On a summer’s day walk around Bredfield Jubilee Meadow and Orchard, or elsewhere, you will find wildflowers with interesting names: Selfheal, Fleabane and St John’s Wort to name only a few. Where do these names come from? What meaning do they have? In this feature article we will trace the origin of the names of some of these wildflowers, and attempt to reveal their meaning.
Before we start, let’s be clear what this article is NOT about. We are not revealing the presumed symbolic ‘meaning’ of flowers. A gift of roses means ‘I love you’, but we’ll leave it at that. We are not going way back to trace the original Latin or Greek names for plants. (Though I may reveal the Greek origin of the name Orchid at the end of this article!) Neither are we attempting to decode and explain the scientific names of plants, established in the 18th and 19th centuries. We are pitching ourselves somewhere in the huge space of time between these two eras, to examine the origins and meanings of ‘old’, common, vernacular English names for wildflowers.
Worts and Weeds
A good starting point for the examination of flower names is the word ‘wort’. This is a suffix to a large number of flowers: Lungwort, Liverwort, St John’s Wort and nearly a hundred more. ‘Wort’ is derived from the Old English word ‘Wyrt’, meaning plant, herb or root. Generally speaking, the suffix ‘wort’ came to be attached to plants that were considered beneficial: with utility value, such as Soapwort; or with medicinal properties, such as Bruisewort.
Most of these names derived from folklore, but some of the worts derived their name because the flowers were seen to look like a part of the human anatomy. The quasi-religious Doctrine of Signatures claimed that plants show resemblances to the diseases they can cure: Liverwort, Bladderwort and so on. The small white speckles on the Lungwort leaf pointed to its effectiveness against lung diseases. (Don’t try it, the plant is fairly toxic and, though it might work as a mild expectorant, that’s about it!) In a similar way, it was claimed that because the flowers of Eyebright had a mottled and bloodshot appearance, it was ‘signed’ for sore eyes.
It is difficult to trace the origin or meaning of some wort plants – though it can be fun to speculate. Nipplewort, is a case in point. The names of other wort plants have fallen into disuse, even though the herbal belief behind the name is obvious: Lesser Celandine used to be known as Scurvywort.
The suffix ‘weed’ tended to be used for plants that were the opposite of ‘worts’ and had little or no supposed benefits: Knapweed, Bindweed, Duckweed. This usage of the word ‘weed’ continues today; alongside an industry of ‘weed control’. Conservationists are only just beginning to convince the majority that a ‘weed’ is simply the ‘right’ flower seen to be in the ‘wrong’ place. Like most things, the differentiation between worts and weeds has become unclear. Most people might consider that Ragwort should really be known as ‘Ragweed’ (though it was once known as ‘Cankerweed’).
Not all plants with perceived medicinal utility have the suffix ‘wort’, as we have seen with Eyebright. Some other examples are: Feverfew (which, presumably, was thought to prevent fever); Fleabane (which sounds like a traditional insect bite deterrent); Lemon Balm – which, according to John Gerard, compiler of the first popular herbal in 1597, could “glueth together greene wounds”; Boneset (an old name for Comfrey); and Scabious (a presumed cure for scabies).
Some plants were named after their supposed similarity in shape and appearance to animals (Cat’s Tail, Goat’s Beard, Cranesbill, Crowsfoot, Goosefoot, Prickly Ox-tongue), or human traits (Maiden Hair, Old Man’s Beard, Dead Man’s Fingers, Shepard’s Purse). Some of these similarities were quite ‘rude’ and were bowdlerised in more ‘gentile’ circles. Medlar was known as Open Arse (and is named as such in Act 2, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). The plant that is generally known as Lords and Ladies has such an obvious similarity to male and female genitalia that it received quite ‘shocking’ names! It wasn’t just the sight of a plant that gave the name, the smell might also create the name. So, Ragwort was (and still is in some parts) known as either Mare’s Fart, Stinking Willie or Smegweed. Lovely!
Agricultural work is highly seasonal, and marking the passage of the seasons would have been a salient concern of agricultural workers. Not surprising then that many plant names are derived from, or mark, seasonal passages: Snowdrop, Spring and Autumn Crocuses, Wintergreen. Several plants have the prefix ‘Cuckoo’ – Cuckoo Flower, Cuckoo Pint (and, though not a flower, Cuckoo Spit – from Froghopper nymphs – that coated meadow grass with white froth in Spring). These names come not from any association with the looks or habits of the Cuckoo, but because their emergence roughly coincided with the time of year when the call of that bird could be heard.
One plant has a name that combines utility with seasonality. St John’s Wort has herbal usage for the treatment of depressions and mental health conditions, and the flowers appear around the time of St John’s Day.
An important utility of plants to agricultural workers would be their edibility – either by humans (e.g. Hedge Mustard), or by farm animals (e.g. Fat Hen). Plants might also have a utility in the house (e.g. Lady’s Bedstraw). Christianity also played an important part in the naming of some plants – think Soloman’s Seal and Star of Bethlehem (and the same will apply to other religions across the world). Restharrow clearly has a connection to agricultural work, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the ploughman would rest his harrow to appreciate the beauty of the flower (in the sense, perhaps, of Traveller’s Joy). No, the name come from the fact that Restharrow has thick, tough roots that would hinder the progress of the harrow. So, the ploughman would have to stop his harrowing to dig out the plant, before proceeding. Some names may be considered, rightly, as ‘poetic’: both Thrift and Patience are positive qualities with which to name a plant; and there can be few plants more poetically named than Love in a Mist! Forget-me-Not is a poetic name, but it is not of English origin. It is a translation of Norman French (ne m’oubliez mye) and is said to derive from a German legend of a gallant knight who died trying to collect flowers for his lover and, with his final breath, cried ‘Forget-me-not’ (or the German equivalent, presumably).
A quick note here about a couple of potentially misleading names, amongst many. Black Medick surely sounds like it is named after its medicinally qualities, but the word ‘Medick’ come from the region where it was named: Media, which is now in Iran. Loosestrife is directly translated from the Greek word Lysimachus, who was the successor of Alexander the Great.
The names we have been talking about are common, ‘everyday’ names. They date from a time of low social mobility and poor inter-regional communications. Consequently, flower names often differed from one region to the next. In Tudor times, this was recognised by the botanist John Gerald, who wrote about the plant Erysimium cheiranthoides (Treakle Mustard): “We call this herb in English Penny Flower or Money Flower, Silverplate, Pricksongwort; in Norfolk, Sattin and White Sattin, and among our women it is called Honesty.”
Names like Cuckoo Flower, Selfheal, Goosefoot and Restharrow came from the everyday experiences of agricultural workers. It is interesting to contrast this with the names given to moths, by a different class of people at a later date. Many moth were named in Victorian times, usually by aristocratic gentlemen (and often by retired clergymen). One can imagine the houses of these people having floors covered with the luxury of carpets, and walls covered in wooden wainscotting. For these gents, there was sometimes an observed likeness between, on the one hand, the pattern and texture of a moth’s wings, and, on the other hand, their own domestic surroundings. Thus we have two moths families: Carpets (Silver-ground Carpet, Twin-spotted Carpet, etc); and Wainscots (Common Wainscot, Smoky Wainscot, etc). Agricultural workers were most unlikely to have either carpets or wainscotting in their houses!
Old vernacular names for flowers reveal a close tie between humans and the natural world. As we have seen, plants were named after their usefulness, their characteristics and their perceived herbal properties. There is much talk today of the importance of ‘nature engagement’; encouraging people to appreciate and feel part of nature. (There is an earlier article about this subject on this website). As the state of our nature becomes increasing threatened, encouraging people to become engaged with nature is seen a prerequisite to motivating them to act in the interest of nature (wildlife-friendly gardening, tree planting, conservation work, etc.) This does not mean turning the clock back to achieve the kind of nature engagement found in the pre-19th century. In any case, that would risk romanticising days when poverty and cruelty were probably the main characteristics of life. However, there is much to be said for retaining and celebrating the wonderful and meaningful traditional names for nature. Even for city children, who may spend most of their day far away from any greenery, and where it is a challenge to build nature engagement, these seemingly weird and crazy old flower names are likely to touch a child’s imagination much more than some (dare we say) boring ‘scientific’ name. They may find Herb Robert growing-up in the cracks of their concrete playground!
Robert MacFarlane indicates in his book ‘The Lost Words’, that there is a ‘spell-binding’ poetry in the old names for nature, and sadly we are at risk of losing them. Though it has an important scientific purpose, insisting on the use of difficult, scientific names for flowers and insects is surely off-putting for most. It will be a hindrance, not a help, to nature engagement. Traditional names provide a connected meaning to nature (albeit sometimes a hazy and historic one). The continued use of traditional names for flowers can form an important element in the nature engagement that we encourage and seek.
(Oh yes, I did promise to reveal this. Because of the distinctive shape of its root tubers, the name Orchid is derived from the Greek word (orchis) for testicle!)
All photographs by the author.