?  Bright red 'Olympiad' is definitely male and in a like vein,  the same bright-red tones of 'Linda Campbell' make that stiff rugosa cross a male in my mind as well, despite the honor of being named after a prominent female rosarian.

I hate to bring Freud into the discussion, but how much of my bias is dictated by flower form?  I'm admittedly biased that obviously phallic daylilies, knipofia, and globe alliums are predominately male, although I think of many pink daylilies, such as 'Attribution' as female.  Purple daylilies like 'Night Embers'and even brash oranges like 'Kwansi' are just as surely male.   Mushrooms are male, and asparagus is male.  Pumpkins and watermelons and grapes are female.  Oriental lilies are female.  Period. Anybody surprised?

Well, now that I've exposed my floral-related gender biases, I'm sure that I'm going to find other gardeners whispering around behind my back at meetings.  But before you dismiss me as a Garden-variety Gender Offender, please take a moment and consider.  Did you disagree with my assigned genders for any of the plants named above?  Did you?


  1. Google translates the oak to die Eiche and the maple to der Ahorn. Now it has been over a half century since I took, and flunked, German and I am not sure but doesn't that mean that oak and maple or different genders?

  2. Roses have personalities, so it makes perfect sense to assign gender identities to the different varieties. While I was working the plant sale this past weekend, I was getting odd looks from some of the people I was talking to as I was referring to a particular rose as 'he' or 'she'. I found myself saying things like, "She's a hefty girl that needs a lot of room" (Peggy Martin), or "I rarely see him without bees in his flowers (Darlow's Enigma). After the folks talk to me for a little while longer, they realize that I'm not crazy (just a bit odd and original) and the conversation appears to become completely normal to them.

  3. Oh, I've always referred to my roses as he or she but I think that's because of their names. Belinda's Dream...Maggie...Katy Road Pink (aka Carefree Beauty)are all she and Ducher is a he. I don't tend to "gender-ize" my daylilies or irises for some reason. Maybe they are just plants to me but the roses are family! :) Enjoy your blog, by the way! I was really glad to stumble across a blog so devoted to antique roses!

  4. Interesting. I just read this piece on gender via search for specs of a certain rose. I always get sidetracked...

    I don't think about my roses (some 40+), or any plants for that matter, in gendered terms. It never crossed my mind. My native tongue uses grammatical gender, but anthropomorphizing plants has more to do with socialization and culture than with grammar. In my first language, the words flower, plant, botany are all feminine nouns. Then it depends what specific plant one talks about. For example, rose, dandelion, peony are feminine nouns, and lilac, tulip, gladiolus are masculine nouns.

    When I think about all this I realize I tend to characterize plants according to their well being. A plant is either happy (doing well, lush, shiny, smiling) or ailing (not reaching its potential, showing some disease), or dying (not worth the resuscitation). I hate digging up and destroying plants though. I feel like I'm executing them. So there is some anthropomorphism involved then...

    Thanks for the stimulating thought.


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