Saturday, 7 August 2021

Mnemonics and how to use them

 Mnemonics are very useful, when learning any new skill or interest.

What, exactly, are they?

Wikipedia says they "...are a learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval in the human memory" which is less than helpful. A more useful description is "a tool that helps us remember certain facts or large amounts of information. They can come in the form of a song, rhyme, acronym, image, phrase, or sentence"

They work because they change the problem: instead of having to learn a new, complicated, word, which means nothing, and refuses to stick in your brain, you just have to remember some nice, easy, familiar words, in a slightly unusual juxtaposition.

As an example, one of my Clients struggles to remember new plant names, so I always have to invent a mnemonic for her. 

She used to have a large, old Caryopteris in her garden:  I wrote about pruning it, some years ago, and I mentioned her difficulty with remembering the name.

I told her to think of Cary Grant (for a younger person, I would perhaps have gone with Cary Elwes), and the thought process was something like this:


Cary - opteris.

Cary Grant, film star.

Optician, Optical, Optometrist - all to do with spectacles and eyesight.

So it's Cary Grant in spectacles. Cary-Opterist.

She has never had a problem remembering that one, from that day forth.

And just last week, we had the same problem: this time with Balloon Flower, proper name Platycodon. This is a beautiful perennial, I have no idea why it isn't more common, as it comes in a lovely strong blue (also in white): it's easy to grow, fully hardy, very well behaved... anyway, it's called Balloon Flower because the buds are quite extraordinary:

There - isn't that weird? They inflate, in super-slow motion, until they look like balloons, about to burst.

And then, of course, one day they do burst! Into flower, that is.

"Kaboom!" as Fred would say.

(Hey Fred, how are you doing? Give me a call, I'd love to hear from you...)

When the flower opens, it is still quite spectacular, if maybe a wee bit more "ordinary" than the buds:

Anyway, getting back to the plot: my Client asked me the name of this plant, which she had just noticed in one of her borders.

When I told her Platycodon, she gave me that Look: the one that says "no matter how many times you stand there and say it to me, I will never remember it."

So we started with a Duck-billed Platypus: that was an easy beginning.

Codon? Coat-on?

Right, it's a Duck-billed Platypus, which you are taking out for a walk (I said), and it's a cold day for a creature who is accustomed to the heat of Australia, so it has to put a coat on.



Close enough! And at the end of it, I received a lovely compliment: "I love your teaching methods," she said.

Happy Client, Happy Gardener.  So if you struggle to remember the proper names of plants, try changing them into something which is easier to remember.

Here's one more, to get you started: way back when I first started gardening professionally, I had awful trouble remembering the name Hellebore.

Here's a clump of Helleborus orientalis, the one you are most likely to have in your gardens.

I just could not remember the name! Whether it was these ones, or the slightly more "wild" one, Helleborus foetidus, I simply could not bring the name to mind, when I needed to.

And when I say "needed to", I mean "when presented with a specimen, with the Client stood there, looking at me enquiringly, and expecting me to know the name of the plant."

This was somewhat embarrassing, as you can imagine. "Call yourself a gardener?" I used to mutter to myself. But that did not help.

So I turned to mnemonics: and the phrase "what the hell is that plant" was easy to associate with the plant in question, and of course the emphasis is on the word "hell", as in "hell-e-bore". 


"What the hell-hell-hellebore" is now what runs through my mind, every time I see one. Although after all these years, I am finally starting to remember the actual name, so that's progress, I guess!

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