Monthly Archives: October 2017

What’s In The Cauldron? The Meanings Of Plant Names

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“Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

Doesn’t that just send a shiver down your spine? The immortal words of Macbeth’s witches tend to hang in the air, and you can almost hear the cauldron bubbling.
But what is that stuff in the cauldron?

Guess what? Most of it is plants!

Anyone who has worked in the garden has noticed that many plant names have odd, fanciful or gruesome names. If you really consider them, names like ‘dandelion’, ‘foxglove’ and ‘mistletoe’ are pretty odd, aren’t they?
The reason is multi-faceted. A large contributing factor is a socio-historical phenomenon known as ‘linguistic drift’, which is the term for the fact that words are changed over time. Originally, according to Oswald Cockayne’s ‘Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: The History of Science Before the Norman Conquest’, Dandelion was originally ‘Dent De Leon’, or ‘Lion’s Teeth’, referring to the dentition of the leaves.  Andrew Yang notes another good example in his work ‘Plant Names in Old and Middle English: Problems and Trends in Taxonomy’ : “The tan of mistletan, notes Sauer, “originally meant ‘twig,’ but it was later associated with tan [as OE] toe,” to form mistletoe.”

Another main contributing reason is pragmatic: it’s hard to forget a plant called ‘dead man’s fingers’ or ‘bear’s breeches’ as a rule, which made remembering and passing on plant knowledge much easier.

The Tryskelion Press gives us a short guide to the 16th century English plant name meanings in their August 2015 issue.

Old Name for Part Actual Part of the Herb Used
Eye Inner part of a blossom
Paw, Foot, Leg, Wing, or Toe Leaf
Guts Roots and stalk
Privates Seed
Hair Dried, stringy herbs
Tail Stem
Head Flower
Tongue Petal
Heart A bud or seed

Here’s a few examples of the common names in the 16th century and the same plants today.

Old Herbal Name Herb/Plant Name
Adder’s Fork Adder’s tongue
Adders Tongue Dogstooth Violet
Ass’s Foot or Bull’s Foot Coltsfoot
Bat Flower Tacca
Bat’s Wings Holly
Bat’s Wool Moss
Bear’s Foot Lady’s Mantle
Beggar’s Buttons Burdock
Beggar’s Tick Dianthus
Bird’s Eye Germander Speedwell
Bird’s Foot Fenugreek
Black Maidenhair Black Spleenwort
Black Sampson Echinacea
Black Snake Root Black Cohosh
Blind Eyes Poppy
Click Goosegrass
Clot Great Mullein
Corpse Candles Mullein
Corpse Plant Indian Pipe
Courtesy Summer Wind
Crocodile Dung Black Earth
Crow Corn Ague Root
Crow Foot Wild Geranium
Crowdy Kit Figwort
Crown for a King Wormwood
Cuckoo’s Bread Common Plantain
Dead Man’s Ashes Mandrake root
Death Angel Agaric
Death Flower Yarrow
Devil’s Apple Datura
Devils Dung Asafoetida
Devil’s Eye Henbane, Periwinkle
Devil’s Flower Bachelor’s Buttons
Devil’s Guts Dodder
Devil’s Milk Celandine
Devil’s Nettle Yarrow
Devil’s Oatmeal Parsley

So what was in that cauldron? Black mustard, Crowfoot, Holly, Horehound, Wormwood, and a lot of other rather powerful plants. I wouldn’t drink a cupful myself, but if you want to see visions and fly this brew would definitely do it.
Happy Halloween!

Sources

The Shakespere Standard, http://theshakespearestandard.com

Cockayne, Oswald.  Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: The History of Science Before the Norman Conquest, vols. 1-3.  Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press.  1864-66.

Gledhill, D.  The Names of Plants, 2nd ed.  Cambridge: 1989.

Andrew K. Yang, Plant Names in Old and Middle English: Problems and Trends in Taxonomy 

The Old English Herbarium (OEH) and Medicina de Quadrupedibus.  Hubert Jan de Vriend, ed.  Toronto: Oxford.  1984.

Tryskelion Press, Old World Names For Herbs And Plants, http://www.tryskelion.com/herbs_old_world_names_for_herbs.html

 

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A Poison Plant Primer for Halloween

While on a garden tour a few years ago, I crossed over to the dark side. Instead of admiring the frilly flowering ornamental plants, I spent my time inside the Poison Plant garden. 

The gate, decorated with a large iron spider in a large iron web, creaked eerily on opening and then slammed shut behind me.

The spider signified the potential dangers that grew inside that garden, like Oleander (a glycoside). This innocent-looking plant can cause respiratory difficulties and heart problems. Although this Mediterranean shrub can be a fragrant addition to the landscape, every part of the plant is poisonous when eaten. The smoke is also toxic if plant parts are burned.

Other glycosides in the garden included foxglove and lily-of-the valley.

Why would a perfectly nice botanic garden include harmful plants among the others? For the same reason so many other plants are on display: to educate gardeners and the general public.

We can’t escape poisonous plants because they can grow anywhere. Jimson weed and nightshade; soapwort and poison ivy; stinging nettle and even St. Johnswort were a few of the other plants growing in the garden.

“A recent increase in herbal usage has given rise to misuse and mistaken identities,” explained a sign near the poison garden’s entrance. “It is important to consider means of preventing a toxic encounter as well as enjoying the contributions of poisonous plants around us.”

Because Halloween is a time for delightful frights, I recommend taking a read through Amy Stewart’s entertaining book called “Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009).

She includes poisonous plants familiar to most gardeners, like Castor Bean, Henbane, Hemlock and Deadly Nightshade. But she also includes some surprises like Habanero Chile, Sago Palm, Tobacco, Junipers and Bermuda grass.

“We assume if it grows out of the ground, a plant is natural and natural is good for you,” says Amy. But cyanide is also a natural substance that comes from some plants, and it definitely isn’t good for you.

Speaking of deadly plants, what do you think is the world’s most wicked plant? Scroll past the following poison plant resources section to learn the answer.

Resources

A nice addition to Amy’s book is a list of poison gardens throughout the world and a well-research bibliography with many poisonous plant resources and identification guides. Here are a few links to help get you started:

CSU’s Guide to Poisonous Plants database lists trees, shrubs and perennials that can be harmful to animals.

Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has a searchable database of plants that are poisonous to livestock and other animals. The color images help with plant identification.

The University of Illinois Extension has a comprehensive list of links to poisonous plant information. 

The World’s Most Wicked Plant?
Tobacco

By Jodi Torpey
Denver Master Gardener since 2005

Fall in the Perennial Garden

 

McDonnell summer border 

I don’t know about you, but in my  garden, fall cleanup can be hit or miss. Whether a function of limited time, gardener burnout or an early cold spell, some years I just let it all freeze dry in place till the spring. I’ve learned to embrace the  appearance and find that doing less offers the garden many benefits, including:

  • Dried foliage will help protect the crown of perennials from the freeze/thaw cycle; this is especially good for marginally hardy perennials. If  you do prune, leave about 3-4 inches from the ground to avoid damaging the crown.
  • Dead stems “mark” the plant and lessen the chance of accidentally digging it up or stomping on it in the spring. This is really helpful for plants that “wake up” a bit late in the spring.
  • Leaves will decompose and add organic matter to the soil. They can also insulate plants from harsh winter temperatures.
  • Dropped seeds produce new plants to fill out your garden or share with others.
  • Seed heads provide tasty food for birds.
  • Some plants prefer spring pruning, such as grasses and plants with semi-woody stems like Munstead Lavender and  Wild Thing Sage or Salvia Greggii. A spring haircut when new growth emerges often yields a plant with better form and growth. (Not to mention increased chance of winter survival.)
  • Early season flowering shrubs such as lilacs have already put on the

    Photo from CSU CO Master Gardener Garden Notes

    growth that produce next year’s flowers. If you cut now, you will not have blooms next spring. These plants should be pruned shortly after blooming, or  you may have a lilac that looks like this!

Fall garden clean up does not need to be back-breaking work. Just remove diseased or mildewed foliage, lightly cut back long limbs that can be  damaged by strong winds and occasionally water if conditions are dry. Your garden will benefit from this “less is more approach”.

References:

Winterizing Perennials, Plant Talk 1020

Maintaining Perennials, Plant Talk 1019

Winterizing Perennials During Drought, Plant Talk 1064

Written by Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener. 

A version of this post was originally published in October 2015.