Wild flowers: the beauty in the names

Wondering at the beauty of the names of wild flowers, their folklore and myth.

Rosebay willowherb from http://www.gardenersworld.com

Rosebay willowherb from http://www.gardenersworld.com

During road trips around Scotland with Mr Scotland I often find myself immersed in his Collins Scottish Wild Flowers book which is full of charming illustrations and the lyrical Latin, Gaelic and English names of wild flowers such as Ivy-leaved Water Crowfoot, Harestail Cotton Grass and Common Enchanters Nightshade.

I couldn’t identify Hemlock Water-Dropwort or Creeping Ladies Tresses to save my life but reading their names stirs up vague aspirations, like speaking fluent French and learning how to sail, that one day I should. The book also entertains children as they can discover appealing names like Lesser Bladderwort and Sneezewort or ruder ones like Nipplewort and Black Medick.

For me a wild flower by the roadside or on the heath is a wild flower by the roadside or on the heath, something to be admired, but not really understood. A botanist or biologist will understand its world – how it arrived there and how it stays there, how its physical traits are not to please passing shallow ignoramuses but are adaption to survive and thrive, how it propagates and where it lies in classification.

When you research the names (although budding botanists are advised to be cautious googling for Black Medick in public) you discover a world of folklore, medicine, myth, history and culture.

Rose-Bay Willow-Herb Fairy from http://www.flowerfairiesprints.com

Most people will have come across Rosebay Willowherb, once confused with Great Hairy Willowherb. In London it was known as Bombweed as it colonised World War II bomb craters. Around the world it is used for wild flower salad, tea, syrups, jellies and treating pus-filled boils.

Inspired by its innovative ability to follow the spread of railways Terry Pratchett used Rosebay Willowherb in his novel Sourcery as the nearest comparative Roundworld flower to Sapient Pearwood, a  semi-intelligent wood that grows in areas of magic. Anything made of Sapient Pearwood, including goods for the grave, will follow its owner anywhere.

The yellow flowers of Lady’s Bedstraw scent the air of grasslands, chalk downs, meadows, heaths and sand dunes with honey. When dried it smells like fresh hay and its name possibly comes from the tradition of filling straw mattresses with it, especially for women about to give birth.

It was believed that Houndstongue could ward off dog attacks if a leaf was worn in the shoe. It has many reputed herbalist uses, was used in cures for madness and by the 1830s was also used by English doctors to quell the libido and combat venereal excesses.

Devil’s-bit Scabious was used to treat scabies, and other skin afflictions including sores caused by the bubonic plague. In fact the word scabies comes from the Latin word for scratch. The plant’s panacea properties so angered the devil that he bit off the short black root.

Dovesfoot Cranesbill was said to be used as medieval wine to relieve gout and joint pains while Lady’s Mantle, its cupped leaves known for holding water droplets after the rain, is also used in making lotions and soaps.

Let such evocative names echo around your mind and stir-up misty-eyed dreams for walks through Britain’s bogs, heaths, salt marshes and forests.

Lady's Tresses by English botanical illustrator Anne Pratt (1806-1893) from Griffon's Medieval Manuscripts http://www.griffons.com

Lady’s Tresses by English botanical illustrator Anne Pratt (1806-1893) from Griffon’s Medieval Manuscripts http://www.griffons.com

Babington’s Orache

Ivy-leaved Toadflax

Smooth Hawksbeard

Thyme-leaved Sandwort

Purple loosestrife

Knotted Pearlwort

Marsh Pennywort

Opposite-leaved Golden-Saxifrage

Three-nerved Sandwort

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5 thoughts on “Wild flowers: the beauty in the names

    • Thanks Rajiv – it’s interesting to see beyond the obvious and I knew nothing about these plants before I wrote this article. I think I can now identify two wild flowers and I see Rosebay Willowherb everywhere!

      Like

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