Earth Matters: The names behind the plants

  • A New England hawkweed (also called common hawkweed) flower head. According to some myths, hawks were believed to eat this plant to improve their eyesight. Flower Girl via Flickr

For the Gazette 
Published: 6/24/2022 2:38:50 PM
Modified: 6/24/2022 2:37:12 PM

I enjoy plants — foliage, flowers, and relationships of plants with humans, relationships often reflected in names. English plant names, for example, show a complex history of invasions into England, invasions by the English into the rest of the world, and interaction with dozens of languages from around the world. Here I consider a handful of western Massachusetts plant names.

Some descriptive names are easily understood, for example “rabbit-foot clover,” “red clover,” “white clover,” “white sweet-clover,” and “yellow sweet-clover” all refer to flower features. What does “clover” mean? Like the plants in the preceding sentence, the word “clover” came with Europeans, but its original meaning is not clear. Unfortunately, whoever first applied a word similar to “clover” to this group of plants — perhaps a couple of thousand years ago or more — did not record reasons for choosing that word.

English incorporates words from many language groups. The branches of staghorn sumac might be thought to resemble the antlers (often called horns) of a stag (male deer). “Stag” and “horn” are both, like much of English, of Germanic origin. “Sumac,” though, with origins in the Semitic languages Arabic and Aramaic, is a name that moved around the Mediterranean and across both Europe and the Atlantic to apply to an American plant closely related to a Middle Eastern species.

Daisy fleabane is a common native wildflower with two European names. “Daisy,” from “day’s eye” to specify a flower with a sun-like center and white rays, originally refers to a flower common in England and elsewhere in the Old World and has been applied to many similar flowers. “Fleabane,” i.e., enemy of fleas, suggests that the plant might repel insects. Indeed, a plant called fleabane was used to deter fleas (some sources say a powder of the plant sprinkled on a bed; others suggest burning the plant to produce a repellent smoke).

That plant, though, was a European plant somewhat resembling the American plants that were given the name. In much the same way that a bird anywhere in the world with a red breast, regardless of its relationships, was called “robin” by English colonists, plant names were often applied based on superficial resemblance. Enjoy these pretty day’s eye flowers, but don’t confuse them with their etymological European friends or count on them, powdered or burnt, to prevent flea bites.

In late spring, hawkweeds decorate many lawns. The name “hawkweed” is translated from Greek, and, according to some mythology, otherwise carnivorous hawks eat this plant to improve their eyesight. Unfortunately, the classic 19th-century Greek-English Lexicon says that the plant designated by this name in ancient Greek is not the same as the species currently bearing the English name, but doesn’t specify what plant the ancient Greeks meant.

Several more-or-less similar plants have been suggested, but, as far as I know, there is no definite identification of the eye-improving plant. So, if you have eye problems or want hawk-eye vision, I recommend a trip to an ophthalmologist rather than consuming a lawn plant that might or might not be closely related to a plant thought thousands of years ago to improve eyesight.

Dandelion (the name, from French, means lion’s teeth, referring to the toothy leaf shape) has diuretic properties, which give it folk names like “piss-a-bed.” I was surprised recently when a friend reported that her grandfather used “piss-a-bed” for very different plants, bluets, which, as far as I know, are not diuretic and might have opposite effects — one Native American group is reported to have used bluets against bed-wetting. I guess, but cannot know, that someone once looked out on a springtime lawn with both dandelions and bluets blooming and pointed to “piss-a-beds” meaning dandelions, and someone else misinterpreted the gesture as indicating the other flower on the lawn.

All plants have “phytochemicals,” a word simply meaning plant-produced compounds but which has become a trendy term suggesting usually unproven health benefits. Many plant chemicals are useful in treating human disease, but names like poison ivy, deadly nightshade, and poison hemlock are reminders that not all phytochemicals are beneficial.

Healers in many societies knew, and in some cases still know, some medicinal properties of plants. Traditional healers, however, have lacked the means to isolate compounds from a plant’s chemical mix or to provide rigorous tests of potential drugs. It is difficult to sort out real patterns among many earnestly believed anecdotes and the placebo effect. Traditional medicine can provide a basis for isolation and testing of plant compounds, especially if there is reliable evidence of consistent practice not distorted by mistranslation, misidentification and mythology. Regardless of therapeutic effectiveness, plant names and their sometimes convoluted histories can be enjoyed along with flowers and foliage.

David Spector is a retired biologist and former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. For information on identifying New England plants see https://gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org.


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