Exploring Traditional Wildflower Names – Twigs Way

On Tuesday 8th September we were joined by Dr Twigs Way, well known garden historian.  Again, this was a Zoom meeting and we were pleased to welcome 33 members and visitors to this session. Twigs imparted a wealth of information on the origins of wildflower names and those taking part were able to add comments or ask questions through the chat facility …

Traditional wild flower names have evolved through generations by people who had a reason to use that name.  People have always needed to communicate with each other about plants which could be used to feed livestock or for their own food, for those which could be used as medicines, or for dyes or simply to let others know which plants to avoid.  Pre literate or non literate people would not have used Latin or “book” names which would have had little meaning for them.  Hence a variety of names abounded and one plant could have as many as ten different names, some of which could be quite lewd.  Twigs gave as an example Arum maculatum which is commonly called lords and ladies, snakeshead, cuckoo-pint, naked boys, starch root, jack in the pulpit amongst others.  There was also variation in plant names according to geographical location.

Many flowers were named after animals and birds, hence cranesbill, stork’s bill, dove’s feet, lark’s foot, coltsfoot, calf’s foot, ox eye daisy, cow mumble, cow parsley, bear’s garlic.  We went on to learn that the term “dog” meant common or inferior or poisonous.  The dog rose has no scent, the dog violet has no scent and dog mercury is poisonous.  Some boys’ names were commonly used for plants – herb robert, ragged robin, jack by the hedge, sweet william. 

Twigs spoke about the Doctrine of Signatures whereby it was thought that plants resembling various parts of the body could be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. For example lungwort was used for pulmonary infections,  as its leaves were shaped like lungs. Wort is a middle English name for a plant which is used in cooking or medicine and the name dates back to the 1100 – 1500s.  Fleawort, barrenwort, setterwort and woundwort are all examples.  Plants with names ending in bane were sometimes used for their hallucinogenic properties for example henbane was used by witches to give the sensation of flying.  Flea bane was used for killing fleas and wolfsbane (monkshood)  and leopard’s bane were extremely poisonous and could cause serious illness.

Where plants grow sometimes has a bearing on their names  – corn flowers, corn poppies growing in the fields.  The corn flower was also known as hurt sickle as it could blunt the reaping sickles used for harvesting.  Twigs touched on Shakespeare and referred to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  In this play mention is made of the purple pansy also known as three faces under a hood, heart’s delight or love in idleness  – “idleness” in this case meaning “unrequited” as Titania finds out after the juice of the heartsease is squeezed into her eyes and her subsequent infatuation for Bottom whose head had been transformed into that of a donkey.  Twigs concluded her talk by referring to the many flower names which have a reference to the Virgin Mary.  Mary’s gold (marigolds), Lady’s bedstraw, Lady’s mantle, Our Lady’s tresses, Our Ladies shoes.

Thank you Twigs for transporting us to a world where people were much closer to nature – to a world which is largely passed and gone.  Hopefully your talk will inspire us to look more closely at the wildflowers which survive.

On Tuesday 20th October Rob Brett, Curator at RHS Garden Hyde Hall will join us on Zoom to give a presentation entitled “Yours and my need for Plants”.  Details can be found on our website.  As usual this meeting will be open to all members and visitors.

                                                                                                                 Linda Truscott
New members and visitors are always welcome. 
For more information contact:  Linda Truscott on 01234 270747


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