Feature Image: Study for Maidens Picking Flowers by the Stream (1911),
by John William Waterhouse
Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
There was something strange about the cottage at the end of Willow Lane. The breeze was always scented with rose, the rain fell in sideways sweeps, and the frogs who lived near the pond croaked throughout the dark winter months. The women who occupied the cottage spoke in hushed tones even among themselves. And the girl who called them her mothers had grown up thinking anyone who spoke above a whisper was screaming at her. But as strange as these women may have seemed to outsiders, people flocked to the tiny shop attached to the cottage. It promised strange salves, teas, and tinctures guaranteed to soothe dry skin, mend broken bones, or heal a broken heart.
It was the young girl who collected the ingredients that were crucial for the women’s recipes. Her mothers were far too busy blending herbs and stirring up their salves and tinctures. And it was a large white hare who was in love with the moon that advised the girl on what to gather.
The hare, it was said, was a witch in disguise who kept to the forest’s edge and nibbled on such delights as toe of frog and the Englishman’s foot, tangled among the flowers of death, whose purple blossoms gave away their location under the dark canopy of trees.
“What should I gather today, hare of the wood?” the girl would whisper to the long-eared shapeshifter.
Sometimes the hare would answer, “seed of the bird’s nest.” Other times it reminded her that the tail of the rat was ready for the taking.
Yes, it was these strange ingredients that brought in the townsfolk. How exotic they thought it to smear on salves containing the devil’s milk or macerated dead man’s bells. Or to drink healing teas that contained guts, paws, wings, or eyes. And the women who created them held back their smiles as the residents confided that they didn’t mind at all that their favorite balm contained part of an eagle or a cat. Just as long as they felt some sort of relief from their affliction.
The young girl would roll her eyes as the townsfolk left clutching bags as if they were holding something forbidden and therefore secret. The girl knew there really was nothing to tell. No devil’s milk or eyes or guts or even a whisker from a cat were in those balms and tea blends. The strange ingredients were merely plants that grew in the townsfolk’s own backyards.
The girl’s mothers would wink to the child as a reminder to never tell a soul. But as the shop closed its doors for the evening, the women whispered and chuckled to themselves over their own cleverness. And on those nights when the moon was full, the women and the girl would go to the forest’s edge to find the large white hare gazing at the moon and sometimes shape-shifting back into the witch who had once operated the shop many years before the women were born. It was she who reminded them to keep to the old names of the plants so that no one would know their secrets.
Plant Folk Names
A Little History
In spring, one should be suspicious of witches disguised as hares. At least that’s what I’ve been told. So, if you’re wandering near the garden’s edge as spring unfolds and spy a rabbit nibbling on a toe of frog or the Englishman’s foot that is tangled in flowers of death, you should probably … well, just wiggle your toes in the loamy soil and allow the lemony light to caress your cheek, as there is nothing to fear.
A hare in the garden is an auspicious sign. And if you’re lucky enough to see the long-eared creature shape-shift back into its witchy form, you might ask it about moon rites and messages from your dearly departed. As far as toe of frog, it’s an old folk name for buttercup (Ranunculus spp.) and Englishman’s foot is common plantain (Plantago major). Flower of death is another name for periwinkle (Vinca minor).
Our gardens are steeped in the memory and folklore of those ancient wise women and cunning men who came before us. They were the healers, midwives, and herbalists who knew the secrets of both cure and curse held within the plants that grew along the hedgerows, within the cover of the forests, and in the garden. The herbalist was both respected and feared; their humble door would be tapped when one needed seed of the bird’s nest (Queen Anne’s lace) for contraception or the berries from the waythorn (buckthorn) to purge oneself of foul humors.
Throughout history, and specifically before binomial classification was invented, commonly used plants and herbs had been given different names based on their attributes, growth habits, or even the specific problems they were used for. Our ancestors knew Digitalis purpurea by folk names such as foxglove, fairy gloves, fairy bells, fairy fingers, and goblin gloves, to reflect its connection with the fae. It has also been called dead man’s bells, giving an insight to its poisonous nature. Less commonly known are names like flop-dock, pop-dock, cowflop, flop-poppy, and rabbit’s flowers, a reference to the plant’s large, downy leaves. Depending on where you live, you may call Centaurea cyanus a bachelor’s button, or you may refer to it as a cornflower or blue cap. But did you know that Cichorium intybus is also sometimes referred to by the same folk names? You may also know it by its most common name of chicory—but you can see how it can become confusing.
It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that Carolus Linnaeus gave us the binomial or two-name system of classification that grouped plants according to similarities. The first name, or genus, is a capitalized noun denoting related groups of organisms. The second name, or species, is always lowercase and describes one kind of plant within a genus. Combined, the genus-species provides a unique botanical classification for each individual plant. You will notice that scientific botanical names for plants are also always in Latin, as it helps prevent confusion caused by multiple and often contradictory common names.
Though I always use a plant’s scientific name when researching or purchasing plants and I adore the old-fashioned folk names that inspire one to dream of an English cottage garden, my favorite names are the grislier folk names associated with witchcraft. There is no evidence to prove it, but if you read enough books on plant folklore, you’ll find it suggested that cunning folk were specifically careful to guard their herbal secrets and would come up with odd-sounding folk names for the plants they regularly used so their herbal secrets could not be copied. More practically, it’s hard to forget a plant called devil’s apple or five fingers, making the remembering and passing on of plant knowledge much easier.
Sometimes body parts served as code for the part of the plant used in a spell or herbal remedy. For example, “hair of ” could refer to dried roots or herbs or stringy stems. But “guts” too referred to both roots and stem. “Blood” could refer to sap, and the “eye” could refer to a seed.
Eye: inner part of a blossom or seed Guts: roots and stalk
Hair: dried or stringy herbs and roots Head: flower
Heart: bud or seed
Toe, leg, wing, paw: leaf
Animals too were used to reference the herbs that filled a witch’s larder. Examples include:
Eagle: garlic or fenugreek Frog: cinquefoil
Lamb: lettuce Nightingale: hops
Woodpecker: peony Weasel: rue
Toad: toadflax or sage
As the witchcraft hysteria settled over Europe during the Middle Ages, the village wisewomen, midwives, and healers were looked upon as being in league with Satan, and many of the plants they used were thought to be of the devil. So many common herbs used in medicine and magick took on demonic names.
Devil’s apple: datura
Devil’s cherries: belladonna
Devil’s eye: henbane, periwinkle
Devil’s flower: bachelor’s buttons
Devil’s oatmeal: parsley Devil’s guts: bindweed
Devil’s milk: celandine
Devil’s nettle: yarrow
Folk names give us a surprisingly accurate insight into the magickal and medicinal nature of the herbs that grace our surroundings, and I hope my simplified look into the quaint and sometimes grisly history of plant names piques your interest enough for you to continue researching plant lore on your own.