Naming the Plants

Even though the snowy land still sits under a leaden sky, and fir trees stand in winter garb, I know spring must be stirring.  Yesterday, I saw a cricket on my bedroom wall and an ant scouting under the kitchen table.  I even notice the signs in myself; the sap seems to be stirring somewhere.  Memories of myself as a young woman break out and carry me to distant places.  I pull out my herbal seed catalogues.

Thinking back, I started learning about medicinal plants when I was eighteen years old.  I started out with Culpepper’s Herbal and a now-stained field manual.  When I was about twenty, I and my husband went to live on my mother’s farm in Oregon.  One early spring day, having read that nettles were good for the health, I went to a damp meadow on top of a hill above our farmhouse and clipped some young stinging nettles.  Taking them home, I gingerly tied them into small bundles and hung them on a clothesline above the wood heat stove to dry.

When my husband came indoors that afternoon, he went to stand by the fire.  “Watch out for the stinging nettles,” I warned.  He ignored me, so I repeated the warning just as he bumped into one of the herb bundles nose first.  He grabbed his nose like a bear and yelped.

A few hours later, a friend came to visit.  This time, it was my husband who first gave the warning about avoiding the nettles.  Our friend, who was very tall, kept walking back and forth past the place where the herbs dangled while he talked.  Again, warnings were to no avail, either from me or my husband.  Our startled friend was soon holding his nose and crying, “What is that?!”  My husband remonstrated with him and shared his own earlier calamity.  They both stared at me and the bundles of herbs as though we were equally offensive.

Some thirty years later, I ran into this same friend in a grocery store, and we stopped to chat.  Hearing that I had been studying herbalism, he told me he still remembered his unpleasant encounter with the object of my studies.  “I tried to warn you several times,” I answered. “I kept saying watch out for the stinging nettles.”

“But what does that mean?” he answered back.  “Watch out for the stinging nettles; who even knows what that means?”  That’s when I started to realize that I speak a second language: Herbalese… Planteranto…call it what you will.  Some people evidently find it unintelligible.

But no kidding, all plant lovers speak a different language.  There are different dialects of that language, to be sure.  Take for example, cottage gardeners who give their plants names like kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate.  This plant has a trailing blossom that resembles hennaed tresses that, with a little imagination, can be envisioned flowing over a garden fence.   Another cottage garden favorite is Baby Blue-Eyes, a tiny sky-blue flower that can be naturalized in lawns. Also characteristic of this romantic style is the Sweet William, with its assortment of valentine colors.

Wild plant lovers often give humorous names to plants such as Old Man’s Whiskers, named for its wispy, gray fruits that, when clustered together, look like low-lying smoke.  A plant might be named for its traditional use, such as Indian Hemp, which was used by Native peoples for cordage and fiber.  Or its geographical origin and medicinal use, such as Virginia Snakeroot, once used for snake bite, among other things.

Botanists, of course, use botanical nomenclature, but can’t resist attaching the names of fellow botanists who first recorded specific plants for scientific taxonomy.  When not using Latin, they might refer to a plant as Coulter’s Lupine, Fremont’s Monkeyflower, and Parry’s Primrose all named after other botanists.  

Turk’s Cap, Rabbit Shot, Rattlesnake Grass, Toothache Plant, Beadlily, Knitbone, Wild Sarsaparilla, Self-Heal, Arrowleaf Balsamroot, feverfew, Sneeze-weed, Farkleberry, Mountain Misery…: this is a litany of names that demonstrate the rich dialect spoken by wild plant lovers.

It is fairly well-known that the Victorians spoke a symbolic language of flowers in which the forget-me-not meant true love and the white violet bespoke modesty.  There was a flower dictionary of sorts featuring other flowers that took on cultural and social significance.  Evidently this flower language with its symbolism goes much farther back in history than many realize, and actually took on the flexibility of an actual language system, with an arrangement of flowers being able to communicate extended messages.  For more information explore the following websites:

It seems to me that the art of using flower essences for therapeutic purposes takes on some of this symbolic nature.  This healing art uses a sun-distilled flower essence to move a person from a negative, or shadow, self to a positive, or authentic, self.  For example, a person who is overly empathetic and nurturing, but has problems setting personal boundaries, so that she lets others drain her of vitality, might be encouraged to use prickly pear flower essence to move her to a healthier self that is able to set proper boundaries. The underlying rationale is that the prickly pear is a succulent and nourishing plant that is greatly desirable to creatures living in a desert habitat.  In order to protect itself from being completely consumed, the prickly pear has a natural defense system of spines and hairs that keeps predators at bay.  In the same way, those who feel excess responsibility for others need to learn self-protection by learning to say no at times and setting healthy boundaries.  Taking the essence of prickly pear flower is supposed to help the person make that change.

Is this symbolism?  Yes, of a sort, I’d say.  It is at least analogous thinking.  An empirical scientist would probably be inclined to discount the entire flower essence system.  Yet, I hesitate to do so, because nearly every experienced herbalist I have listened to insists that clients repeatedly report finding the inner resources to make changes after having used flower essences thought to correspond to their personality traits.

Bizarre?  Perhaps, but consider the Doctrine of Signatures. This doctrine was prevalent in medieval times when physicians thought that the physical appearance of a plant indicated its use for medicinal purposes.  For example, lungwort looks like a lung spotted with disease, so it was considered therapeutic for lung disease.  Well, as it turned out, it worked in that case.  Lungwort, or Pulmonaria, is still used for bronchitis and congested lungs.  Though the theory is not universally borne out, there are other examples of where the Doctrine of Signatures accurately predicted the medicinal use of plants.  One is the use of Lady’s Mantle for the female reproductive system because the leaves resemble the cervix.  Another example is the use of St. John’s Wort for healing wounds because its essential oil is blood red.  The Doctrine of Signatures theory, as well as religious symbolism, is behind these plant’s names and their uses.

At times, one almost perceives a permeable membrane between the physical world and human culture, if we study language as a cultural artifact.  The plant name, Sage, has entered human language to mean a wise person and is used as an adjective to describe anything that is wise, e.g. sage advice, sage council, etc.  It connotes wisdom gained through long life and/or experience.  The plant itself was observed by the ancients to bestow longevity and mental health on its users.  So what existed first, the observations about the plant’s benefits, or the word’s use as a noun or adjective denoting wisdom and experience, which was then bestowed upon a plant observed to grant longevity and mental health?  In what order did the word enter the language?  Perhaps the membrane has two-way permeability.

This question brings me to reflect on Lewis Mumford’s theory that the salient characteristic of human culture and civilization is not technology as tool-making, as is prevalently thought, but the development of a complex set of symbols standing in place of objects that we call language, and by which the natural world may be described.

These reflections on language and nature may not occur to ordinary plant lovers who, from time to time, put their hands into the soil.  But if two likeminded souls should find themselves working together planting and weeding on a sunny afternoon, they most likely will notice a certain satisfaction in talking about plants while their fingers seek out a weed’s root, or crumble soil around a favored flower.  They will likely name the plants to one another with secret pleasure:  stork’s-bill geranium, goosefoot, sugar bowl, goat’s beard, oceanspray….



Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedinmailby feather
This entry was posted in Agrarianism, Blog, Herbalism, Nature Writing, Nature Writing, rural life, The Garden and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Naming the Plants

  1. Idris says:

    I love the thought but find there is a grey line bewteen foraging and theft that I am sometimes hesitant to cross. I was sad this year to see a lot of fruit go to waste and have plans to ring doorbells next year and ask about harvesting from neglected trees.I did however enjoy a perfect plum just yesterday, plucked from a tree while walking down a Toronto alley. And I harvested two bunches of delicious concord grapes from a vine growing along another alley fence. So you know, I will cross that line if no one appears to be bothering.

Comments are closed.