Pissabed; mare’s fart; dead man’s fingers. These are just three of the hundreds of traditional English plant names which, once ubiquitous but now little-known, have been replaced by the much more prosaic taraxacum, jacobaea vulgaris and xylaria polymorpha. A victory for scientific categorisation, perhaps, but arguably a sad loss of colourful English folklore. Before the professional standardisation of botanical terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries, England was full of such plant names, boasting a huge regional diversity. Some, such as Old Man’s Beard, are still in widespread use, but many are not, and it is the Latin terms which are largely used in scientific circles. Yet these names are colourful and humorous and curious, and deserve to be remembered.
Medieval and early modern plant names had strong visual, emotional and human connotations, fitting well into popular cosmology and reflecting the dominant anthropocentric worldview. Many were influenced by religion. Christ’s tears, Star of Bethlehem, Jew’s ear, Solomon’s seal, Jacob’s ladder and St John’s Wort are just a few examples. The centrality of Marian devotions to popular medieval Catholicism meant that plenty of plants were named after the Virgin Mary. Conversely, there were over fifty supposedly ugly or unpleasant plants whose names began with ‘Devil-‘. Religious plant names, particularly those alluding to saints or the Virgin, were particularly distasteful to Puritans, so they tended to be discouraged from the 16th century onwards.
More names which came to be disapproved of were the coarse ones referring to sexual and other bodily functions. 17th century England was a forthright place, so it’s perhaps no surprise that in the countryside you could find shitabed, naked ladies, black maidenhair, Stinking Willy (named for its foul smell) and even priest’s ballocks [sic]. A herb garden commonly included horse pistle and prick madam, while in the orchard, the open-arse (or common medlar) was a popular fruit. ‘Open arse’ of course left itself vulnerable to all sorts of puns and jokes which Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists didn’t fail to take advantage of. In Act II Scene I of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio uses the image to tease Romeo about his unrequited love for Rosaline:
I doubt that a gently-bred aristocratic lady would have asked for an ‘open-arse’ at table, but such a term would have been widespread among less exalted folk, both men and women. However, altered sensibilities in the 18th and 19th centuries were disgusted by these coarse names, so they were abandoned or changed, at least among the educated classes. For instance, ‘lords and ladies’ is no ancient name, but a fanciful Victorian invention. Seeing the plant (below left), it’s not very hard to imagine what sort of name it was given before its bowdlerisation.
Other plant names were based on supposed similarities to parts of animals: cat’s tail, goat’s beard, hound’s tongue, cranesbill, coltsfoot, bearfoot, bird’s eyes. Some referred to the smell: hound’s piss, stinking arrach; and some plants were named for their edibility: poor man’s pepper, sauce alone, hedge mustard, fat hen. Plants which supposedly looked like parts of the human body included miller’s thumb, old man’s beard, maidenhair and dead man’s fingers, and items of clothing were also represented in bachelor’s buttons, shepherd’s purse, fool’s cap and ladies’ slippers. In the medieval and early modern periods, much popular medicine relied on herbal lore, so some plant names alluded to their supposed medicinal properties: navelwort, lungwort and feverfew, for example.
Much terminology was simply poetic or humorous without any obvious practical meaning. For instance: thrift, goodnight at noon, patience, son-before-the-father (because the blossom came before the leaves), love-in-idleness, honesty, courtship and matrimony (alluding to the deterioration in the scent after the flower was picked), and the wonderfully named welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk. One contemporary accused women of making up these silly terms, saying that “our London gentlewomen have named [swallow wort] Silken Cisley…our women have named [oxlips] jack-an-apes-on-horseback”.
To complicate matters still further, there was rarely one vernacular name for a plant. There could be so many regional variations that the frustration of professional botanists perhaps becomes more understandable. Herbals (popular books containing drawings and descriptions of plants) tell us that ladies’ bedstraw (galium verum) was also known as cheese rennet, gallion, pettimugget, maid’s hair and wild rosemary. Ground ivy was variously referred to as tun hoof, haymaids, catsfoot, alehood, Gill go by the ground and Gill creep by the ground. Mulleyn (candelaria) was called Jupiter’s staff, woollens, hare’s beard, high-taper, hagtaper or bullock’s lungwort depending upon where you were. The Tudor surgeon and botanist John Gerard wrote of treacle mustard (erysimum cheiranthoides), “we call this herb in English penny flower or money flower, silver plate, pricksongwort; in Norfolk [it is called] sattin and white sattin and among our women it is called honesty”. It really was a minefield for anyone seeking to bring some order to plant terminology.
There’s an interesting point to be made beyond the quaintness of these old names. The change to Latin terminology was a sign of the onward march of science, and it signalled the end of the anthropocentric worldview which was previously dominant in Europe. Latin names turned plants into neutral objects more fit for study, whereas the old vernacular terms tied the natural world closely to humans; plants were given personal names, were named after human characteristics and referred to by their usefulness in medicine or other tasks. By the 18th century it was no longer acceptable for professional naturalists to use the old vernacular terms. “Those who wish to remain ignorant of the Latin language”, said John Berkenhout in 1789, “have no business with the study of botany”. Vulgar names were an obstacle to science. In the nineteenth century there was a brief, sentimental attempt by John Ruskin and others to revive or invent English plant names, but by that time the learned world had permanently discarded the language of ordinary discourse.
Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (1991)