Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Naming of Weeds

Red Campion

The Naming of Weeds

It is early June.

The green lanes of  Pembrokeshire are again narrowed by hedges of Queen Anne's Lace and new clumps of  Red Campion  and bee buzzing Columbine.  The tendrils of Common Stitchwort have threaded nests of small white flowers amongst tall stands of  slender Cocksfoot and Foxtail grasses.

Threaded tendrils of White flowering Commons Stitchwort

The vibrant bursts of the still cold winds make the year feel fresh and young, but none of this is really new; each emerging plant, animal or insect already owns a collection of old names that touch us with the woken memories of forgotten peoples that once, oh so many years ago, tilled the land and walked the footpaths of West Wales.

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 too frightened to touch the Pissy Beds, which was the name given to them by folk who believed that touching a Dandelion was enough to make you wet yourself.

April/ May - Pissy Beds and Celandines

It is hardly surprising that common weeds like the dandelion have many names, we all have our own reasons for either loving or despising this hardy plant.  It is said that the Romantics enjoyed noticing that the flowers open for the bees as the day breaks and then close again when the moon rises, they likened the large yellow blooms to the sun. Eventually, the pollinated flowers would close for a last time, but then the sleeping buds began to re-awake and swell to burst open once more as seeded blow balls which the children called Face clocks.  The Romantics looked at the hovering pale blow balls elevated over the grass on long stalks and exclaimed "Look, the dandelion heads that were once suns are now Moons!" and when a light breeze un-clung the parachute tufted seeds they said again  "Look now, rivers of stars are drifting  across the meadow".

When all the seeded stems lost their mantles children came passing by and looked with disappointed faces at all that was left of their fair clock flowers, all they saw were nobs on stalks that reminded them of the tonsured shaven heads of monks, thus the plant received a sarcastic name "Priest's Crown"
Dandelions, inherited their most common name from the French who call the plant "Dent de Lion" (Lions teeth).  This probably refers to the plants toothed leaves.  But can it be just chance that the yellow flowers look like the ruffs of a lion's mane?   Common names are never fixed and we are all free to dream new names.  Surely the name could be now be spelt dandy, not dande, and instead of suns perhaps we will see the dandy faces of  little lions

In modern centuries a new group of walkers have arrived to name our plants, they are the scientists who hang names on unbending trees of Latin, they say they are classifying nature and settling the matter for ever!  But even these cold rationalists do not escape adding poetry and history into the Latin names they choose for our weeds.  They call the dandelion "Taraxacum" which roughly translates as "remedy for Disorder" after the plant's ancient reputation to aid digestion and cleanse the body.

The dandelions are now mostly over, but the grass verges is still speckled with the suns of False Dandelions or Catsears which will continue in bloom until autumn.  This drawing was made on grassy bank that overlooks the sea wall at Wiseman's Bridge. 

 Cat's Ear, Red clover amongst grasses
Catsear is derived from the words cat's ear, and is said to refer to the soft down on the hairy leaves that is supposed to resemble the fur on the inside of a cat's ear.  The roots of this plant can be eaten as a coffee substitute.

The Cuckoo Flower is another plant that has almost finished its flowering season.  A few weeks ago the dainty orange tip butterflies flew over the clustered congregations of their lilac blooms that were spread across the meadows.

Lady's Smock and Orange Tip

In olden times they said that from a distance they looked like linen lying exposed on the grass as “maidens do to bleach their summer smocks.”  This illusion brought the plant a poetic name, Lady's Smock and even a nursery rhyme

When Ladies' smocks of silver white
do paint the meadows with delight

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. 

Day's Eyes
Daisies have always been revered for their healing properties.  In ancient Rome, the surgeons who accompanied Roman legions into battle, would order their slaves to pick sacks full of daisies in order to extract their juice.  Bandages were soaked in the juice before being used to bind sword and spear cuts.  Knowledge of their healing properties carried on through the ages, the English called them Woundwort or Bruisewort.

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 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 FingersFoxglove 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

Blue Bells

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.

Germander Speedwell
Speedwell was a good luck token for travellers, in Ireland they were sometimes sewn into the lining of jackets.  Germander is a corruption of the Latin chamaedrys which means "on the ground".  It is also sometimes called Birds Eye Speedwell, perhaps because of the little white eye at the centre of each flower.

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

(Cow Parsley, Devil’s Parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, Mothers dies)
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.

 Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585)
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.

John Gerard's Herball  - The Historie of Plants 1597
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.

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.

Creeping Cinquefoil
13th century sink foil, from Old French cincfoille, from Latin quinquefolium plant with five leaves.  People have used creeping cinquefoil for the tannic acids that can be found in its rootstock to treat different kinds of sickness and disinfect wounds.

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 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. 


But why is it an ox eye? Perhaps it is because the ox had the biggest eyes of all the animals 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  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."  (  

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!


No comments: