Corneliuson, J. 1997. Växternas namn. Vetenskapliga växtnamns etymologi. Språkligt ursprung och kulturell bakgrund. 2nd revised reprinting 1999. Wahlström & Widstrand. (’Plant etymology’ – in Swedish)
Common names of this plant include crab’s eye and cock’s eyes, which refer to the black markings on the seeds. The name jumbie bead stems from Trinidad, where bracelets, made from the seeds, are worn around the wrist or ankle to ward off jumbies (evil spirits) and mal-yeux (‘evil eyes’).
The seeds are very poisonous – ingestion of a few may be fatal. Formerly, in India, they were used for murder, and for killing cattle. In King’s American Dispensatory (1898), H.W. Felter & J.U. Lloyd write: “Abrus seeds are the agents, by which the Chamar caste (or ‘native skinners’) carry on the felonious poisoning of cattle for the purpose of securing their hides. This is done by means of small spikes, called sui (‘needles’) or sutari (‘awls’), which are prepared by soaking the awl in a thin paste of the water-soaked, pounded seeds, and then drying the weapon in the sun, after which it is oiled and sharpened upon stone, affixed in a handle, and then used to puncture the skin of the animal.”
The seeds are used as beads in rosaries and necklaces, hence the common names rosary pea, prayer bead, and paternoster pea. In the old days, they were also used by jewellers as weights, as their weight is always consistent.
In Nepal, Chepang and Mooshar tribals cook the young leaves for food. Thin branches are used for binding.
In many areas, including Belize, West Indies, United States, Hawaii, and Polynesia, crab’s eye is proclaimed an invasive weed.
The medicinal usage of this species is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Presumably, the people of eastern England were confusing yarrow with the closely related sneezeweed (Achillea ptarmica), which causes sneezing. If they stuck this herb up their nose, it may have caused them to sneeze so violently that their nose began bleeding.
Popular names, attesting to the ability of yarrow to stop bleeding, include bloodwort, nosebleed, staunchweed, knight’s milfoil, and soldier’s woundwort. English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) informs us that during the Trojan War the Greek hero Achilles used yarrow to stop bleeding on wounded soldiers. Hence, the name Achillea was applied to the genus by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778).
In former days, an ounce of yarrow was sewed up in flannel and placed under the pillow before going to bed. You would then repeat the following words, which would supposedly bring a vision of your future husband or wife:
In the seventeenth century, yarrow was an ingredient in salads. Flowers and leaves have a bitter, pungent taste, hence the popular name old man’s pepper. It has also been employed as snuff.
In Sweden, yarrow was formerly used in beer brewing, hence its popular name jordhumle (‘field hops’). Linnaeus considered beer of this type more intoxicating than beer brewed with hops.
In a Chinese form of divination, hexagrams are generated by throwing sticks, made from yarrow stalks – a random method, using the I Ching, or Book of Changes, consisting of sixty-four hexagrams, each of them six lines, each of which is either yin (dark forces) or yang (light forces).
In his novel Cold Mountain, from 1997, American author Charles Frazier (born 1950) relates an old superstition connected with the leaves of yarrow. If its crushed leaves would emit a sharp smell like falling snow, it was a sure sign that the coming winter was going to be hard.
The medicinal usage of yarrow is described on the page Traditional medicine.
The generic name Aconitum refers to the mountain Akonitos, near the Black Sea, where the Greek hero Heracles went to the underworld Hades to bring up its guardian, the three-headed dog Kerberos. As he tugged this terrible animal out of Hades, its froth fell on the ground as drops, from which Aconitum sprouted – a figure of the extreme toxicity of the genus.
The common names monkshood and helmet flower refer to the unique flower structure with five coloured sepals, the upper ones forming an erect hood. The name wolf’s bane refers to an old method of killing wolves, either with poisoned arrows or in traps with stakes, smeared in aconite juice.
In Scandinavia, a popular name of monkshood is Chariot of Venus. In Roman mythology, the chariot of goddess Venus was drawn by two doves. Pistil and stamens do look a bit like two doves, harnessed to a chariot.
In Middle Age Europe, witches reputedly used an extract from European monkshood (Aconitum napellus) during their ‘flying’ ceremonies.
The medicinal usage of monkshood is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
The generic name Agrimonia (and with that the English name) is a derivation of Argemone, from the Greek argemos, meaning ‘a white spot on the eye’ (cataract), which, according to the Ancient Greeks, a species of Argemone was able to cure. Despite its medicinal properties, agrimony is not known to cure eye diseases, so why the generic name was applied to it is uncertain. The specific name eupatoria is in honour of King Mithridates VI of Pontus (134-63 B.C.), called Eupator Dionysius (which can be translated as ‘the noble father of plants’), who was a renowned herbalist.
The common name church steeples refers to the long, spire-like inflorescence, cocklebur and sticklewort to the prickly fruits, which easily detach when in contact with socks, sweaters, or animal furs.
The magic powers of agrimony are mentioned in an old English medicinal manuscript:
Agrimony contains tannin and was previously used in dressing leather. Tea was made from the flowers, and an old remedy from 1632 says that dried agrimony prevented beer from turning stale. Sheep and goats will eat this plant, whereas cattle, horses, and pigs leave it untouched.
About the medicinal usage of agrimony, see the page Traditional medicine.
In Europe, in the old days, garlic was regarded as a magic herb, which would protect you against evil. The Ancient Greeks often placed it at crossroads to placate the frightening Hecate, goddess of the underworld, who haunted desolate places at night. People of the Balkans would hang garlic on stable doors to deter milk thieves at night, and in other parts of Europe, garlic rosaries were worn around the neck as protection from evil spirits and disease. In the novel Dracula (1897), by Irish author Abraham Stoker (1847-1912), garlic is utilized to ward off vampires.
Some of the Ancients also believed that garlic was toxic. In his Book of the Epodes, Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 B.C.), also known as Horace, says: “If any person at any time with an impious hand has broken his aged father’s neck, let him eat garlic, more baneful than hemlock. Oh! the hardy bowels of the mowers! What poison is this that rages in my entrails? Has viper’s blood, infused in these herbs, deceived me?”
According to a Hindu legend, The Churning of the Milk Ocean, from the Bhagavata-Purana, garlic came into existence this way: The gods had become weakened and had been usurped by the asuras (demons). The gods appealed to the supreme god Vishnu for help, and he suggested that they should regain their power by drinking the miraculous amrita, the nectar of immortality, which they could obtain by churning the cosmic milk ocean, thus bringing the jar with amrita to the surface. However, Vishnu advised the other gods to treat the asuras diplomatically by suggesting them to jointly churn the ocean. When the amrita was brought to the surface, Vishnu would ensure that the gods got hold of it. To perform this stupendous task, the gods and the asuras uprooted the mountain Mandara, placing it upside down in the ocean, and coiling the giant, many-headed naga (serpent) Vasuki around it. By pulling alternately at each end of Vasuki, the mountain would act as a gigantic churn, thus bringing the pot, containing the amrita, to the surface. When that happened, the man-eagle Garuda, Vishnu’s mount, snatched the pot and ran away with it, but some drops spilled and fell on the ground. Later a plant, containing all the divine properties of the amrita, sprouted from these drops – garlic.
The medicinal usage of garlic is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
In the Middle Ages, dill was used by magicians in their spells, and in charms against witchcraft. In Nimphidia, the Court of Faery, from 1627, English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) writes:
In his book The Popular Names of British Plants, Richard Chandler Prior (1809-1902) states that the name dill is derived from an old Norse word, dilla (to lull), in allusion to the carminative properties of the plant. The strange name meeting house seed refers to the former custom of chewing dill seeds during long church services to calm rumbling stomachs.
The medicinal usage of dill is described on the page Traditional medicine.
Tender stems and leaves of angelica are eaten raw or cooked, especially in the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Stem and seeds are used in confectionery, and candied stems are eaten by the French. The roots, which in autumn has a high content of sugar, are dug up and boiled. Angelica root used to be an important ingredient in chartreuse, the famous liqueur produced by Carthusian monks. The dried leaves, on account of their aroma, are used in the preparation of hop bitters.
The obsolete specific name officinalis refers to the medicinal properties of the plant, see elsewhere on this website: Traditional medicine.
One authority states that the specific name stems from the Celtic word llap (‘hand’), alluding to the ‘gripping’ burs. The popular name herrif is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words, haeg (‘hedge’), and reafe (‘robber’), perhaps referring to the vigorous growth of this species.
In his delightful book All about Weeds, American botanist Edwin Spencer (1881-1964) writes about the burs: “Sometimes (a boy) is mean enough to throw a bunch of the burs into the hair of a rival, or even into the hair of the girl he thinks has snubbed him. She who has had this experience needs no technical description of the burdock.”
In the tragedy Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Pandarus says: “They are burs, I can tell you, they’ll stick where they are thrown.”
Another Shakespeare tragedy, King Lear, also has a direct reference to this plant:
Burdock is widely used medicinally, see the page Traditional medicine.
The common name green ginger was given in allusion to the medicinal properties of common wormwood, comparable with those of ginger (Zingiber officinale, see bottom of this page).
Since the Middle Ages, sommon wormwood has been utilized to get rid of lice and fleas. It was strewn in bedrooms and placed among clothes and furs to keep away moths. In corn lofts, ‘worms’ and snout beetles were exterminated with wormwood, and smoke from the burning herb would keep flies and mosquitos at bay.
In July’s Husbandry, from 1577, English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) says:
An old proverb says: “As bitter as wormwood”, and all members of the genus are remarkable for their extreme bitterness. For hundreds of years, common wormwood and sea wormwood (Artemisia maritima) have been added to alcohol in the Nordic countries, and still today, two alcoholic drinks in southern Europe, vermouth and absinthe, are spiked with wormwood. However, absinthe is addictive, in large quantities even deadly.
The medicinal usage of common wormwood is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
In his delightful book All about Weeds, American botanist Edwin Spencer (1881-1964) writes about pollination of milkweeds:
“(…) they have one of the most distinct flowers of the plant kingdom. It is made for the purpose of tricking insects in order that cross fertilization may be assured. (…) insects attempting to get nectar from the cups in the flower. There are five of these cups on each flower, and they usually are found hanging mouth downward. They are very smooth, and a foot of the insect that tries to alight on one of them invariably slips off and lands on the slit, which lies between two of the cups. This is exactly what should happen; the very purpose for which the flower was made. In that slit lies the male principle of the flower in such a position that it may never come in contact with the female organ, unless it is pulled out and pulled in again. So the foot of the insect goes into the slit and finds itself caught as if between two tough little wires. If the insect is strong enough, a jerk or two will bring out the foot, and along with it two little bags of pollen, which ride away on the insect’s leg to another flower, where the foot again slips into a slit, but this time carrying the pollen bags (…) right down upon the stigmatic surface of the female organ. There the bags stay, and the pollen in them develops as it should (…). Of course, that same insect leg may come out of the second flower slit with two more bags of pollinia hanging to it like two little saddle bags. (…) it takes a strong leg to do this work, and strong insects are sometimes seen with several bags of pollinia hanging to their legs. If the insect is not strong enough, he pays dearly for the sip of nectar he gets. (…) if he cannot pay for that nectar by carrying away to another flower those two little pollinia bags, he hangs there until he dies (…).”
The medicinal usage of scarlet milkweed is described on the page Traditional medicine.
Today, tea is the most popular drink in the world, and tea bushes are grown in most warmer countries. Numerous varieties of tea types exist, but can be divided into the following main types: oolong, in which the leaves are withered and oxidized before being curled and twisted. Those of green and white teas are less oxidized, whereas those of black tea are more oxidized, and also fermented, which leads to a significant loss of medicinal properties.
Seeds of the tea bush yield tea oil, used in cooking and as seasoning.
In 1753, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), named a group of plants Camellia, in honour of Moravian-born Jesuit lay brother, pharmacist, and missionary Georg Joseph Kamel (1661-1706), who discovered a number of new plants in the Philippines, although not the tea plant, which Linnaeus, incidentally, placed in another genus, Thea. But, in 1818, English botanist Robert Sweet (1783-1835) moved all Thea species to the genus Camellia.
In the Orient, tea leaves are widely used medicinally, see Traditional medicine.
Three intoxicants are obtained from this plant. The effect of bhang is relatively mild, made from soaking the leaves in water and then drinking it. Bhang is also mixed with sweets or desserts. Marihuana, called pot, or grass, in Hindi ganja, is more potent, consisting of dried flowers and upper leaves, which are smoked, whereas the most potent drug, hashish, in Hindi charas, is made from resin, exuded by the flowers. This resin is mixed with tobacco and smoked.
Hemp is sacred to many Hindus, who usually call it bhang. During festivals, it is utilized by saddhus (holy ascetics) to enter a different mental level, thus getting in contact with the gods. It is also worshipped by the Rai people of eastern Nepal.
A Hindu legend has it that the god Shiva, after quarrelling with his family members, went off by himself. He found shelter from the sweltering heat in the cool shade of a tall plant, unknown to him. Curious about this plant, he ate some of its leaves and felt so refreshed that he adopted it as his favourite food – hence one of his titles, ‘Lord of Bhang’. He brought the plant down from the Himalaya and presented it as a gift to mankind. In India, it is said: “Bhang is the Joygiver, the Skyflier, the Heavenly Guide, the Poor Man’s Heaven, the Soother of Grief.”
According to another Hindu legend, The Churning of the Milk Ocean, from the Bhagavata-Purana, the gods had become weakened and had been usurped by the asuras (demons). The gods appealed to the supreme god Vishnu for help, and he suggested that they should regain their power by drinking the miraculous amrita, the nectar of immortality, which they could obtain by churning the cosmic milk ocean, thus bringing the jar with amrita to the surface. However, Vishnu advised the other gods to treat the asuras diplomatically by suggesting them to jointly churn the ocean. When the amrita was brought to the surface, Vishnu would ensure that the gods got hold of it. To perform this stupendous task, the gods and the asuras uprooted the mountain Mandara, placing it upside down in the ocean, and coiling the giant, many-headed naga (serpent) Vasuki around it. By pulling alternately at each end of Vasuki, the mountain would act as a gigantic churn, thus bringing the pot, containing the amrita, to the surface. The churning also brought other substances to the surface, one of these being bhang.
The medicinal usage of hemp is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Formerly, in Denmark, tender parts were eaten as a vegetable – which is still the case in Nepal. In the Himalaya, the seeds are employed to kill mosquito larvae. In the West, however, the seeds are considered a valuable food for cage birds!
The medicinal usage of shepherd’s purse is described on the page Traditional medicine.
The generic name Chelidonium is from the Greek chelidon (‘swallow’). Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) relates that swallows take celandine flowers and place them on the eyes of their young, in case they suffer from eye infection. According to Pliny, the name refers to the fact that the plant comes into flower when the swallows arrive, and fades at their departure. The name celandine is a corruption of the Greek word, and tetterwort refers to its use for skin problems.
Certain early botanists thought that another plant, which is today called Ranunculus ficaria, was related to greater celandine, naming it Chelidonium minus, in English ‘lesser celandine’. For some reason or other, both English names of these entirely unrelated plants stuck.
The yellow sap of greater celandine, together with its rotton odour, has led to many fanciful imaginations. In his book Utkast till svenska växternas naturhistoria (1867-1868), Swedish botanist C.F. Nymann (1820-1893) writes: ”As this plant is often growing in cemeteries, the common people believe that it has drawn its poignant sap from dead bodies, for which reason they regard it with a certain abhorrence.”
The usage of greater celandine in folk medicine is described on the page Traditional medicine.
It has been suggested that the common name succory stems from the Latin succurrere (‘to run under’), referring to its long root. However, it may be a mere corruption of chicory, from Cichorium, a word of Egyptian origin. Hendibeh is the Arabic name of a near relative, endive (C. endivia), and the specific name intybus is a corruption of this word. What a lot of corruption!
Naturally, the common names blue sailors, ragged sailors, blue daisy, blue dandelion, and blue weed all refer to the pretty blue flowerheads, whereas the name coffee weed refers to the earlier usage of the root, which, dried and pounded, was widely utilized as a substitute for coffee, but this usage has largely disappeared.
The Ancient Egyptians, Arabs and Romans ate the leaves as a vegetable or in salads. Today, young leaves of cultivated forms are still eaten in salads, but they are generally blanched, as this removes the bitterness of the leaves. The French call blanched leaves barbe de capuchin (‘Capuchin monk’s beard’) – a favourite winter salad.
The medicinal usage of chicory is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Delicious juice is made from many species, notably orange (C. sinensis), lemon (C. limon), and lime (C. aurantiifolia). Marmalade is produced from various species, mostly bitter orange (C. aurantium var. amara) and bergamot orange (C. bergamia). Pulp from the production is used as cattle feed.
The rind of several species contains essential oils, used in the perfume industry. In Vietnam, perfume is made from flowers of pomelo (C. maxima). An essential oil of bergamot orange is added as flavouring to two tea varieties, Earl Grey and Lady Grey, and also to various types of sweets, including Turkish Delight. In Sweden and Norway, this oil is often added as flavouring to snus, a popular tobacco product. In Italy, a liqueur named Liquore al Bergamotto, is derived from bergamot.
The fruit of a rather grotesque variety of cedrat (C. medica), var. sarkodactylis – in daily speech called Buddha’s Hand due to its shape – is utilized to add fragrance to clothing etc. Lemon juice is used as bleach, and to remove stains, whereas juice of leech lime (C. hystrix) is utilized as an insecticide. Tool handles are made from pomelo wood.
Read about the medicinal usage of Citrus species on the page Traditional medicine.
In the Old Testament, Job was a pious man of great virtues, who went through much suffering, as a result of Satan challenging God, saying that he was able to make Job curse God. This made God allow Satan to test Job’s piety through various hardships. Job, knowing that he was innocent, concluded that God must be unjust, but remained faithful to him. The Book of Job, 16:20: “Mine eye poureth out tears unto God.”
At an early stage, Job’s tears were introduced to the United States, and to the Cherokee tribe, its seeds became known as Cherokee corn beads, being used for adornment since at least the time of the foundation of the Cherokee Nation (1794). During the forced removal of c. 16,000 Cherokee, in 1838, from their home lands in south-eastern U.S. to present-day Oklahoma, an estimated 4,000 Cherokee died. Legend has it that Cherokee corn beads sprang up along the various migration routes, called ‘The Trail of Tears’, or, in Cherokee, Nunna daul Isunyi (‘The Trail Where We Cried’).
The seeds are edible, cooked as grain. In East and Southeast Asia, a nourishing drink is made from powdered seeds, and also an alcoholic drink. Necklaces are made from seeds of hard-shelled varieties. Leaves and stems are used for fodder.
The medicinal usage of Job’s tears is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.), who was accused of introducing new gods and of corrupting youth, was sentenced to commit suicide by consuming hemlock juice. His last minutes are described in Phaido, by Greek poet Plato (c. 428-348 B.C.):
”(…) returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: “You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed.”
The man answered: “You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act.”
At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, as his manner was, took the cup and said: “What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not?”
The man answered: “We only prepare just so much as we deem enough.”
“I understand,” he said, “but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world, even so, and so be it according to my prayer.”
Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. (…) he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel. Socrates said no; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff.
Socrates felt them himself, and said: “When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end.”
He was now beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said his last words: “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius. Will you remember to pay the debt?”
In Ancient Greece, it was customary to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, the god of medicine, when you had recovered from an illness. In this case, Socrates had left the vulnerable, sickly life and had been healed to eternity.
Formerly, hemlock caused several deaths, because its root was confused with the root of parsnip. In some cases, the poison was utilized to get rid of voles by soaking nuts in hemlock juice and then placing them at the entrance to their dens.
In an old Danish medicinal book, herbalist Henrik Harpestræng (died 1244) says: ”If a virgin applies the juice to her breasts, they will become stiff and stay thus” (i.e. they won’t grow any bigger). Furthermore, he claims that ”applied above the penis, the juice restricts the lust for women and spoils all the semen, by which a child is born.”
In another Danish herbal book, the juice is recommended for monks and nuns, as it would cause them to behave chastely. It was also recommended for mothers, when their child was to be weaned. The juice was applied to the nipples – a rather drastic method, as the child might easily be poisoned.
In his book Art of Simpling, English botanist William Coles (1626-1662), also called William Cole, writes: “If asses chance to feed much upon hemlock, they will fall so fast asleep that they will seeme to be dead, in so much that some thinking them to be dead indeed have flayed off their skins, yet after the hemlock had done operating they have stirred and wakened out of their sleep, to the griefe and amazement of the owners.”
This species is mentioned in the tragedy King Lear, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616):
The specific name maculatum means ‘spotted’, referring to the reddish spots on the stem. According to a Christian legend, these spots represent the brand, which was applied to Cain’s brow after the killing of Abel.
The common name hemlock is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words hem (‘border’, ‘shore’) and leác (‘plant’). According to a 14th Century herbal book, there are two kinds of hemlock, one being the “grete homeloc, called kex, or wode whistle, being of no use except for poor men’s fuel, and children’s play.” The word kex may mean ‘with a hollow stem’, or it may stem from a Swedish name of the plant, käx, which possibly refers to the similarity of the umbel to a primitive basket for catching fish, called käx. Wode is Old English for ‘mad’, or ‘insane’.
The medicinal usage of poison hemlock is related on the page Traditional medicine.
All parts of the plant are edible, and the species is utilized as food over most of the world. The strongly aromatic fresh leaves are eaten as a vegetable, and the dried seeds are a very common spice, either whole or ground, especially in Indian cuisine, where it is called dhanya. It is one of the main ingredients in the popular spice mixture garam masala. The root is used in Thai cuisine.
Since 1610, Carmelite friars have been making so-called Carmelite drops, a liquor, in which coriander is one of the ingredients.
In California, aphids are a serious pest in organic lettuce fields. Experiments have shown that coriander was among the species that, when planted with lettuce and allowed to flower, would attract hoverflies, the larvae of which eat up to 150 aphids per day. (Source: E. Brennan. Efficient Intercropping for Biological Control of Aphids in Transplanted Organic Lettuce, in: articles.extension.org).
The generic name Coriandrum is derived from the Greek koriannon (‘stink bug’) – a name that was probably given because of the very powerful fragrance of this plant. The Spanish name cilantro is a corruption of Coriandrum, whereas the name Chinese parsley stems from the very popular usage of this herb in Chinese cuisine.
The medicinal usage of coriander is described on the page Traditional medicine.
The prefix haw- is an old word for ‘enclosure’ or ‘hedge’, and hawthorn was formerly widely used as a hedge plant. The name whitethorn arose from the whiteness of the bark, whereas the name mayflower refers to the main blooming time of these plants. Incidentally, the first ship to bring English settlers to North America, in 1620, was named Mayflower.
Formerly, it was widely believed that hawthorn flowers bore the smell of the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), and witches were said to hide among its foliage. Others regarded the hawthorn as sacred, probably from a belief that it furnished the Crown of Thorns that Jesus was wearing at the Crucifixion.
In the old days, a liqueur was made from hawthorn berries with brandy. Small tools and other items were carved from the hard wood, which also makes excellent fuel.
The famous Glastonbury Thorn in Somerset, England, is a form of common hawthorn, which blooms twice a year, in winter, and again in spring, hence its name C. monogyna cv. ‘Biflora’ (meaning ‘double flowering’). This tree is associated with the introduction of Christianity in Britain, and, as legend has it, the original thorn tree sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, who, according to the four Gospels, was the person that took care of the burial of Jesus after the Crucifixion. In the Middle Ages, his name was connected with Glastonbury, where he supposedly founded the earliest Christian oratory in England.
The usage of hawthorn in folk medicine is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
In Medieval Europe, the species was known as Planta genista, and it was adopted as emblem by Geoffrey V (1113-1151), Count of Anjou and later Duke of Normandy. He was married to Mathilda, daughter of King Henry I of England, and they had a son, who later became King Henry II (1133-1189). Planta genista was corrupted to Plantagenet, which became the family name of the English kings, up to Richard III (1452-1485).
In the Middle Ages, broom was ascribed to possess magical powers, and witches were believed to make sticks of the thicker stems, supposedly riding on them during their hallucinogenic travels.
In Celtic mythology, Blodeuwedd (‘Flower-Face’) is a woman, made from flowers of broom, meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), and oak (Quercus robur).
A Christian legend has it that when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, they were passing through a growth of broom, the ripe pods of which made loud crackling sounds when spreading their seeds, hereby possibly drawing the attention of Herod’s soldiers, and causing the Virgin to curse the bushes.
In northern Europe, most common brooms are of South European origin, imported as ornamentals. They often escape, in many places becoming invasive, dispelling native vegetation. Genetically, they also pollute the original low and creeping variety of broom, which is today very rare. In Denmark, it is only found in a few moors and dunes in western Jutland.
In the old days, broom buds were pickled and eaten as capers, and, before the introduction of hops, young green broom shoots were added to beer to give it more flavour and make it more intoxicating. The bark yields an excellent fibre, and also contains a considerable amount of tannin, in former times utilized for tanning leather.
The role of common broom in folk medicine is described on the page Traditional medicine.
The entire plant is extremely poisonous – a fact reflected in most of its popular English names, including mad apple, devil’s apple, hell’s bells, devil’s trumpet, devil’s weed, and devil’s snare. Nevertheless, in northern India, I once watched a herd of goat head straight for a growth of thorn-apples and commence eating the fruits, so, presumably, goat stomachs can neutralize the toxins.
The popular names Jimsonweed and Jamestown weed refer to Jamestown, Virginia, where British soldiers, in 1676, attempted to suppress an armed rebellion by Virginia settlers, led by Nathaniel Bacon, against the rule of Governor William Berkeley. Some of the soldiers consumed thorn-apple, and as a result they spent the following 11 days in altered mental states. In his book The History and Present State of Virginia, from 1705, Robert Beverly gives an interesting account of this effect:
“The James-Town weed (…) was gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll. In this frantic condition, they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves – though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after eleven days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed.”
In former days, thorn-apple was widely used as a hallucinogen by witches, and also during sacred ceremonies among numerous native tribes all over North America. Still today, in Ethiopia, magicians and exorcists, called debtera, use it ‘to open their mind’ – i.e. to be more receptive, creative, and imaginative.
In his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, from 1985, Wade Davis identified thorn-apple – in Haiti called ‘zombi cucumber’ – as an important ingredient of the concoction, which voodoo priests employed to create zombies.
In Nepal, thorn-apple leaves are mixed with rice or bread and fed to mad dogs to kill them.
The role of thorn-apple in folk medicine is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
All other common names of the plant, including fairies’ glove, fairy caps, fairy thimbles, gloves of Our Lady, Virgin’s glove, witches’ gloves, bloody fingers, and dead men’s bells, also refer to the flower shape.
In former days, Danish children had fun putting a foxglove flower on a finger as a thimble. It was said that if the flower didn’t break, you would have new clothes within a year. Another game was to pick flower and calyx, squeeze the flower above and then break it on your forehead.
Despite its great toxicity, foxglove was formerly much utilized in folk medicine. Read more on the page Traditional medicine.
Formerly, it was believed that this species could be used as a cure for snake bite. British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says about this: “It is a most gallant herb of the sun; it is a pity it is no more in use than it is. It is an especial remedy against the biting of the viper, and all other venomous beasts, or serpents; as also against poison, or poisonous herbs. Dioscorides and others say that whosoever shall take of the herb or root before they be bitten, they shall not be hurt by the poison of any serpent.” (Pedanius Dioscorides (died 90 A.D.), was a Greek physician, pharmacologist, and botanist, author of De Materia Medica (five volumes dealing with herbal medicine).
Among American indigenous peoples, a decoction of the plant was taken in case of ’white urine’, indicating too much calcium in the urine.
The name bugloss is from the Greek, meaning ‘ox tongue’, referring to the rough surface of the leaves. In Swedish, the name of this species is blåeld, meaning ‘blue fire’, alluding to the wonderful blue colour of the flowers, which, when many plants grow together, does resemble ‘blue fire’.
The common name dog’s grass stems from the habit of dogs to chew its leaves in order to procure vomiting. In former days, it was believed that the leaves would cure sick dogs. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) says: ”If you know it [couch grass] not by this description, watch the dogs when they are sick and they will quickly lead you to it.”
In various countries, including Italy and Denmark, the sugar-containing rhizomes were collected and sold as cattle and horse feed. In Denmark, during famines, they were ground and baked as bread, and ground rhizomes were also utilized in the production of beer and alcohol. Fresh rhizomes were used in green-houses as bast, and rope was made from dried rhizomes.
The medicinal usage of couch grass is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
In former days, field horsetail was used to polish pewter and wood, which gave rise to the popular name pewterwort, and also to strengthen fingernails. Due to its high content of silica, it can be used as an abrasive.
In spring, buds are eaten as a vegetable in Japan and Korea, but all other members of the genus are considered to be toxic.
In his book Bræen (1908), Danish poet Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) writes: ”On the grey fields, beside the mole hills, horsetails had penetrated the surface, like a dead man’s fingers.”
This species grows in wet areas in forests, often on slopes along streams. In Japan, it is often cultivated in ponds in ornamental gardens. Certain indigenous American tribes used a decoction of the stems for venereal diseases and as a diuretic.
The popular name fever tree stems from the practice of planting eucalyptus trees in swampy, malaria-ridden areas. As their roots are able to store large quantities of water, the swamps dry out, making the malaria-bearing mosquitos disappear.
Eucalyptus plantations are very harmful to the environment, not only because large tracts of forest have been cut down, but also because of the water-retaining properties of these trees, causing the soil to dry out.
The medicinal usage of eucalyptus species is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
King Juba II (c. 50 B.C. – 19 A.D.) of Numidia (in present-day Algeria and Tunisia) had an interest in plants and often described them, including a thorny, succulent plant from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, whose latex was a powerful laxative. He named this plant Euphorbea after his Greek chief physician, Euphorbus. In 1753, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), adopted this name, in the form Euphorbia, for the entire genus.
The specific name royleana was given in honour of British botanist John Forbes Royle (1798-1858), who is chiefly known for his work Illustrations of the Botany and other branches of Natural History of the Himalayan Mountains, and of the Flora of Cashmere (1839ff).
The medicinal usage of Royle’s spurge is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Pipal belongs to a group of fig trees, called strangler figs. A pipal seed takes root high up in a tree, from where the sprouting plant sends aerial roots down to the ground. Over the years, these aerial roots wrap themselves tightly around the host tree, strangling it. This species is cultivated as an ornamental in most warm countries of the world. In Nepal, the bark is used for dyeing and tanning, the inner bark for binding material, and the foliage is used for fodder.
Read more about pipal, and about The Buddha, on the pages Plants: Pipal and banyan – two sacred fig trees, and Religion: Buddhism. The medicinal properties of pipal may be studied at Traditional medicine.
Strawberries are eaten raw, with milk or cream, or as jam. In a play, written in 1603, English poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637) says:
“(…) and having gained its summit, enjoyed a most enchanting view, a vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields; a meandering river gliding through, saluting in its various turnings the swelling, green, turfy knolls, embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds; flocks of turkies strolling about them; herds of deer prancing in the meads or bounding over the hills; companies of young innocent Cherokee virgins, some busily gathering the rich fragrant fruit, others having already filled their baskets, lay reclined under the shade of floriferous and fragrant native bowers of Magnolia, Azalea, Philadelphus, perfumed Calycanthus, sweet Yellow Jessamine and cerulian Glycine frutescens, disclosing their beauties to the fluttering breeze, and bathing their limbs in the cool fleeting streams; whilst other parties, more gay and libertine, were yet collecting strawberries or wantonly chasing their companions, tantalising them, staining their lips and cheeks with the rich fruit.”
A pleasant tea can be made from the leaves. An old English recipe says: “Gather strawberry leaves on Lamas Eve, [August 1] press them in the distillery until the aromatick perfume thereof becomes sensible. Take a fat turkey and pluck him, and baste him, then enfold him carefully in the strawberry leaves. Then boil him in water from the well, and add rosemary, velvet flower, lavender, thistles, stinging nettles, and other sweet-smelling herbs. Add also a pinte of canary wine, and half a pound of butter and one of ginger, passed through the sieve, besides plums and stewed raisins and a little salt. Cover him with a silver dish cover.”
During World War I, the leaves were smoked as tobacco. The entire plant has been used for tanning.
The word strawberry is derived from the verb to strew, in allusion to the dense tangle of the plant’s stems, creeping over the ground.
The medicinal usage of strawberry is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Fumitory is mentioned in the tragedy King Lear, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616):
Formerly, fumitory was much utilized medicinally, read more on the page Traditional medicine.
A near relative, the wall fumitory (Fumaria muralis), also known as scrambling, or ramping, fumitory, is native to western Europe and North Africa. It is regarded as an invasive plant in Australia and New Zealand.
Yellow bedstraw was also stuffed into mattresses, from which the coumarin of the drying plants would emit a pleasant fragrance. As coumarin is toxic, it would also expel fleas and lice.
Another popular name of this species is cheese rennet, as the flowers are able to coagulate milk to make cheese. In his book Herbal Simples, Dr. William T. Fernie (1830-1914) writes: “The people in Cheshire, especially about Nantwich, where the best cheese is made, do use it [yellow bedstraw] in their rennet, esteeming greatly of that cheese above other made without it.”
The name of the entire genus, Galium, from the Greek gala (’milk’), also refers to the usage of yellow bedstraw in rennet.
Flowers and roots are used for dyeing, the flowers giving yellow colour, the roots red. Dr. Fernie (see above) states that yellow bedstraw was named maid’s hair, because, during the reign of Henry VIII, “maydens did wear silken callis to keep in order their hayre, made yellow with dye.” – In Denmark, flowers are added to alcohol to give flavour and colour.
In his book from 1745, Carl Linnæi Öländska och Gotländska Resa förrättad År 1741, the famous Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), relates the following case of superstition from his journey to Öland and Gotland in 1741: ”As regards Galium luteum, the locals told us that it was often strewn on the floor during fiests, but always with the unfortunate result that the guests began arguing and fighting. As a physicus, I am unable to explain the reason for this, but as a logicus, I use the following syllogism [logical argumentation]: Galium is only strewn on the floor during fiests. In these parts (as in other places), people always get drunk during fiests. When people get drunk, they always start arguing and fighting. Consequently, Galium causes squabble.”
The medicinal usage of yellow bedstraw is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Formerly, hop sprouts were eaten as a salad and in soups, and young buds were utilized as a spice in sauces. In times of war, the leaves were smoked as tobacco. They were also chopped to make animal feed, and sheep were fed with dried leaves in winter. Rope was made from the fibres, and on the island of Funen, Denmark, the stems were wound around each other to make strong ropes, which were used to fasten laths to rafters and also to tie straw bundles to the rafters. Door mats were also produced from the stems. Dried, they constituted an excellent fuel.
The specific name lupulus is a diminutive of the Latin lupus (wolf), referring to the strong growth of hop, which ’attacks’ and overgrows other plants. In June, when the growth is at its peak, the stem may grow up to 17 centimetres a day. On the island of Funen, Denmark, an old saying was that you were able to see this fast growth. The English name is from the Anglo-Saxon word hoppan (’to climb’).
Read about the medicinal usage of hop on the page Traditional medicine.
During the Middle Ages, extract from henbane constituted a part of the famous ‘witch ointments’, applied to their naked body by witches. The poison penetrated their skin, throwing them into an ecstasy, during which they had fantastic hallucinations. Some had the impression of being turned into an animal, others felt they were able to fly through the air.
It is thought that the priestesses of the Oracle at Delphi used burning leaves of henbane to enter an ecstasy, before stating their prophecies.
An old tradition has it that during the Middle Ages, gypsies, mercenaries, and various other travelling folk stole chickens from farms by placing a tray with burning henbane leaves in the chicken house, causing the chickens to faint and fall to the ground, without making noise.
In Greek mythology, the dead in Hades were crowned with henbane, as they wandered hopelessly along the River Styx.
English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) philosophizes about one of the common names of henbane, Jupiter’s bean: “I wonder how astrologers could take on them to make this an herb of Jupiter: and yet Mizaldus, a man of penetrating brain, was of that opinion as well as the rest; the herb is indeed under the dominion of Saturn and I prove it by this argument: All the herbs which delight most to grow in saturnine places are saturnine herbs. Henbane delights most to grow in saturnine places, and whole cart loads of it may be found near the places where they empty the common Jakes, and scarce a ditch to be found without it growing by it. Ergo, it is an herb of Saturn.” [A ‘saturnine place’ is an old expression, probably an allusion to gloomy or melancholy places. ‘Jake’ is an old word for toilet.]
Now and then, henbane has been utilized for murder, one example being an American physician, Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862-1910), who, in 1910, poisoned his wife with hyoscyamine and scopolamine, which can be extracted from dried henbane leaves.
The medicinal usage of henbane is described on the page Traditional medicine.
As its name implies, St. John’s wort has long been associated with St. John the Baptist. In the Middle Ages, its blood-red juice symbolized the blood from the Saint’s beheading. John the Baptist had reproached King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife Herodias, hereby incurring Herodias’ wrath. Cunningly, her daughter persuaded the king to promise her anything she wanted, and, on request from her mother, she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a tray. (Mark, 6:18-28)
For hundreds of years, flower buds have been added to alcohol, giving it a bitter taste and a wonderful dark red colour. It has also been utilized to dye wool, giving it a reddish or yellowish hue. Formerly, in rural Denmark, this herb was smoked as tobacco.
In former times, St. John’s wort was believed to possess magic powers, protecting against witchcraft and lightning strike. It was also able to exorcise the Devil from persons, which were possessed by him. In the old days, in Denmark, it was believed that if the cattle had acquired an ailment by grazing, where the elves were ruling, you should pick St. John’s wort on St. John’s Eve, at midnight, and feed it to the cattle.
Still today, St. John’s wort is widely used as a mecidinal herb, read more on the page Traditional medicine.
The popular names horseheal and horse elder were given in allusion to an old custom in Britain, where asthmatic horses were fed with the fleshy root of elecampane. The name scabwort refers to its former usage to treat scabies.
The specific name helenium, from the Greek helenion, was first mentioned by Greek scholar and botanist Theophrastos (c. 371 – c. 287 B.C.), called ‘the founder of botany’. Later a physician, Nikander (c. 147-? B.C.), linked the name with Helen of Troy. One legend has it that elecampane sprang from Helen’s tears, falling on the ground, when she was abducted by Prince Paris.
To the Celts of Britain, elecampane was a sacred plant.
In the 1500s, elecampane roots were sweetened and eaten as candy in England. Today, in France and Switzerland, an extract from the root is added as flavouring to absinthe, an alcoholic drink. It is widely cultivated as an ornamental.
The medicinal usage of elecampane is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
There are various theories as to the origin of the generic name Juniperus. Some authorities claim that it stems from the Latin iungere (’tie together’ or ’weave’), referring to the use of its branches in baskets and fences, whereas others maintain that it is derived from juvenis (’young’) and parere (’to produce’), referring to the fact that juniper bushes constantly are renewed by new shoots. The words gin and genever are also derived from Juniperus. The specific name communis is Latin, meaning ‘common’.
In the old days, in Denmark, fresh branches were strewn on the church floor during funerals, and a juniper bush planted near the door would keep witches and ogres at bay. The branches were utilized for basket weaving, and thicker stems were used as almost imperishable staves in fences. From the tough wood, buttons, kitchen utensils and other items were carved, and an American species of juniper is still used for pencils.
Previously, on Easter Monday, Kashubian boys of northern Poland would chase the girls, whipping their legs gently with juniper twigs. Supposedly, this would make the girls interested in the boys.
When burning wood and foliage, an aromatic smoke is produced, in former times used for smoking various foods. Still today, Buddhist peoples of the Himalaya and Tibet burn fresh juniper branches as incense in temples.
The cones are an ingredient in the production of gin and genever, adding the characteristic smell and taste to these drinks. They are also excellent in cooking, e.g. in meat courses and marinades. They emit an aromatic fragrance, containing up to 40% glucose and 2% essential oil.
Juniper is widely used in herbal medicine, described on the page Traditional medicine. Another species, the drooping juniper (Juniperus recurva), is dealt with at Religion: Animism, and for a picture of black juniper (J. indica), see Plants: Ancient and huge trees.
Because of its cooling properties, desert people of Arabia, and elsewhere, have, for millennia, been using henna juice to cool down their bodies. They noticed that the juice left marks on the skin, which led to the idea of using it to make designs for decorative purposes. In Ancient Egypt, some of the mummies were adorned with henna, and it is told that Queen Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) also used it for decoration.
Still today, henna is widely used in Pakistan, India, North Africa, and the Middle East for decoration of skin and fingernails, and as a hair dye. It is also utilized as a natural dye in the textile industry. An oil extracted from the flowers is used in the perfume industry.
The medicinal usage of henna is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
The generic name is from the Latin matricis (’mother’s life’, i.e. the womb). Formerly another plant, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium, see elsewhere on this page), was regarded as a species of chamomile, named Matricaria parthenium, by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778). In Ancient Rome, feverfew was used for uterus problems. The specific name chamomilla (and with that the English chamomile) is from the Greek chamaimelon, meaning ‘earth-apple’, referring to the apple-like scent of German chamomile.
In Denmark, in the old days, a number of superstitions were connected with chamomile. When a woman passed a growth of chamomile, she had to make a curtsy twice. On Midsummer’s Eve, the girls would adorn their chamber with chamomile flowers, and on the island of Falster, it was placed among the plates on their rack. On Sunday morning, chamomile flowers were burned to spread fragrance in the living room. In the 1600s, on 24th of June, chamomile and burdock (Arctium lappa, see elsewhere on this page) were placed several places in the house as protection against the poison, which in the evening would surge up from the earth.
Formerly, boys would smoke dried chamomille flowers as tobacco. If you rinsed your hair in chamomile water, it would get a sheen. Chamomile and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium, see elsewhere on this page) were added to beer to make it keep. (The honour probably goes to wormwood, whereas chamomile might have added fragrance.)
Today, an essential oil, derived from the flowers, is utilized cosmetically.
To Buddhists, the lotus is seen as a symbol of purity in a dirty world. Despite often growing in muddy water, the plant produces a wonderful flower. A widely used Buddhist mantra is Om Mani Padme Hum, which loosely translates as ‘Hail Jewel in the Lotus Flower’. The jewel, naturally, is The Buddha.
Sacred lotus has a very wide distribution, from Iran through the Indian Subcontinent, eastwards to southern China, Taiwan, and Japan, and thence south through Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Indonesia to New Guinea and northern Australia. In parts of this huge area, it may have been introduced as an ornamental.
All parts of the plant are edible, in particular rhizome and seeds.
The generic name Nelumbo is derived from the Sinhalese name of the lotus, nelum, whereas the specific name nucifera is from the Latin nux (‘nut’) and fer (‘to carry’), thus ‘nut-bearing’, referring to the edible seeds.
The medicinal usage of sacred lotus is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine. You may also read more about the various Indian religions, see Religion.
According to the Old Testament, Moses made a decree that people in charge of tending the olive groves were excepted from doing military service.
In Greek mythology, Athene was the goddess of war, but also protector of cities. She vied with the god of the seas, Poseidon, who was going to be the tutelary deity of a newly established town at the Saronian Bay. Poseidon let a spring well forth, but unfortunately it was salty. Athene created the olive tree, and the population of the town elected her. In her honour, the town was named Athens, and groves of olive trees were planted around it.
Olive trees can live for more than 2000 years. Some specimens in the Gethsemane Garden, beneath the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, were young trees, when Jesus lived in this area.
The medicinal usage of the olive tree is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
The name Petasites is from the Greek petasos, meaning ’broad-brimmed hat’, like the common name umbrella plant referring to the very large leaves, growing to one metre across. These leaves appear in two of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, The Ugly Duckling and The Happy Family. The name butterbur supposedly stems from the habit of using the large leaves to wrap butter in during hot weather, whereas another popular name, lagwort, refers to the late appearance of the leaves, which do not usually unfold, until the flowers have faded. ‘Dock’ is a term applied to various plants with large leaves, here used in the popular names flapperdock, blatterdock, and butterdock.
Another former name of this plant was plague flower, as it was believed to be one of the few helpful remedies against the dreaded disease.
In former times, the root was chewed, as it was thought to protect against ‘bad air’ (such as bad breath).
In his book The British Flora (1838), botanist William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) writes: “The early flowering of this rank weed induces the Swedish farmers to plant it near their beehives.”
In England, the seeds have been used for love divination. They had to be sowed by a young, unmarried woman half an hour before sunrise on a Friday morning, in a lonesome place, and she must strew the seeds gradually on the grass, saying these words:
The medicinal usage of common butterbur is described on the page Traditional medicine.
The popular names key flower and Herb Peter refer to the inflorescence, resembling a bunch of keys, which was the emblem of St. Peter. According to legend, St. Peter heard that some people were trying to enter heaven by the back door, instead of the front gates, which were guarded by him. Hurrying towards the back door, he dropped his keys, which took root and became cowslips. German names of the species include Echte Schlüsselblume (‘true key flower’) and Himmelsschlüssel (‘keys of heaven’).
In Norse mythology, the flower was dedicated to Freya, the Key Virgin, a goddess associated with love, beauty, and fertility. When the heathens converted to Christianity, the plant was instead dedicated to Virgin Mary, hence the popular name Our Lady’s keys.
In former days, the fragrant flowers were used to flavour wine and vinegar, and young leaves were eaten as salad.
English herbalist William Turner (1508-1568) mentions the alleged quality of cowslip to banish freckles and wrinkles: ”Some weomen, we find, sprinkle ye floures of cowslip wt whyte wine and after still it and wash their faces wt that water to drive wrinkles away and to make them fayre in the eyes of the worlde, rather than in the eyes of God, whom they are not afrayd to offend.”
This belief probably stemmed from the ‘freckles’ on the cowslip petals. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, Our Lord had put these freckles on the flowers, signifying to people that they could be used to remove freckles.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), a mischievous puck, or spirit, Robin Goodfellow, meets a fairy, asking her what she is doing. She says:
Like other names, including the German Kirsch and the Italian cerasa, the English name cherry stems from the Latin cerasus, which was adopted from the Greek kerasos, the ancient Greek name of the cherry tree. Cerasus was also the ancient Roman name of the modern town Giresun, situated on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, from where cherries during the Roman Era were exported to Rome. The specific name avium, from the Latin avis (‘bird’), relates to the fact that various bird species love cherries.
Danish physician and herbalist Simon Paulli (1603-1680) states that young girls apply cherry resin to a piece of cloth, moisten it in water and rub their curly hair with it, to avoid it becoming dishevelled.
The delicious fruits are an ingredient in countless cakes and desserts, and much utilized to make jam and wine. A kind of liqueur is made from an extract of berries and crushed stones. The wood is very durable, utilized for many items, including furniture, violins, and pipes, and formerly also for parts of windmill machinery.
Bark, leaves, and stones contain amygdalin (see Prunus amygdalus below). Formerly, the leaves were used for tea, and in war times they were crushed to make a substitute for tobacco.
In his book Det tabte Land (’The Lost Land’), from 1919, Danish poet Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) describes the cherry tree thus: ”Each tree is like a white-clad cupola, full of coolness, sweetness, and sunshine, the entire tree a single sound of all the humming, dizzy bees – a wonder of light, a sphere of bliss.”
Cherries are much utilized in herbal medicine, read more on the page Traditional medicine.
Almonds come in two varieties. Bitter almonds, var. amara, contain amygdalin, a glucoside. When ingested, this glucoside is split into three substances: glucose, bitter oil, and the highly toxic Prussic acid. Fatal dosage of Prussic acid is c. 1 mg/kg body weight, so ingestion of many bitter almonds is very risky.
Sweet almonds, var. dulcis, however, contain very little amygdalin, and they are delicious, used in cookies, desserts, Mughal curries, and to make syrup. They contain up to 50% oil, utilized as edible oil and in the production of marzipan. The oil, and the residues after pressing, are used in the cosmetic industry.
In the Hebrew Tanakh, the almond was a symbol of promise due to its early flowering, and in the Christian Bible it is mentioned ten times, beginning with Genesis, 43:11, where it is described as “among the best of fruits.”
According to legend, the rod of Aaron bore sweet almonds on one side and bitter on the other; if the Israelites followed the Lord, the sweet almonds would ripen, but if they were to forsake the path of the Lord, the bitter ones would predominate.
The medicinal usage of almonds is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
In Greek mythology, King Peleus was about to marry the beautiful sea nymph Thetis, but, unfortunately, they had forgotten to invite the goddess of strife, Eris, to the wedding. As a revenge, Eris let a golden apple roll in among the guests, and in the fruit skin she had carved: “For the most beautiful one.”
Three of the goddesses, Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite, began arguing, to whom of the three the title should be bestowed. Zeus advised them to go to Troy to consult Prince Paris. Off they went, and upon arrival in Troy, each of them promised Prince Paris a reward, if he chose her: Hera promised him power, Athene fame and wisdom, and Aphrodite the most beautiful woman. He chose the latter – hereby indirectly causing the long siege of Troy, related in Homer’s poem Iliad.
Traditionally, the golden apple is considered to be the sweet apple (Malus pumila), but it is just as likely to have been pomegranate, as the apple may not yet have been introduced to Greece at the time, when the text was written.
One of the most famous Christian myths is about The Fall of Man. Genesis, Chapter 3:1-7, reads as follows:
”Now the serpent (…) said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (…) and she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
Traditionally, the Fruit of Knowledge is also regarded as being the apple, although the text in Genesis does not mention this. However, it is just as likely to have been pomegranate, or perhaps apricot (Prunus armeniaca), as the apple may not yet have been introduced to the Near East at the time, when the text was written.
Pomegranate juice is very refreshing. It is also added to the alcoholic drinks Grenadine and Campari, adding a bright red colour and a bitter taste. In Morocco, an extract of unripe fruits is used for tanning leather goods. Due to its pretty flowers, pomegranate is often cultivated as an ornamental.
The medicinal usage of this species is described on the page Traditional medicine.
Previously, in large parts of Europe, oaks were sacred trees, dedicated to the highest gods: in Ancient Greece to Zeus, in Rome to Jupiter, in Norse religion to Thor, the god of thunder, and in Celtic religion to Dagda, god of manliness, fertility, and wisdom. Celtic druids often performed their rituals in sacred oak groves, especially worshipping the mistletoes (Viscum album, see elsewhere on this page), growing on the trees.
In Celtic mythology, Blodeuwedd (‘Flower-Face’) is a woman, made from flowers of oak, meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), and broom (Cytisus scoparius).
Oaks are very important timber trees, utilized for numerous items, including boats, furniture, musical instruments, and casks for storage of wine and liqueur, and in former days also for houses and ships. The astringent bark is excellent for tanning. In the old days, acorns were ground and roasted as a substitute for coffee, and they were a most important food for domestic animals, especially pigs, which were roaming the forests in search of them.
The medicinal usage of oak trees is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine. Pictures of other oak species are found at Plants: Ancient and huge trees.
In Ancient Egypt, where this species has been cultivated for at least 6,000 years, the seed oil was used for lamps. Today, it is an effective engine lubricant. The seeds are very poisonous, but after pressing, the oil is not toxic, as the poison stays in the residue. In Nepal, the seeds are fed to mad dogs to kill them. Necklaces and bracelets are made from the seeds, and the dried plant is utilized as fuel.
The plant is cultivated here and there as an ornamental, but it produces an abundance of pollen and is regarded as extremely allergenic. As it grows most proliferately, it often expels many other plant species.
Bodo and Naga tribals of north-eastern India feed the leaves to larvae of the eri silkmoth (Samia cynthia ssp. ricini), and an extract of the plant is used as insecticide. Naga people also use it as fertilizer.
Read about the medicinal usage of this plant on the page Traditional medicine.
In many parts of Europe, during the Middle Ages, rue was considered a powerful defence against witches, and it was often used in spells. Later, judges would carry rue to protect them from contagious ‘jail fever’ (typhoid). – An old word says that rue-water, sprinkled in the house, would rid it of fleas.
Formerly, at the ceremony usually preceding the Sunday High Mass, the holy water was sprinkled from brushes made of rue – hence its popular names Herb of Grace and Herb of Repentance. The generic name Ruta is from the Greek reuo (’to set free’), in allusion to the herb being an effective remedy for various diseases.
Today, the species is widely cultivated as an ornamental. Cats dislike its smell and therefore avoid it, so if you dislike cats, plant rue in your garden! It is also used as an insect repellent, and in South India it is recommended as a snake repellent.
In Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), rue is one of the flowers distributed by the mad Ophelia:
Formerly, rue was much used in herbal medicine, described on the page Traditional medicine.
The name elder is from Anglo-Saxon, aeld, meaning ’fire’ – the hollow stems were used to kindle a fire. The popular names pipe tree and bore tree stem from the habit of removing the soft pit of elder branches to make pipes. The same procedure would make pop-guns, popular among small boys. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) writes: ”It is needless to write any description of this [the elder], since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree for the elder.”
A common medieval belief was that Judas hanged himself on an elder after betraying Jesus. In his Vision of Piers Plowman, medieval poet William Langland (c. 1332-1386) says:
Another belief was that the cross, on which Jesus was crucified, was made of elder. An old rhyme runs thus:
In Denmark, and also in other countries, the elder was connected with magic. In it lived Hyldemor (’elder-tree mother’), who watched over it. If somebody cut down the tree, they would be haunted by her. In The Book of Herbs, Lady Rosalind Northcote (1873-1950) writes: ”There is a tradition that once when a child was put in a cradle of elder-wood, Hylde-Moer came and pulled it by the legs and would give it no peace, till it was lifted out. Permission to cut elder wood must always be asked first, and not until Hylde-Moer has given consent by keeping silence, may the chopping begin.”
A widespread popular belief was that the elder would ward off evil and protect from witches, and green elder branches were buried in graves to protect the dead from evil spirits. In Denmark, it was believed that if you were standing under an elder on Midsummer Eve, you would see the King of Elves ride by, attended by his retinue.
When crushed, the leaves give off an unpleasant smell, supposedly warding off harmful insects. In the old days, gardeners would sprinkle a decoction of the leaves over young plants, and coachmen would tie a whisk of leaves to the mane of their horses to keep flies away. They were also used by farmers to drive away mice and moles.
The white and hard wood is used for turned items, and also to make fences. In an old rhyme, it is said:
The medicinal usage of elder is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Popular names like Sweet Betty, wild Sweet William, hedge pink, Boston pink, and lady-at-the-gate all refer to the pretty flowers.
In her book Nature’s Garden, published in 1900, American historian and writer Neltje Blanchan de Graff Doubleday (1865-1918) writes about the occurrence of soapwort (or ‘bouncing bet’, as she calls it) in North America: “A stout, buxom, exhuberantly healthy lassie among flowers is bouncing bet, who long ago escaped from gardens, whither she was brought from Europe, and ran wild beyond colonial farms to roadsides, along which she has travelled over nearly our entire area.” In parts of the United States, it is considered a pest, which outcompetes native vegetation.
Despite being slightly toxic, the species is used as a culinary ingredient in preparing tahini, and in the Middle East, the root is used as an additive when making a popular sweet, halva. Added when brewing beer, it creates plenty of foam, the so-called ‘beer head’.
The specific name officinalis indicates the medicinal properties of soapwort. Read more on the page Traditional medicine.
Through the ages, rowan wood has been utilized for many purposes. Remains of a funnel-shaped cup, carved from rowan wood, dating back to the Stone Age (c. 5400-3900 B.C.), was found north of Copenhagen, Denmark. From the Bronze Age, vessels with sticks of rowan wood stuck through the ears, have been found.
Later, numerous items were made from rowan wood, including planks, chariots, wheel spokes, bridles, and pipes, while the bark has been used for tanning and dyeing, giving a reddish-brown colour. The fruits make an excellent jelly. Formerly, they were also used in Northern Europe to produce a strong spirit and wine, and the Welsh made beer from them.
The fruits are spread by birds, and sometimes seeds sprout in straw roofs or atop pruned trees. These epiphytes are called flying-rowan, and they were formerly believed to possess magical powers. In his book The Golden Bough (1890), Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer (1854-1941) writes that they were supposed to be “exceedingly effective against witchcraft: since it does not grow on the ground, witches have no power over it. If it is to have its full effect, it must be cut on Ascension Day.”
Wearing a necklace of rowan berries would protect women against influence of witches. It was also a custom to tie twigs of rowan over stable doors to protect livestock from evil spirits. In Denmark, it was said that if an apple tree was grafted on a rowan, and a pregnant woman would eat its apples, she would not be able to deliver. It was also believed that if a witch threw rowan berries to a cow, and it would eat them, or just lick on them, it would have a miscarriage.
The popular name mountain ash stems from the similarity of rowan leaves to the leaves of ash (Fraxinus excelsior).
The medicinal usage of rowan is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
In Ancient Rome, and during the Middle Ages, betony was regarded as a magic herb. Antonius Musa (see above) found betony effective against sorcery, and an Anglo-Saxon herbal recommends its use to prevent “frightful nocturnal goblins and terrible sights and dreams.” It was planted in churchyards and hung about the neck as an amulet or charm.
Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) says that betony would protect “those that carried it about them,” being ”good against fearful visions” and an effective means of ”driving away devils and despair.”
In the Middle Ages, it was said that if you place a ring of fresh betony around adders, they dare not creep over it, but will fight and lash their tail, until they die. It was also claimed that stags, if wounded with a dart, will search out betony and be cured upon eating it.
In the 1600s, it was told that if you had been bewitched by a woman, so that you could not love any other woman, you could drink pulverized betony and pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) with water, distilled on balm (Melissa officinalis), and hang a magnet on your naked chest. It was also said that betony water was able to make a drunken man sober – but you were not supposed to use this method more than twice a year.
Formerly, the leaves were used to dye wool yellow.
The specific name officinalis indicates the medicinal properties of this plant. Read about its usage on the page Traditional medicine.
Later, it was used in the treatment of various respiratory diseases, nervous disorders, rheumatism, and dropsy.
Eastern skunk cabbage is native to eastern North America, from Nova Scotia and southern Quebec, westwards to Minnesota and southwards to North Carolina and Tennessee.
In spite of its unpleasant odour, skunk cabbage is praised in a poem, My Fetid Friend, by Joshua Schwartz (born 1976):
At an early stage, feverfew was cultivated in Europe for its medicinal value, and as an ornamental. It possibly evolved as a cultivated form of the closely related Tanacetum partheniifolium, which is native to the Middle East and Central Asia.
Previously, feverfew was placed in the genus Pyrethrum, from the Greek pyr (’fire’), referring to its hot-tasting root. The common name feverfew is a corruption of the Latin febrifugia (‘fever-reducing’), and featherfew and featherfoil are further corruptions of feverfew.
In former days, feverfew was regarded as a magic plant. It was said that if the milk, cream, or butter had become bewitched, you should apply juice of the plant to the cow’s udder. If a girl, who was not a virgin, smelled the plant, she would have a strong urge to urinate. A pregnant woman, smelling the plant, would give birth to a red-haired child. It was also widely believed that if you planted feverfew around your home, it would purify the air and ward off disease.
This plant was also used to keep bees and other stinging insects at bay, and it was placed between clothes, not only for this purpose, but also to spread fragrance.
In Denmark, in the old days, it was used as a spice in soups, on omelettes, etc. It was also utilized for tanning.
Today, feverfew is widely cultivated as an ornamental.
Incidentally, a coffin in Faarevejle Church in Denmark, which reputedly contained the remains of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (c. 1534-1578), also contained feverfew flowers. (Later, it was proved that the man in the coffin could not be the Earl of Bothwell.)
The medicinal usage of feverfew is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
The names monks-head and priest’s-crown were commonly used in the Middle Ages, an allusion to the naked flower disc, which resembles a monk’s or a Catholic priest’s shorn head. The names pee-a-bed and wet-a-bed (and the French name piss-en-lit) refer to its diuretic properties, while blowball refers to the popular game of blowing off the seeds.
Young leaves have a high content of vitamin C and are used in salads, and they may also be boiled as a vegetable or in soups. In Wales, the two-year-old root is chopped up and mixed with the leaves in salads. In Berkshire and Worcestershire, and in Scandinavia, wine is made from the flowers. The root is dried and pounded to make substitute coffee.
Girls often make garlands of the flowering stems, placing them around their hair, and a popular game among children as well as adults is to try blowing off the seeds of a flowerhead, all at once. Formerly, all kinds of divinations were connected with the ability to blow off the seeds.
The present specific name officinale refers to the medicinal properties of dandelion, see Traditional medicine.
In Denmark, a boat from the Bronze Age, made from linden wood, has been excavated, and, through the ages, the wood has been utilized to make countless other items, including wagons, furniture, eating utensils, musical instruments, and artificial limbs. It also gives excellent charcoal for drawing.
A cup, made from linden bark, has been found in a Danish Bronze Age grave, and later the bark was used as an ingrediens in lacquerware, paper, and other items. The inner bark, called bast, was utilized as far back as the Bronze Age, as evidenced by several grave finds. Later, this bast was used for production of numerous items, including baskets, rope, and mats. (Today, most bast is extracted from various species of palms of the genus Raphia.) In Russia, linden bast is still widely used for various purposes, including production of bast shoes.
The generic name Tilia is from the Greek tilos (’fibre’), referring to the use of the bark as bast. The name linden was adopted from the old Norse name of the plant, lind. In Britain linden trees are sometimes called lime, probably a corruption of the lind.
Due to their content of essential oils, linden flowers emit a powerful fragrance, and tea made from dried flowers is a popular drink in many countries, in France called tilleul, in Italy tiglio, and in the Unites States basswood tea. The flowers supply excellent honey, and during the Middle Ages, linden trees were often planted around monasteries and castles to provide honey.
The role of linden species in folk medicine is described on the page Traditional medicine.
Caltrop fruits have 2 to 4 very strong spines, which are able to penetrate a bicycle tyre, giving rise to a popular name of this plant, puncture vine. When the fruit is lying on the ground, at least one thorn is always pointing upwards, so that it may stick to a foot of a passing animal, or, if a furry animal, like a sheep, lies down in an area with these fruits, several will stick to its fleece. In this way, the seeds are dispersed. Much damage has been done to the feet of livestock by these fruits.
The generic name is from the Greek tribolos, meaning ’caltrop’, a small metal object with several spikes, of which one is always pointing upwards. In the old days, these weapons were spread on roads and footpaths to prevent traffic of the enemy’s soldiers, horse riders, and horse-drawn vehicles.
The leaves contain poisonous alkaloids, but non-toxic cultivated varieties have been developed. In England, an herbal sweet, called coltsfoot rock, contains colt’s-foot leaves. Hopefully, the non-toxic varieties are used in the production of this candy.
In former days, in Denmark, young leaves were eaten as a vegetable, and they were also mixed with tobacco. They were widely utilized for dyeing, in Jutland to dye black, on the Faroe Islands green. An old custom was to line your bed with the leaves to drive away fleas and lice.
In her poem The Song of the Colt’s-foot Fairy, English artist Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973) praises this hardy plant:
The medicinal usage of colt’s foot is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Formerly, cloth was made from the stem fibres, from the finest texture down to the coarsest, such as sailcloth, sacking, cordage, and fishing nets. As cotton became fashion, nettle fibres went out of use. However, during World War I, in Germany and Austria, nettle fibres had a come-back. In 1915, 1300 tons of this material was collected in Germany, increasing to 2700 tons in 1916.
Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) complained of the little attention paid to the nettle in England, saying: ”In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen.” – As Campbell says, nettle makes a fine potherb, and it is still a popular ingredient in herbal soups. In rural areas of Nepal, nettles are an important food. Everywhere, they are of considerable value as fodder for cattle, sheep, pigs, geese, and chickens.
A decoction of nettle yields a beautiful and permanent green dye, used in Russia for woollen goods.
An old legend has it that if nettle is planted near beehives, it will drive away frogs. Supposedly, in those days, it was believed that frogs, or maybe toads, would eat bees?
Nettle is mentioned in the tragedy King Lear, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616):
Read about the medicinal usage of nettle on the page Traditional medicine.
In his book The Popular Names of British Plants, Richard Chandler Prior (1809-1902) states that the word mullein was moleyn in Anglo-Saxon, and malen in Old French, derived from the Latin malandrium, i.e. the malanders, or leprosy, and continues: “The term malandre became also applied to diseases of cattle, to lung diseases among the rest, and the plant being used as a remedy, acquired its names of mullein and bullock’s lungwort.”
The names Aaron’s rod, Jacob’s staff, and others, refer to the long spikes. Presumably, the person naming the plant Aaron’s rod, found that the spike resembled the rod used by Aaron, brother of Moses, when he performed miracles in Egypt.
According to legend, witches used lamps and candles with mullein wicks, giving rise to the name hag’s taper, although ‘hag’ may be derived from Anglo-Saxon haege or hage (‘hedge’), perhaps implying that the long spike resembled a tall candle, growing in the hedge – hence the name Our Lady’s candle. In his book A niewe Herball (1578), English botanist and antiquary Henry Lyte (1529?-1607) tells us that the “whole toppe, with its pleasant yellow floures, sheweth like to a wax candle or taper, cunningly wrought.”
Herbalist John Parkinson (1567-1650) says: “Verbascum is called of the Latines candela regia, and candelaria, because the elder age used the stalks dipped in suet to burne, whether at funeralls or otherwise.” The name clown’s lung wort refers to its use as a remedy for chest problems, whereas wild ice-leaf presumably refers to the greyish leaves, shining like ice, when the sunlight is at a certain angle. ‘Dock’ is a term applied to various plants with large leaves, in this case in the name velvet dock.
In the old days, the long spikes were dried and dipped in tallow to make torches, hence its popular name torches. When dry, the down on leaves and stem makes excellent tinder, and before the introduction of cotton it was used for lamp wicks, hence the name candlewick plant.
In Europe, as well as in Asia, the power of driving away evil spirits was previously ascribed to mullein, and in Denmark it was a believed that root and flowers were able to drive away rats and mice.
The seeds are slightly narcotic, formerly being used for fishing in Europe, a usage that is still practiced in Nepal. In Denmark, the seeds were utilized to poison mice.
English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) remarks: “There be some who think that this herbe being but carryed about one, doth help the falling sickness, especially the leaves of the plant which have not yet borne flowers, and gathered when the sun is in Virgo and the moon in Aries, which thing notwithstanding is vaine and superstitious.” [‘Falling sickness’ is an old expression for epilepsy.]
In his book Adam in Eden, or Nature’s Paradise. The History of Plants, Herbs, Flowers (1657), English botanist William Coles (1626-1662), also called William Cole, says that: “Husbandmen of Kent do give it their cattle against the cough of the lungs, and I, therefore, mention it because cattle are also in some sort to be provided for in their diseases.”
The flowers can be used for dyeing, giving a yellow hue.
The medicinal usage of mullein is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
In the Middle Ages, people wore necklaces of fresh plants for good luck, and it was thought that it would protect them against snakebites and headache. If you rubbed it on your skin, while reciting a secret spell, your wishes would be granted. A vervain plant in the home would protect it against lightning.
In Nimphidia, the Court of Faery, from 1627, English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) writes:
Others claim that Verbena is from the Latin verbena, the Roman name of altar plants. A third source claims that it stems from a Celtic word, ferfaen, meaning ‘to drive away stones’ – it was thought that the plant was an effective remedy for kidney stones.
The specific name officinalis refers to the medicinal properties of this species. Read more on the page Traditional medicine.
This tree is valued for its seed oil, called abrasin oil or Chinese wood oil. Because of its similarity to tung oil, which is extracted from a near relative, the tung oil tree (Vernicia fordii), the oils from the two species are often treated together as ‘tung oil’.
Traditionally, this oil is utilized to manufacture paints, Chinese black ink, and lamp oil, for waterproofing cloth and paper, and for caulking and painting ships. It was also formerly used for insulating electric wires. (Source: Protabase – Plant Resources of Tropical Africa – prota.org)
In the 1200s, Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote: “The Chinese take lime and chopped hemp, and these they knead together with a certain wood-oil; and when the three are thoroughly amalgamated they hold like any glue, and with this mixture they paint their ships. The wood-oil is derived from a tree called tong-shu.”
Today, the main usage of the oil is in the production of paint and ink, whereas low-quality oil is processed into soap or linoleum. Growing environmental awareness has led to an increased usage of the oil from both species as a lining in food, beverage, and medicine containers. After extraction of the oil, the press cake is a good fertilizer.
More pictures of this species may be seen on the page Plants: When the mu tree is flowering. Its medicinal usage is described at Traditional medicine.
In Denmark, it seems that some species of Veronica were formerly used to generate abortions.
In his book The Popular Names of British Plants, Richard Chandler Prior (1809-1902) states that the name brooklime stems from the fact that this plant often grows in mud of brooks. The Anglo-Saxon word lime is from the Latin limus (‘mud’). In Anglo-Saxon days, houses were built of sun-dried mud, and only later was the word lime applied to the calcareous stone of which mortar is now made.
The specific name beccabunga is probably derived from the German name of brooklime, Bachbunge, from bach (‘brook’) and bunge (‘bunch’), referring to the fact that this species often grows abundantly in brooks.
Another source claims that the name is from the Flemish beckpunge, meaning ‘smarting mouth’, referring to the pungent leaves, which were formerly eaten in salads in winter and spring, when green vegetables were scarce. During wars between Denmark and Sweden in the 1600s, brooklime contributed significantly to the nourishment of the Danes.
The popular names cow cress and horse cress are derogatory terms for brooklime, indicating its inferiority as salad, and as a medicinal plant, to watercress (Nasturtium officinale).
The medicinal usage of brooklime is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Several of the common names of wild pansy refer to its multi-coloured petals. The name stepmother, used in several countries, including Germany (Stiefmütterchen) and Denmark (stedmoderblomst), stems from a fanciful reference to the flower, depicting a stepmother, who sits on a stool with a dish of porridge with a blob of butter (the yellow-eyed petal), feeding her own daughters (the two colourful petals nearby), but not her stepchildren (the two dull-coloured petals furthest away).
In Denmark, wild pansy has been used for dyeing, yielding a green hue. Today, large-flowered hybrid forms of the plant are cultivated as ornamentals.
The usage of wild pansy in folk medicine is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
The name mistletoe is from Old Germanic, mistel (‘dung’) and tan (¨twig¨), thus ‘the twig in the dung’, which aptly describes seeds of these plants, sprouting in a bird dropping, which has been left on a branch.
To the Celtic druids, mistletoes, growing on the sacred oak trees, possessed the power of the oaks, and they formed a part of their religious rituals. Mistletoes were only collected when the druids had visions, directing them to seek it. Carrying mistletoe branches, young men would walk around, announcing the coming of the new year.
This custom was probably taken over by the British, and even after the introduction of Christianity it was preserved in a different form. On New Year’s Eve, branches of mistletoe were cut, adorned with fruits and brightly coloured ribbons, and hung from a beam at midnight, after which young men would lead young maidens beneath the mistletoe and wish them Happy New Year with a kiss.
In Brittany, mistletoe is called Herbe de la Croix. According to an old legend, the Cross of Christ was made from its wood, which caused it to be degraded to a parasite.
In Norse mythology, the god of love, Balder, son of Odin and Frigg, was troubled by ominous dreams, so his mother made all living and inanimate things swear that they would not harm him. The other gods tested the oath by shooting arrows and hurling stones at him, but he remained unscathed. However, Frigg had neglected to ask the mistletoe. This was noted by the evil and cunning Loke, who made an arrow from it and persuaded Balder’s blind brother Höðer to fire it at him, killing him.
Formerly, in its entire area of distribution, birdlime was made from the gluey berries, giving rise to the popular name birdlime. This lime was utilized to catch thrushes and other small birds – a practice still taking place in the Middle East and the Himalaya. Soap was produced from the berries in the 1800s.
In Nepal, the ripe fruits are eaten, but elsewhere they are considered to be toxic. In Croatia, mistletoe is an ingredient in a local liqueur, named biska.
The medicinal usage of mistletoe is described on the page Traditional medicine. You may read about other species of mistletoes on the page Plants: Parasitic plants.
Ginger was imported to Europe at a very early stage. It was used extensively by the Romans, but almost disappeared from Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire. By the 11th Century, however, ginger was again a widespread European commodity, when, among other uses, it was added as flavouring to buttermilk.
Its usage in food became much more widespread, when the Arabs and other Muslims began expanding their empires. In the 1500s, the Spaniards brought ginger to Jamaica, where they established plantations, and during the following centuries, plantations were established in most hot countries.
It is told that Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) invented the gingerbread man, which became a popular Christmas treat. An old English recipe says: “Gather strawberry leaves on Lamas Eve, [August 1] press them in the distillery until the aromatick perfume thereof becomes sensible. Take a fat turkey and pluck him, and baste him, then enfold him carefully in the strawberry leaves. Then boil him in water from the well, and add rosemary, velvet flower, lavender, thistles, stinging nettles, and other sweet-smelling herbs. Add also a pinte of canary wine, and half a pound of butter and one of ginger, passed through the sieve, besides plums and stewed raisins and a little salt. Cover him with a silver dish cover.”
Today, the rhizome is widely used as a spice, especially in Asian cuisines. From the tender young rhizome, a variety of products are made, including pickles, candied ginger, ginger wine, and ginger cakes.
Ginger is cultivated in most tropical and subtropical countries. In 2013, the total world production was 2.1 million tons.
The specific name officinale indicates the medicinal properties of this plant. Read more about its usage on the page Traditional medicine.