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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

A rose by any other name

Posted on May 24 2012 at 2:16:26 0 comments

Wild rose

Mary Green discusses the roots of our names for plants.

We had a typical “blackthorn winter” in early April, with snow on the blossom where I was in Yorkshire, then an equally typical run of cool April showers, and a wet, cool start to May.

Some flowers appeared early, then slowed down, so there was a long flowering spell for things like bluebells. Ducklings, similarly, appeared early, and unfortunately many disappeared: then there was a gap before more arrived in mid-May.

I saw the first hawthorn blossom out on April 13 , quite early, but hardly any more came out, and for May Day there was very little may blossom. Even by the second week of May, which is the “old May Day,” much of it is still not out, unlike last year when most of it was over and gone by then.

The names of our native plants and animals tell us so much about them. Last month I wrote about how crucial flowering plants are to the survival of the world as we know it. The names we have called them over the years reflect their uses and importance.

Native plants generally have at least two, and often three or more, different names. They will have a Latin name, which shows their place in the classification system of plants. They will have a common English name, generally known and shared across the country (some also having Scots and Gaelic names too), and may also have a number of local familiar names.

The common names are often Anglo-Saxon in origin, meaning that the name has existed since before the middle ages. Anglo-Saxon words still in our language are usually those of the most basic important things (home, love, heart, bread…) and trees and flowers are among these.

Let’s look first at the Latin names. The family names can tell you quite a lot. For example, plants in the family called Labiatae are named from “lips”, and have flowers with prominent lips. Many herbs are in this family – the mints and sages.

Umbelliferae are umbrella-shaped flowers like cow parsley. Compositae are daisy-like “flowers”, actually composites of tiny florets, and Cruciferae are cross-shaped, in other words they have four petals, like all the cabbage and cress plants.

If we look at the most familiar plants, their names tell a story. Take the daisy. Its family is compositae, as it has little yellow “disk florets” and bigger white “ray florets”. 

The Latin name is bellis perennis, which means “beautiful every year.” The English name, daisy, was originally “day’s eye”, both old Anglo-Saxon words reflecting its status as the flower of every day.

The name and flower is so common that it doesn’t generally have other local names. The Scottish name is gowan, a name which is used for several other small flowers, again showing the universality of the flower.

Latin names often help identify a flower. Among the labiatae, for example, are melissa officianalis and betonica officianalis, balm and betony. In both cases “officianalis” identifies them as medicinal herbs, literally “from the office”.

Similarly you can look at three flowers in the same family called stachys palustris, stachys silvatica and stachys arvensis. These are called in English marsh woundwort, wood woundwort, and field woundwort. “Palustris” refers to damp meadows, “silvatica” means woods, and “arvensis” cultivated fields.

The names reflect where they are found. However, the wood woundwort is found a lot along hedges and footpaths, because the trees along them are often parts of old woodland. The “woundwort” name shows its herbal use, to staunch wounds, and it smells quite medicinal.

The greater celandine, chelidonium majus, is named after the swallow, the common name just being a corruption of the Latin one. This plant was supposed to flower when the swallows arrive and die away when they left, and indeed it does.

But there was an even stranger myth: that swallows used its juice to restore their sight, and the plant was believed to heal eye problems (don’t try this at home, as it can cause damage to eyes!).

There is a frieze of carved celandine round the shrine of St Frideswide in Oxfordshire, where the plant is common. She was believed to have founded a holy well whose water would cure blindness.

Greater celandine was actually much more used as a cure for warts. You will find it round old settlements where herb gardens were planted. In Alvechurch, it grew especially round the old cottages in Meadow Lane, though quite a lot has been “tidied away” now.

Names can be confusing, of course. The lesser celandine, a much more common flower, is from a different family altogether, and related to the buttercup. It is one of the first spring flowers: this may be why it too carries the swallow name.

Its older common name is pilewort. This reflects is use as a cure for piles, and brings us in to another kind of folk-medicine. It was chosen as a cure for piles because its knobbly roots look a bit like piles.

This relationship is called the “doctrine of signatures”, and meant that plants carried a “signature” – something that looked like the part of the body it would treat.

A good example of this is lungwort or pulmonaria officianalis, now a common early garden plant but originally native, which has spotted leaves that reminded people of diseased lungs.

As “officianalis” tells us, it is a herb, and was used to treat diseases of the lung. It has several old common names such as soldiers-and-sailors and Jacob’s coat, referring to the way the flowers change from pink to blue.

Another “signature” flower is honesty. Its Latin name is lunaria, because the silver pods look like full moons. It was used as a cure for mental disturbance and madness, which was thought to be affected by the full moon. The English name, honesty, is thought to come from the transparency of the pods.

The names of trees are interesting because native trees nearly all have really old Anglo-Saxon names. Ash and thorn are such old words that they were used for some of the letters in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet (ae in aesc being the short “a” sound, þ in þorn being pronounced “th”).

Oak was the old word ac, beech was bece. All these names are totally different from the Latin ones (fraxinus, crataegus, quercus, fagus). Thorn was the name for hawthorn, also called white thorn, quickthorn and may. It was also used for the blackthorn or sloe (Anglo-Saxon sla). Other trees with old English names are birch, apple, pear and willow.

The complexity of names can be seen in the lady’s mantle, alchemilla vulgaris. “Vulgaris” is always the “common” species. There is a garden variety called alchemilla mollis – “mollis” meaning soft. The plant was used widely as a medicinal herb for wounds, infertility and impotence.

The leaves have a distinctive habit of catching the morning dew, and this made it much prized by herbalists. It was also used by alchemists, the ancient magical chemists, to catch the purest dew for turning base metals into gold. Its Latin name means “little alchemist.”

At some point all this magic was frowned on and the plant was Christianised as “our lady’s mantle.”

There are also some plants which are so iconic that they have the same name in many languages. The rose is the most obvious of these. It is an Anglo-Saxon name, but also the Latin rosa and a similar word in ancient Greek; it is the name of a whole family of plants, similar in all the Indo-European languages, and the name of a colour. No wonder Shakespeare used it when talking of the importance of names.

Other attractive flowers carry the rose name. Primroses are “prime” or early roses. The beautiful large St John’s wort is commonly called Rose of Sharon. The rock rose is a lovely flower of meadows and hillsides.

The names of plants work their way into language too. Nettle is a good old English plant (Anglo-Saxon netele). We now use nettle-rash to mean other allergic reactions too, nettled to mean annoyed, and we “grasp the nettle” when we tackle a difficult issue.

You can be a shrinking violet or have a heart of oak. Of course, women are traditionally given flower names, which come in and out of fashion (I know little girls at present called Violet, Cicely, Daisy and Lily.)

Another common way of naming incorporates animal names into plant ones. There are dog violets, dog roses, dog’s mercury – in all cases a common, unscented and possibly less pretty or less useful variety. Sheep’s bit scabious and sheep’s sorrel are typical pastureland plants.

Horse mushrooms are very large and often grow in horse pasture. Horse chestnuts have a mark like a horseshoe when you break off a leaf. Foxgloves are just the right size for little paws, and foxtail grass looks like a fox’s brush. And cowslips grow in cow slops!

However, “cow” is often used like “dog” to mean an inferior sort, so cow parsley is the poor man’s parsley. There were attempts to rename this beautiful spring flower, but the alternative name “Queen Anne’s lace” never really caught on.

A relative of cow parsley, the pignut, has a more practical name. This plant has a little underground nodule or “nut” which is highly edible, and pigs readily root them out.

Edible plants often have suitable names. Garlic mustard is a member of the mustard family that tastes of garlic. (Its other name is Jack-by-the-hedge: these “Jack” names usually refer to the old spirit of the woods, Jack-in-the green or the Green Man).

Meadowsweet is a sweetening plant that grows in damp meadows. Sweet cicely has a similar use. The leaves of sweetbriar, a kind of wild rose, smell and taste sweet. Sweet violets are highly edible. Sweet woodruff was used dried as bedding – it smells wonderful dried – along with lady’s bedstraw, of course.

And then of course there are the obvious names. Snowdrops are perfectly named, as are buttercups. Lambs’ tails and pussy-willow are just right for those furry catkins that mark the early spring.

Some names, though, are not as old as we think. Bluebells weren’t called bluebells till quite late on, though the name might have been used in speech as it’s so obvious – they were usually called wild hyacinths.

And the name bluebell was also given to the harebell. It wasn’t till the late 18th century that the name bluebell became universal.

One of my favourite plants at this time of year is the ragged robin. It is now uncommon round here, and grows in old damp meadows: there is some protected in Eades Meadow, and some a few hundred yards from my house (it’s uncommon enough for me not to publicise its location).

The name Robin or Robert was associated with Robin Goodfellow, the wild spirit of nature, and appears in herb Robert, robin’s pincushion – and robin the bird of course. It usually refers to a red of pink colour too.

Ragged describes the flower, which is a relative of red campion with beautiful raggedy petals. Its alternative name is cuckoo flower, because it comes in spring with the cuckoo. It even has the Latin name lychnis flos-cuculi.

But cuckoo flower is also one of the names of lady’s smock, a common flower of early spring round here, again in damp meadows (including The Meadows in Alvechurch). In the north it’s called milkmaids. The names match its pretty pink-tinged white flower, and its spring appearance.

However, the ladies in the plant called lords-and-ladies are less modest. This, the wild arum, has another common name, cuckoo-pint, so we have ladies and cuckoos together again.

“Pint” here was originally pronounced with a short “i” to rhyme with “mint”. It’s short for “pintle”, an old slang word for the penis. Anyone who’s seen the purple spadix in its cream sheath will understand why, and why it’s lords-and-ladies or, in some places, cows-and-bulls.

The cuckoo, of course, was not only the harbinger of spring, but the bird of adulterers (because it lays its eggs in other birds’ nests).

All these names conjure up a disappeared world of meadows, cuckoos, milkmaids, ladies with and without their smocks and wild nature spirits. Although that world has gone, the poetry of the names is still with us.

Here is my poem for the Diamond Jubilee:

Jubilee

What were you doing when?
First I was in fancy dress, in
Blue organdie with a bunch of forget-me-nots,
(The same dress I wore to my auntie’s wedding
When we went on a train and I was bridesmaid
Standing in the spring snow outside Old Yardley Church
And we had tomato soup in the Ring of Bells)
And after the coronation we went into
The back of the pub (the Royal Oak this time)
And watched television for the first time in the world
And I stayed up till midnight.

Ten years later I was leaving home
Going north into the keen air and smog
Terrified but bold, I settled in to live
With strangers, and broke all the rules
About how many men could come in to your room
Invaded the men-only pubs, forged my mum’s signature
To stay out all night, and, of course, fell in love
With a bad lad in the second year
Writing terrible poetry and walking the lit-up night
Singing in folk clubs and not watching television.
Queen? What queen? When we graduated
There was the Duchess of Kent and curtsey-refusers

For the silver jubilee, I was determinedly republican
We went to Scotland and camped in a wet field
Watching the June snow fall on Ben Nevis
And I felt a bit sorry I couldn’t see the beacons
Even if they were royalist, but the rain made us equal.
During the next decades, I became intrigued
By the way the lives of that odd family
Became a pattern of our lives, the wrong marriages
The divorces, the distant parents, the deaths.
We each had our annus horribilis, like them.

Then it was gold, and I took my old dad
To the Isle of Wight, his last holiday. It was
Still 1952 there, good old seaside and icecream
Crab sandwiches, and all the thatched cottages
Decked out in St George flags.
England was boiled down into this little island
And the queen just a young thing to him.
I loved the concert with rock and roll
On the palace roof, surreal, brought into light
Through the eyes of an old man still wanting
To touch and taste and see all he could.

And now it’s diamond. And here I am
Planning concerts and writing poems and talking
To other old ladies like me about our memories.
Diamond-bright, we all see our lives
Shimmer behind us like moon on the water.


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