A Powerful Pigsqueak of a Plant
Pigsqueak, not Pipsqueak
by Marcia Wilson
An interesting ornamental thrives on campus, particularly in front of Building 23. In Latin nomenclature it is the Bergenia crassifolia, the Elephant Ear or Pigsqueak. This little plant is native to the mountain ranges incorporating the Altai/Altay, Himalaya, and Siberian highlands.
Pigsqueak loves the harsher climate of mountainous regions but is so forgiving of the Puget Sound lowlands that it is often brought in by landscapers and exterior designers and decorators. It thrives so well in shady conditions that it “makes groundskeeping look easy”. An added benefit for gardeners, it is not invasive for the Pacific Northwest. A frothy stalk of rich pink blossoms perch over mature specimens and it stays evergreen year-round unless the temperature drops enough to kill the surface leaves. Pigsqueak leaves die when frosted. They turn black and dry, where they fall to the earth and add to the humus. The frosted leaves are the only “black mark” on the plant’s aesthetic value, but in its native Mongolian territory this is a welcome sight. The black leaves begin to ferment and are harvested when the snow melts. After processing and adding ingredients including milk and salt, “Mountain salted tea” is created. This is a staple of the yurt and served with every meal. Students familiar with the Unani and Ayurvedic traditions may have already encountered B. crassifolia in treatments to treat specific health conditions. Or perhaps they just enjoyed a good cup of tea for what ailed them.
What’s in a Name?
“Elephant Ear” is an obvious common name for Bergenia, but the “pigsqueak” needs a little explanation. The tough, leathery leaves can create a sound like the high-pitched squeal of a pig when rubbed together! Some US regions call it Leather Bergenia.
Bergenia’s von Bergen
The pigsqueak’s first name, Bergenia, is the Genus. It is in honor of Karl August von Bergen, an early 18th-century scientist who could never choose between his twin passions of anatomy and botany. Von Bergen flipped medical science on its ear by identifying the importance of cells in the body.
A Crass Plant but not Rude.
The second or specific epitaph in the Latin is crassifolia. Perhaps you have heard someone say, “Don’t be crass!” Crass means to be thick or dense. The thick leaves of the pigsqueak inspired this name to help separate it from other plants. In this case “being thick” it is not an insult, but a matter of fact.