My blog always asks for suggestions or ideas for themes or subjects and I have recently been contacted and asked to put some thought into some of the unofficial names for the native flora of the British Isles. Never one to resist a challenge, I offer this selection given in alphabetical order for ease of reference only.
Bird’s foot trefoil has no less than three alternative names. All four are derived from the appearance of the plant which is said to resemble the toes of a bird – hence the official common name of bird’s foot trefoil and one alternative of hens and chickens. Looking closely at the flowers also reveals why this is known as Dutchman’s clogs, while the colours have given us bacon and eggs – albeit the ‘bacon’ looks a little pale for my liking.
Coltsfoot is also known as coughwort as it was used as a cough remedy until quite recently. Indeed the Latin name of Tussilago farfara tells us this. Resembling a small dandelion with no foliage, leaves appear after the flowers have gone over, it appears in fields before dandelions and some odd idea it was the result of the movement of livestock has led to names such as Ass’s foot, Bull’s foot, Foal’s foot, Foalswort, and Horse foot.
Columbine is the Latin word for ‘dove’, for the flower is said to resemble five doves huddled together and hanging upside-down. Personally I can see no bird at all but it is easy to see where the alternative name of Granny’s bonnet comes from, it does indeed resemble the old bonnets worn by all the women featured in Little House on the Prairie.
Comfrey was used to make a salve or poultice to treat external wounds or burns. Today internal treatments are strongly discouraged as it is believed it contains a toxin which may cause liver damage. However this must surely have been how comfrey was used in the past to earn the alternative names of boneset and knitbone.
Cow parsley is known as Queen Anne’s lace, Lady’s lace, Fairy lace, and Hedge parsley, the last telling us where it is likely to be found growing. The others share ‘lace’, an apt description of the lace-like appearance of the clusters of small white flowers.
Daisies, which comes from ‘day’s eye’ as they open in sunlight and close at night, are also known as bruisewort. Once it was gathered by Roman slaves and the juice extracted to soak the bandages used to bind wounds. Such is still used in homeopathy.
Dandelion gets its name from the French for ‘lion’s tooth’. However the French also refer to it as pis-de-lit, much as we speak of them as wet-the-beds and clearly derived from the myth that picking these common weeds will make one wet the bed that night. For once there is a modicum of truth in this myth, for the plant does contain a mild diuretic, increasing kidney function and may contribute to bed wetting. Yet many other plants contain much greater diuretics and these are never blamed for bed wetting.
Foxgloves are described as Dead-man’s bells, Fairy thimbles and Witches thimbles, all describing their appearance which, it has to be said, are slightly more easier to imagine than the idea of Reynard’s gloves.
Goat’s beard, a name which hardly fits the appearance of the flower or plant, has a more apt alternative name of Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon for the flower only opens in the morning sunlight.
Knapweed are also known as loggerheads, hardheads, starthistles and bastketflowers, all various impressions describing the flower’s appearances. I doubt if I am not the only one to associate the name with a luxuriantly-moustached constable from children’s television of yesteryear.
Lady’s smock, Fairy flower, Cuckooflower and Milkmaids can all be explained by the idea these were sacred to the fairy-folk and brining it indoors was considered very bad luck.
Lesser celandine is also described as Pilewort, and it was indeed used to cure haemorrhoids.
Lords-and-Ladies, Devils and Angels, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, all three are names for an arum which have highly uncertain origins. However we do know the origin of the name of Cuckoo pint, the bird’s name is used in a number of alternative names while the ‘pint’ is a shortened form of ‘pintle’, itself meaning ‘penis’ and a description of the pollen-bearing part of the flower.
Meadow saffron is most often known as Naked ladies. These crocus-like flowers bloom in autumn and described as ‘naked’ as the spikes bearing the flowers appear after the leaves have died back.
Pennyroyal is referred to as Pudding grass, a name recalling its use as an ingredient in many of the recipes cooked by the ancient Greeks and Roman cultures.
Ramsons, the name coming from Old English rhamsa, is the wild garlic used by the peoples of our shores for centuries. The odour has led to it being known as Stink bombs and Stinking nanny.
Rosebay willow-herb is also known as Fireweed, a reference to its bitter flavour which increases as toxins build up throughout the growing season.
Soapwort is the common name of a plant also referred to as Bouncing Bett and Sweet Betty, probably female alternatives to another name of Wild Sweet William.
Stinking iris and Roast beef plant are alternatives for a plant which some say produces an obnoxious aroma when the leaves are crushed said to be reminiscently ‘beefy’.
Toadflax is also known as butter and eggs, a reference to the colour as are butter haycocks, and also bread and butter. It has also been recorded as brideweed, bridewort, bunny haycocks, bunny mouths, continental weed, deadman’s bones, devils flax, devils flower, doggies, dragon bushes, false flax, flaxweed, fluellen, gallweed, gallwort, impudent lawyer, Jacob’s ladder, lion’s mouth, monkey flower, rabbit flower, rancid, ransted, wild tobacco and wild snapdragon.
Wall pennywort is also known as Navelwort which, along with the scientific name of Umbilicus, describe the round leaves with a central depression. Note every one an 'innie', not a single 'outie'.
Wild pansy, the species from which all cultivated pansies have been produced, is also known as heartsease, heart’s delight, tickle-me-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, comes-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, and love-in-idleness are all references to its use in herbalism to treat epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases, eczema, bronchitis, colds, bronchitis, whooping cough, rheumatism, and cystitis.
Once again I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies.