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Monday August 19 2019

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Village Features

The name of the rose

Posted on May 30 2019 at 10:00:30

burnet rose

Mary Green explores why we call our flowers by so many names.

I was unhappy to see that the railway people have mowed down all the wildflowers just coming up on the station bank in Alvechurch. They had promised to only mow this after the flowering season but have ruined it for this year.

In the little bit they hadn’t reached, there were moon daisies and wild strawberries flowering and tansy leaves coming up.

I don’t know why the people whom we pay to look after our open spaces are so keen to destroy our habitats.

So many people these days watch David Attenborough and bemoan the loss of species across the planet, then go out and mow the grass to a green desert and clip the hedge so it might as well be a wall.

I am writing this in May, at the time when the may blossom is all around me. It has made me think once more about the names we give our plants and how they show how much plants are woven into our history and language.

May, of course, is the name of the month and the tree. It comes from the Latin Maia, another version of the name Mary, and many people think that the month of May is named for the Virgin Mary.

There is a poem by the 19th century priest-poet Hopkins that wonders why “May is Mary’s month.” In many Catholic countries, may is the flower of the Virgin Mary and is brought into churches to celebrate her.

However, may has another old name: hawthorn, whitethorn or just thorn. (Hawthorn means the thorn used for enclosures).

Thorn is such an old name that it appears in Anglo-Saxon not only as the name of the tree but as one of the letters of the alphabet. The sound of “th” in “thorn” was represented by the letter “þ”.

Names like this show how long trees have been part of our world and our culture. Most of the trees I have written about over the last few years have Anglo-Saxon names still in use.

Ash gave its name to a letter too – the letter now written as ae and pronounced “ash”.

All the trees in the ancient Celtic calendar gave their name to letters in their Ogham alphabet. But our English names for these trees are Anglo Saxon – we didn’t inherit many names from our earlier Celtic ancestors.

The only tree that has a similar name in Anglo Saxon and old Celtic is yew.

We also have an old alternative name for willow – sallow or sally – which comes from the Celtic name. There’s an old song called “Down by the sally gardens”.

But only ash and thorn had English letters named after them. Oak was “ac” in Anglo Saxon and the fruit of the oak is an “acorn”.

Another sign of old tree knowledge is that we have separate old names for their fruit. The fruit of the thorn is the haw, the ash has keys, roses hips, beech mast, and blackthorn has sloes. Apples, of course, have apples!

Apple is treated as the name for any fruit, so we call the tree in the Garden of Eden an apple (which it isn’t in the original) and other fruits are named after it (thorn-apple, or love-apple as a name for tomato, or pineapple).

It can be the apple of your eye. All these fruit names are Anglo-Saxon.

The oaks came out into leaf so early this year that the old saying about “oak before ash” should point to a good summer. However, the oak and ash were out in leaf together last year, when we really did have a good summer.

In reality the oak comes out earlier in a warm spring because it reacts to temperature, whereas the ash comes at more or less the same time every year because it reacts most to light. The early oaks this year just mean the spring has been warm and sunny.

Hawthorn came into blossom early this year, in late April, for the same reason. By the time you read this it will be over and the haws forming.

The flower for June is of course the rose. This plant is unusual because the name, though Anglo Saxon, is similar in all the Indo-European languages. It is the name of a whole family of plants and of a colour.

The rose family includes hawthorn, apple, all the wild plums, blackberries, cherries, strawberries and a host of other edible plants.

No wonder rose is sometimes used to mean just flower, as if it is the flower of flowers. For example, primroses are the “prime roses”, in other words the first flowers.

Incidentally, the foremost expert on wild plants in England, Richard Mabey, says that primroses did really well this year and have spread into new places. This is surprising as they like undisturbed land but is maybe to do with the warming climate.

A lovely plant of old meadow land and cliffs and gorges is the rock rose – not a rose but shaped a bit like a small rose. You don’t see it much around here, as it likes chalk soils, but there is some in meadows near Abberley.

The large St John’s Wort is also known as Rose of Sharon, a biblical reference. There are several St John’s Worts, all flowering in June. Wort (which is pronounced wert, not wart) just means a herb. St John’s Day is midsummer, when the flower is in bloom.

There is a Christmas Rose too – again not a rose but a cultivated hellebore with a rose-like flower in January or sometimes December. (There are wild hellebores in England, but they have smaller greenish flowers. The name is Greek.)

There is a common and very beautiful shrub called Guelder Rose, not related to the roses but flowering in June with open heads of small white flowers followed by lovely red berries and scarlet foliage in autumn. Guelder is probably a place-name.

The Virgin Mary is sometimes called Rosa Mundi (the flower of the world) and of course you can pray with rosary beads (a rosarium is a rose garden).

Roses were one of the first flowers to be much cultivated and brought in from other countries, so that by the Middle Ages the wealthy had cultivated rose gardens.

The two warring royal houses here, York and Lancaster, each adopted a rose, white or red, as their symbol. When the Tudor dynasty was established it took on the Tudor rose as its symbol – an impossible rose with white and red petals.

It became the national flower of England, though not in its wild natural form. The Labour Party adopted the red rose.

The white rose of York, Rosa Alba, originally came from our wild white rose crossed with a damask rose. Our white rose is called field rose (Rosa Arvensis) and is very common around here. The name reflects its obvious association with field hedges.

The other common one is the pink dog rose, Rosa Canina. This hasn’t really got much to do with dogs. The name dog is often given to a more common, less-scented and less-regarded plant, and can also be found in dog violet and dog’s mercury.

There are other varieties of rose elsewhere in Britain. In the north you can find the downy rose, a much darker pink than the dog rose. Near the sea grows the burnet rose (pictured above), a lovely small white flower followed by striking black hips.

In areas with chalky soils you will see, and probably smell, the sweet briar, a most beautiful mid-pink rose whose leaves are scented as well as the flowers.

Briar is another old name for a thorny bush and was often given to roses generally. Apart from this, roses don’t have many of the old local common names that other flowers have – they are always roses.

Flower names range from the obvious to the complex. Bluebells are blue bells, though in Scotland they may be harebells! They were wonderful this spring in the woods and banks around here.

You can see how much this area was once all woodland. No one quite knows why forget-me-nots are called that, but they have the same name in most European languages.

Anything called Robin or Robert or Jack is named after the ancient spirit of the wild, called Robin Goodfellow or Jack in the Green.

Red flowers like Herb Robert and Ragged Robin pick up on this, as does Jack-by-the-hedge or garlic mustard.

Ragged Robin, a great June flower, has a lovely Latin name too – Flos-cuculi, the cuckoo flower. It grows in wet marshy meadows.

The name cuckoo flower is also given to a different pale pink flower also called lady’s smock or milkmaids, growing in wet meadows too, both at the time the cuckoo used to be here.

Coming back to trees, the most prominent tree flower in June is the elderflower. Its scented flower heads are everywhere now in the hedges. Elder is another old Anglo-Saxon name.

So is elm. You may not notice elm trees since Dutch elm disease took most of them in the 1960s. But they grow through suckers and are common in our hedges in small bush form.

Occasionally they grow to full sized trees and flower, but they usually succumb to the disease again eventually.

In April and May I found them flowering in several places around here. There are three along the canal towards Hopwood.

There’s one by the canal near Alvechurch marina, which I haven’t seen flower before, and another beside the footpath through Shortwood above the canal tunnel. I hope they survive.

I wrote this poem on one of my walks to check on local wildlife this year.

Thorn
Easter: thorns cast aside and blossoms arising.
I walk to visit flowers I did not see last year
And some that blossomed even in those thorny days
The canalside is waves of blackthorn, cherry, apple
Even the first may, shining under the sun
I walk gently, listening to blackbirds
Wanting to tell the people who sweat past me
You can’t escape the race by running faster.
And then the elms. Above me, three of them, in fruit
Their papery seed-heads lime green, a child’s decoration
Surviving all these years when all the rest were killed
Stoical, fragile in their scarce-seen beauty.
My eyes are in the branches and I trip over roots
Thinking of Chaucer’s astrologer, looking at the stars
To see the future, and falling into a marl pit.
He saw not that, says Chaucer. I didn’t see the thorns
Until they caught me and held me last year.
Next I find an old verge, often mowed to nothing
But this year neglected, and here they are again
Few-flowered garlic, a strange uneven half-blossom
Not seen for years, but somehow in the ditch-side
It hid under the ground and waited for this day.
Then as expected the goldilocks, first buttercup
Flawed flowers, always imperfect, just like us
But gold and bold against their delicate leaves.
So everywhere renewed this year, all blossoming
With nothing more to do than celebrate
To stand and touch and smell should be enough.
And yet that thorn is in my belly, still pricking
Knowing how fragile all this is, how easily
We can destroy it all: blossoms, bees, blackbirds
So that I can’t just stop and rest among the petals
But have to keep on walking, talking, writing
Sharpening the thorns that lie behind the flowers.
So little time before the blossoms fall.


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