CHAPTER 13 – PLANT NAMES.
The origin and history of plant names is a subject of some magnitude, and is one that has long engaged the attention of philologists. Of the many works published on plant names, that of the “English Dialect Society” is by far the most complete, and forms a valuable addition to this class of literature.
Some idea of the wide area covered by the nomenclature of plants, as seen in the gradual evolution and descent of vernacular names, may be gathered even from a cursory survey of those most widely known in our own and other countries. Apart, too, from their etymological associations, it is interesting to trace the variety of sources from whence plant names have sprung, a few illustrations of which are given in the present chapter.
At the outset, it is noteworthy that our English plant names can boast of a very extensive parentage, being, “derived from many languages–Latin, Greek, ancient British, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Low German, Swedish, Danish, Arabic, Persian.” It is not surprising, therefore, that in many cases much confusion has arisen in unravelling their meaning, which in the course of years would naturally become more or less modified by a succession of influences such as the intercommunication and change of ideas between one country and another. On the other hand, numerous plant names clearly display their origin, the lapse of years having left these unaffected, a circumstance which is especially true in the case of Greek and Latin names. Names of French origin are frequently equally distinct, a familiar instance being dandelion, from the French _dent-de-lion_, “lion’s tooth,” although the reason for its being so called is by no means evident. At the same time, it is noticeable that in nearly every European language the plant bears a similar name; whereas Professor De Gubernatis connects the name with the sun (Helios), and adds that a lion was the animal symbol of the sun, and that all plants named after him are essentially plants of the sun. One of the popular names of the St. John’s wort is tutsan, a corruption of the French _toute saine_, so called from its healing properties, and the mignonette is another familiar instance. The flower-de-luce, one of the names probably of the iris, is derived from _fleur de Louis_, from its having been assumed as his device by Louis VII. of France. It has undergone various changes, having been in all probability contracted into fleur-de-luce, and finally into fleur-de-lys or fleur-de-lis. An immense deal of discussion has been devoted to the history of this name, and a great many curious theories proposed in explanation of it, some being of opinion that the lily and not the iris is referred to. But the weight of evidence seem to favour the iris theory, this plant having been undoubtedly famous in French history. Once more, by some, the name fleur-de-lys has been derived from Löys, in which manner the twelve first Louis signed their names, and which was easily contracted into Lys. Some consider it means the flower that grows on the banks of the river Lis, which separated France and Artois from Flanders. Turning to the literature of the past, Shakespeare has several allusions to the plant, as in “I Henry VI,” where a messenger enters and exclaims:–
“Awake, awake, English nobility!
Let not sloth dim your honours new begot;
Cropp’d are the flower-de-luces in your arms;
Of England’s coat one half is cut away.”
Spenser mentions the plant, and distinguishes it from the lily:–
“Show mee the grounde with daifadown-dillies,
And cowslips, and kingcups, and loved lillies;
The pretty pawnee,
And the cherisaunce,
Shall march with the fayre flowre delice.”
Another instance is the mignonette of our French neighbours, known also as the “love-flower.” One of the names of the deadly nightshade is belladonna which reminds us of its Italian appellation, and “several of our commonest plant names are obtained from the Low German or Dutch, as, for instance, buckwheat (_Polygonum fagopyrum_), from the Dutch _bockweit_.” The rowan-tree (_Pyrus aucuparia_) comes from the Danish _röun_, Swedish _rünn_, which, as Dr. Prior remarks, is traceable to the “old Norse _runa_, a charm, from its being supposed to have power to avert evil.” Similarly, the adder’s tongue (_Ophioglossum vulgatum_) is said to be from the Dutch _adder-stong_, and the word hawthorn is found in the various German dialects.
As the authors of “English Plant Names” remark (Intr. xv.), many north-country names are derived from Swedish and Danish sources, an interesting example occurring in the word _kemps_, a name applied to the black heads of the ribwort plantain (_Plantago lanceolata_). The origin of this name is to be found in the Danish _kaempe_, a warrior, and the reason for its being so called is to be found in the game which children in most parts of the kingdom play with the flower-stalks of the plantain, by endeavouring to knock off the heads of each other’s mimic weapons. Again, as Mr. Friend points out, the birch would take us back to the primeval forests of India, and among the multitudinous instances of names traceable to far-off countries may be mentioned the lilac and tulip from Persia, the latter being derived from _thoulyban_, the word used in Persia for a turban. Lilac is equivalent to _lilag_, a Persian word signifying flower, having been introduced into Europe from that country early in the sixteenth century by Busbeck, a German traveller. But illustrations of this land are sufficient to show from how many countries our plant names have been brought, and how by degrees they have become interwoven into our own language, their pronunciation being Anglicised by English speakers.
Many plants, again, have been called in memory of leading characters in days gone by, and after those who discovered their whereabouts and introduced them into European countries. Thus the fuchsia, a native of Chili, was named after Leonard Fuchs, a well-known German botanist, and the magnolia was so called in honour of Pierre Magnol, an eminent writer on botanical subjects. The stately dahlia after Andrew Dahl, the Swedish botanist. But, without enumerating further instances, for they are familiar to most readers, it may be noticed that plants which embody the names of animals are very numerous indeed. In many cases this has resulted from some fancied resemblance to some part of the animal named; thus from their long tongued-like leaves, the hart’s-tongue, lamb’s-tongue, and ox-tongue were so called, while some plants have derived their names from the snouts of certain animals, such as the swine’s-snout (_Lentodon taraxacum_), and calf’s-snout, or, as it is more commonly termed, snapdragon (_Antirrhinum majus_). The gaping corollas of various blossoms have suggested such names as dog’s-mouth, rabbit’s-mouth, and lion’s-snap, and plants with peculiarly-shaped leaves have given rise to names like these–mouse-ear (_Stachys Zanaia_), cat’s-ears, and bear’s-ears. Numerous names have been suggested by their fancied resemblance to the feet, hoofs, and tails of animals and birds; as, for instance, colt’s-foot, crow-foot, bird’s-foot trefoil, horse-shoe vetch, bull-foot, and the vervain, nicknamed frog’s-foot. Then there is the larkspur, also termed lark’s-claw, and lark’s-heel, the lamb’s-toe being so called from its downy heads of flowers, and the horse-hoof from the shape of the leaf. Among various similar names may be noticed the crane’s-bill and stork’s-bill, from their long beak-like seed-vessels, and the valerian, popularly designated capon’s-tail, from its spreading flowers.
Many plant names have animal prefixes, these indeed forming a very extensive list. But in some instances, “the name of an animal prefixed has a totally different signification, denoting size, coarseness, and frequently worthlessness or spuriousness.” Thus the horse-parsley was so called from its coarseness as compared with smallage or celery, and the horse-mushroom from its size in distinction to a species more commonly eaten. The particular uses to which certain plants have been applied have originated their names: the horse-bean, from being grown as a food for horses; and the horse-chestnut, because used in Turkey for horses that are broken or touched in the wind. Parkinson, too, adds how, “horse-chestnuts are given in the East, and so through all Turkey, unto horses to cure them of the cough, shortness of wind, and such other diseases.” The germander is known as horse-chere, from its growing after horse-droppings; and the horse-bane, because supposed in Sweden to cause a kind of palsy in horses–an effect which has been ascribed by Linnaeus not so much to the noxious qualities of the plant itself, as to an insect (_Curculio paraplecticus_) that breeds in its stem.
The dog has suggested sundry plant names, this prefix frequently suggesting the idea of worthlessness, as in the case of the dog-violet, which lacks the sweet fragrance of the true violet, and the dog-parsley, which, whilst resembling the true plant of this name, is poisonous and worthless. In like manner there is the dog-elder, dog’s-mercury, dog’s-chamomile, and the dog-rose, each a spurious form of a plant quite distinct; while on the other hand we have the dog’s-tooth grass, from the sharp-pointed shoots of its underground stem, and the dog-grass (_Triticum caninu_), because given to dogs as an aperient.
The cat has come in for its due share of plant names, as for instance the sun-spurge, which has been nicknamed cat’s-milk, from its milky juice oozing in drops, as milk from the small teats of a cat; and the blossoms of the talix, designated cats-and-kittens, or kittings, probably in allusion to their soft, fur-like appearance. Further names are, cat’s-faces (_Viola tricolor_), cat’s-eyes (_Veronica chamcaedrys_), cat’s-tail, the catkin of the hazel or willow, and cat’s-ear (_Hypochaeris maculata_).
The bear is another common prefix. Thus there is the bear’s-foot, from its digital leaf, the bear-berry, or bear’s-bilberry, from its fruit being a favourite food of bears, and the bear’s-garlick. There is the bear’s-breech, from its roughness, a name transferred by some mistake from the Acanthus to the cow-parsnip, and the bear’s-wort, which it has been suggested “is rather to be derived from its use in uterine complaints than from the animal.”
Among names in which the word cow figures may be mentioned the cow-bane, water-hemlock, from its supposed baneful effects upon cows, because, writes Withering, “early in the spring, when it grows in the water, cows often eat it, and are killed by it.” Cockayne would derive cowslip from _cu_, cow, and _slyppe_, lip, and cow-wheat is so nicknamed from its seed resembling wheat, but being worthless as food for man. The flowers of the _Arum maculatum_ are “bulls and cows;” and in Yorkshire the fruit of _Crataegus oxyacantha_ is bull-horns;–an old name for the horse-leek being bullock’s-eye.
Many curious names have resulted from the prefix pig, as in Sussex, where the bird’s-foot trefoil is known as pig’s-pettitoes; and in Devonshire the fruit of the dog-rose is pig’s-noses. A Northamptonshire term for goose-grass (_Galium aparine_) is pig-tail, and the pig-nut (_Brunium flexuosum_) derived this name from its tubers being a favourite food of pigs, and resembling nuts in size and flavour. The common cyclamen is sow-head, and a popular name for the _Sonchus oleraceus_ is sow-thistle. Among further names also associated with the sow may be included the sow-fennel, sow-grass, and sow-foot, while the sow-bane (_Chenopodium rubrum_), is so termed from being, as Parkinson tells us, “found certain to kill swine.”
Among further animal prefixes may be noticed the wolfs-bane (_Aconitum napellus_), wolf’s-claws (_Lycopodium clavatum_), wolf’s-milk (_Euphorbia helioscopia_), and wolfs-thistle (_Carlina acaulis_). The mouse has given us numerous names, such as mouse-ear (_Hieracium pilosella_), mouse-grass (_Aira caryophyllea_), mouse-ear scorpion-grass (_Myosotis palustris_), mouse-tail (_Myosurus minimus_), and mouse-pea. The term rat-tail has been applied to several plants having a tail-like inflorescence, such as the _Plantago lanceolata_ (ribwort plantain).
The term toad as a prefix, like that of dog, frequently means spurious, as in the toad-flax, a plant which, before it comes into flower, bears a tolerably close resemblance to a plant of the true flax. The frog, again, supplies names, such as frog’s-lettuce, frog’s-foot, frog-grass, and frog-cheese; while hedgehog gives us such names as hedgehog-parsley and hedgehog-grass.
Connected with the dragon we have the name dragon applied to the snake-weed (_Polygonum bistorta_), and dragon’s-blood is one of the popular names of the Herb-Robert. The water-dragon is a nickname of the _Caltha palustris_, and dragon’s-mouth of the _Digitalis purpurea_.
Once more, there is scorpion-grass and scorpion-wort, both of which refer to various species of Myosotis; snakes and vipers also adding to the list. Thus there is viper’s-bugloss, and snake-weed. In Gloucestershire the fruit of the _Arum maculatum_ is snake’s-victuals, and snake’s-head is a common name for thefritillary. There is the snake-skin willow and snake’s-girdles;–snake’s-tongue being a name given to the bane-wort (_Ranunculus flammula_).
Names in which the devil figures have been noticed elsewhere, as also those in which the words fairy and witch enter. As the authors, too, of the “Dictionary of Plant Names” have pointed out, a great number of names may be called dedicatory, and embody the names of many of the saints, and even of the Deity. The latter, however, are very few in number, owing perhaps to a sense of reverence, and “God Almighty’s bread and cheese,” “God’s eye,” “God’s grace,” “God’s meat,” “Our Lord’s, or Our Saviour’s flannel,” “Christ’s hair,” “Christ’s herb,” “Christ’s ladder,” “Christ’s thorn,” “Holy Ghost,” and “Herb-Trinity,” make up almost the whole list. On the other hand, the Virgin Mary has suggested numerous names, some of which we have noticed in the chapter on sacred plants. Certain of the saints, again, have perpetuated their names in our plant nomenclature, instances of which are scattered throughout the present volume.
Some plants, such as flea-bane and wolf’s-bane, refer to the reputed property of the plant to keep off or injure the animal named, and there is a long list of plants which derived their names from their real or imaginary medicinal virtues, many of which illustrate the old doctrine of signatures.
Birds, again, like animals, have suggested various names, and among some of the best-known ones may be mentioned the goose-foot, goose-grass, goose-tongue. Shakespeare speaks of cuckoo-buds, and there is cuckoo’s-head, cuckoo-flower, and cuckoo-fruit, besides the stork’s-bill and crane’s-bill. Bees are not without their contingent of names; a popular name of the _Delphinium grandiflorum_ being the bee-larkspur, “from the resemblance of the petals, which are studded with yellow hairs, to the humble-bee whose head is buried in the recesses of the flower.” There is the bee-flower (_Ophrys apifera_), because the, “lip is in form and colour so like a bee, that any one unacquainted therewith would take it for a living bee sucking of the flower.”
In addition to the various classes of names already mentioned, there are a rich and very varied assortment found in most counties throughout the country, many of which have originated in the most amusing and eccentric way. Thus “butter and eggs” and “eggs and bacon” are applied to several plants, from the two shades of yellow in the flower, and butter-churn to the _Nuphar luteum_, from the shape of the fruit. A popular term for _Nepeta glechoma_ is “hen and chickens,” and “cocks and hens” for the _Plantago lanceolata_. A Gloucestershire nickname for the _Plantago media_ is fire-leaves, and the hearts’-ease has been honoured with all sorts of romantic names, such as “kiss me behind the garden gate;” and “none so pretty” is one of the popular names of the saxifrage. Among the names of the Arum may be noticed “parson in the pulpit,” “cows and calves,” “lords and ladies,” and “wake-robin.” The potato has a variety of names, such as leather-jackets, blue-eyes, and red-eyes.
A pretty name in Devonshire for the _Veronica chamcaedrys_ is angel’s-eyes:–
“Around her hat a wreath was twined
Of blossoms, blue as southern skies;
I asked their name, and she replied,
We call them angel’s-eyes.”
In the northern counties the poplar, on account of its bitter bark, was termed the bitter-weed.
“Oak, ash, and elm-tree,
The laird can hang for a’ the three;
But fir, saugh, and bitter-weed,
The laird may flyte, but make naething be’et.”
According to the compilers of “English Plant Names,” “this name is assigned to no particular species of poplar, nor have we met with it elsewhere.” The common Solomon’s seal (_Polygonatum multiflorum_) has been nicknamed “David’s harp,” and, “appears to have arisen from the exact similarity of the outline of the bended stalk, with its pendent bill-like blossoms, to the drawings of monkish times in which King David is represented as seated before an instrument shaped like the half of a pointed arch, from which are suspended metal bells, which he strikes with two hammers.”
In the neighbourhood of Torquay, fir-cones are designated oysters, and in Sussex the Arabis is called “snow-on-the-mountain,” and “snow-in-summer.” A Devonshire name for the sweet scabriosis is the mournful-widow, and in some places the red valerian (_Centranthus ruber_) is known as scarlet-lightning. A common name for _Achillaea ptarmica_ is sneezewort, and the _Petasites vulgaris_ has been designated “son before the father.” The general name for _Drosera rotundifolia_ is sun-dew, and in Gloucestershire the _Primula auricula_ is the tanner’s-apron. The _Viola tricolor_ is often known as “three faces in a hood,” and the _Aconitum napellus_ as “Venus’s chariot drawn by two doves.” The _Stellaria holostea_ is “lady’s white petticoat,” and the _Scandix pecten_ is “old wife’s darning-needles.” One of the names of the Campion is plum-pudding, and “spittle of the stars” has been applied to the _Nostoc commune_. Without giving further instances of these odd plant names, we would conclude by quoting the following extract from the preface of Mr. Earle’s charming little volume on “English Plant Names,” a remark which, indeed, most equally applies to other sections of our subject beyond that of the present chapter:–“The fascination of plant names has its foundation in two instincts, love of Nature, and curiosity about Language. Plant names are often of the highest antiquity, and more or less common to the whole stream of related nations. Could we penetrate to the original suggestive idea that called forth the name, it would bring valuable information about the first openings of the human mind towards Nature; and the merest dream of such a discovery invests with a strange charm the words that could tell, if we could understand, so much of the forgotten infancy of the human race.”
1. “Dictionary of English Plant Names,” by J. Britten and Robert Holland. 1886.
2. “English Plant Names,” Introduction, p. xiii.
3. See Folkard’s “Legends,” p. 309; Friend’s “Flowers and Flowerlore,” ii. 401-5.
4. See “Flower-lore,” p. 74.
5. Friend’s “Flower-lore,” ii. 425.
6. _Garden_, June 29, 1872.
7. Johnston’s “Botany of Eastern Borders,” 1853, p. 177.
8. Lady Wilkinson’s “Weeds and Wild Flowers,” p. 269.