The Naming of Weeds
It is early June.
In Pembrokeshire the lanes are narrowed with hedges of Queen Anne's Lace, Columbine, Bluebells and the delicate tendrils of Stitchwort that are threaded through the tall stalks of Meadow Foxtail. The still cold winds and vibrant busting of energy make the year feel fresh and young, but nothing is really new. Each emerging plant, animal or insect already owns a collection of old names that touch us with the forgotten thoughts from past generations that used to till the meadows and walk the lanes of west Wales. For this post I have been gathering some of those memories that are living inside the names of common weeds.
In our village there used to live an old lady who waged a constant war with Dandelions that infested her lawn, I would meet her in front of her house digging up the roots with a pocket penknife. A few generations ago she might have been frightened to touch the Pissy Beds, as they used to be called, because in olden times they thought touching a Dandelion was enough to make you wet yourself.
|April/ May - Pissy Beds and Celandines|
Romantics liken the Dandelion's large yellow blooms, that open as the daybreaks and close as the moon rises, to the sun. They also said that the seeded blow-balls that hover over the meadows on long stalks resemble the moon. The parachute tufted seeds drifting in the breeze remind us of rivers of stars.
Dandelions, inherited their name from the French who call the plant "Dent de Lion" (Lions teeth). This probably refers to their toothed leaves. For me the yellow flowers were always the ruffs of lion's manes, and surely the name should be spelt dandy, not dande? That is the pleasure of common names, they are plastic and we can modify them to suit our own experiences.
Another aspect of the plant is celebrated in it's scientific name "Taraxacum" which roughly translates as "remedy for Disorder" after the plant's reputation to aid digestion and cleanse the body.
For obvious reasons Children call them clock flowers. The common name "blowball" is given to the dandelion for its appearance during this evanescent stage of its life cycle. It is also called "faceclock" or simply clock due to the childhood practice of blowing on the ball until all of the seeds are removed - the number of puffs providing the hour of the day. When all of the seeds were gone, the bare knob at the top of the stem looked like a tonsured head of a monk, the name "Priest's Crown"
False Dandelions or Catsears are already colouring our verges and will continue in bloom until autumn. I made this drawing on grassy bank that overlooks the sea wall at Wiseman's Bridge.
|Cat's Ear, Red clover amongst grasses|
The season of Lady's Smock or May flowers (Cumbria), over which Orange Tip Butterflies fly, is drawing to a close.
|Lady's Smock and Orange Tip|
A few weeks ago the meadows were painted pale with their colour
When Ladies' smocks of silver white
do paint the meadows with delight
They are called Ladies' smocks because the flowers resemble linen exposed to whiten on the grass- “when maidens bleach their summer smocks.”
The plant is commonly called “Cuckoo-flower,” because they bloom when the cuckoo sings. For the same reason the frothing nests of the Spittlebug that are found on the stalks of grasses at this time of year are called Cuckoo-spit .
The bubbles keep the little Spittlebugs warm and protected, when the bugs leave their nurseries as adults they become Froghoppers. Froghoppers are tiny insects that jump with lightening speed, they accelerate from 0 to 4 metres per second in a millisecond, so fast that it is as if they simply disappeared into thin air and they have wings to fly with. They do this with a unique cog mechanism that synchronise their legs as they leap.
The Day's Eye (Old English dægeseage) or Daisy is another lawn-infester with eyes that open at daybreak and close with the arrival of the moon.
Daisies are also the flower of childhood and innocence, they whiten our lawns with summer snow and are blessed with the loveliest Latin name of any plant, Bellis perennis, which loosely translates as "prettiness that is everlasting". Little wonder the Victorians worshipped this flower's purity, named their daughters after it, taught their children how to make them into necklaces, put their flower heads in sandwiches and at the brink of adulthood asked the frail petals of this eternally beautiful flower to be truthful about the chastity of their lovers. Today chefs are again recommending the flower heads can be added as a garnish in green salads.
Don't put Foxglove's flowers in your salad, they are poisonous. The tall spikes are already standing high over the other weeds. This plant was in my garden last year, today I saw a first bloom.
Foxglove flowers are often likened to bells, thimbles and gloves. The French call it gantelée (little Glove) but the plant has also attracted names that reflect its toxic nature, names like Dead Man's Bells and Bloody Fingers. Foxglove is a very ancient name that was already known to Edward III in the middle ages. The names of weeds, like fairy tales, have the habit of being brutally unsentimental. Foxglove is a name about which there has been a lot of controversy amongst etymologists who question why the people of the Middle ages paired Fox with Glove to create a playful harmless name for such a dangerous plant.
Medieval people had a strong belief in fairies who they called "the good folk". Foxgloves have been a history of being associated with fairies, in parts of Wales they are called "maneg ellyllon", (fairies’ glove) and in Scotland "Teviotdale" (Witches’ thimbles). Scholars ask "when naming this plant were they really imagining foxes or fairies?" It is suggested the common name started as Folks Gloves, but as belief in fairies died out the name became corrupted into Fox Gloves.
Bluebells are also associated with Fairies
Britain has the highest density of bluebells anywhere in the world, a Bluebell wood is usually an ancient wood
It used to be believed that when the bluebells were rung the fairies would come. A patch of Bluebells was supposed to be alive with the spells of the Fairies and you should not walk amongst them or bring the flowers into the house. The Latin name for the flower is Endymion who was the lover of the Moon Goddess, Selene. The Moon put Endymion into eternal sleep so that she alone could enjoy his beauty
Another flower that carpets the grass blue is ground creeping Germander Speedwell.
The Germans were rather hard on this plant, noticing that it would wilt as soon as it was picked. With irony they call it "Männertreu" (Man's faithfullness) sarcastically associating the wilting of the plant with the wilting of a man's ardour after he has had his way.
Another very pretty, very poisonous plant that seems to have colonised our lanes is the Columbine.
The common name "columbine" comes from the Latin for "dove", due to the resemblance of the inverted flower to five doves clustered together, for the same reason the plant is sometimes called Clucky Bell or Meeting House (a Quaker name perhaps?). This is especially so when the flower is very pale cream.
|A cluster of five doves|
Its other name is Aquilegia which is derived from the Latin word for eagle (aquila), because the shape of the flower petals, which are said to resemble an eagle's claw.
For a few short weeks the glorious white umbels of Cow Parley or Wild Carrot dominate our hedgerows.
Remains of Cow Parsley were found in the stomach of an iron age Celt whose body had been preserved in peat and it is thought that our garden carrots may have been developed from this plant. They are sometimes called Wild Carrots.
Unfortunately foolish people who are tempted to collect and eat the harmless Cow Parley often end up poisoning themselves by eating toxic Hemlock instead, the two plants are hard to separate.
Collecting wild carrots was a matter for expert herbalists, this is perhaps why Cow Parsley is sometimes called Fools/Devils Parsley or Mothers Dies and why children were always told it was unlucky to pick or bring the flowers into the house.
|(Cow Parsley, Devil’s Parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, Mothers dies)|
|Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585)|
|John Gerard's Herball - The Historie of Plants 1597|
Ancient herbalists believed in the wilde carrot "The roote boiled and eaten, or boiled with wine, and the decooction drunke, provoketh urine, expelleth the stone, bringeth foorth the birth; it also procureth bodily lust." John Gerard's Herball - The Historie of Plants 1597
A prettier name is Queen Anne's Lace. But which Queen Anne and why?
A common legend is that Queen Anne of England (1702-1714) pricked her finger while making lace and stained the lace with blood, this being the origin of the red/purple dot commonly found at the centre of the white florets. Biologist speculate this dot evolved as a decoy insect that attracts other pollinating insects.
|A drop of Queen Anne's Blood?|
Others say Queen Anne refers to St Anne, "queen of heaven," and mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. She was the patron saint of lacemakers (among other professions) and pregnant women. The seeds of Queen Anne's lace have been used as a contraceptive by women for centuries. Recent research with mice has confirmed that the volatile oils of the seeds block the formation of progesterone, essential for the uterine wall to receive the egg.
Creeping Cinquefoil is a member of the potentilla family called . It is growing delicate flat trails over the stones of our terrace and looks like a creeping buttercup. It is quite common.
Just now the central reservations of the dual carriageways are white with the blooms of the Oxeye Daisy, or Goldens as some people call them. The specimen I picked was about three feet tall. They are growing so thickly we are hardly aware of the slender stiffened stems that are needed to lift the fragile daisy tops so high in the sky.
So far I find no reference to the ox, perhaps it is because the ox had the biggest eyes in the farmyard, and this daisy has the biggest eye of the daisy family? There is plenty of folk law attached to this plant, other names include Baldur's Brow (northern) Goldens, Marguerite, Moon Daisy, Horse Gowan (Scotland), Maudlin Daisy. Field Daisy. Dun Daisy (Somerset) Butter Daisy, Horse Daisy, Maudlinwort.
Amongst the many plants I looked up whilst writing this post was Goose grass. It has a wide range of common names including Cleavers, Stickywilly, and Annual Bedstraw.
|Goose Grass, Clever, Annual Bedstraw or Stickywilly|
The genus (Gallium) is a member of the coffee family and the little seed balls can be gathered and roasted to make one of the best low caffeine coffee substitutes. The young shoots are also edible; "young shoots and or tip of older plants raw or boiled 10/15 minutes. Serve warm with butter or olive oil, salt and pepper. Or, let them cool and use them in a variety of ways, salads, omelets et cetera." (www.eattheweeds.com)
Goose grasses were used as bedstraws in medieval mattresses because after they are dried the matted foliage sticks together and maintains a uniform thickness.
It is called Goose Grass because Geese love to eat it, silly me, I never thought of that! With this new knowledge I picked some and took it to our two geese, Gordon and Maggy. They ignored my offering, it was not bread. The next day I tried again and Gordon started eating some. Maggy thought she would try some too. Gordon is often very protective towards Maggy, but goose grass turned him into a thug, he wouldn't share it with her at all, he wanted it all for himself.
Eventually Maggy slipped in, pinched a bunch and ran off to be out of Gordon's reach
|Geese just love Goose Grass!|