A Viper’s Bugloss by Any Other Name: Wildflower Naming Stories

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Turks Cap Lilies

Spring has arrived, and with it the blooming of myriad exquisite wildflowers along our roadsides and mountain trails. From violets to chicory to thistle, we see them wherever we look! But did you ever wonder about the origin of the many curious wildflower names? When I first moved to this area, after growing up and attending college in large cities, I became fascinated with the many wildflowers I encountered and rarely left home without my Peterson’s field guide. Perhaps my wildflower name contributed to my love affair with these unassuming gifts of Nature. It gave me much joy to find and identify the small, colorful surprises at my feet—easy to miss if I wasn’t paying attention—as I meandered along the mountain trails and woodlands. Learning their names, as colorful as the flowers themselves, added even more fun to my time spent in nature.

What is a wildflower, anyway? According to americanmeadows.com, they are flowering plants that “grow in the wild or on their own, without cultivation.” But the terms ‘wildflowers’ and ‘native plants’ are not synonymous. “Wildflowers indigenous to the continent are called ‘natives’; other [wildflowers]…have been introduced from other part of the world and are referred to as ‘naturalized’. Both types share one common distinction: they are equipped to grow on their own in nature.” Many common wildflowers are considered weeds by gardeners, but maybe should not be, since they support our threatened pollinators. Buttercups (ranuculus) are a fairly notorious invasive, as is the sweet-smelling Japanese Honeysuckle (lonicera). The color of an egg yolk floating in a puddle of butter, Butter and Eggs (linaria), an Asian invasive, looks good enough to eat! The Dandelion (taraxacum)—which takes its name from ‘dent-de-lion’, French for ‘lion’s tooth’, because of the jagged shape of the leaves—is a bee’s best friend when it blooms in early spring, but mars the manicured green sweep of turf lawn that Americans prize. But that’s a topic for another column.

“Common wildflower names are local names,” continues American Meadows, and sometimes vary from one region of the country to another (whereas their Latin genus + species names are consistent). These common names have been handed down through generations, and often carry intriguing folk legends or stories with them. Many wildflowers are named for their shape, such as Trillium (ditto) (which has both three leaves and three flower petals), Trumpet Creeper (campsis)—a favorite with hummingbirds—purple Bugle Weed (ajuga), and Shooting Star (primula). Dutchman’s Breeches’ (dicentra cucullaria) little dangling two-legged blooms clearly resemble pairs of pants hung out to dry. Since the Dutch originally settled the New York area, this name probably originated in New England. Turk’s Cap Lily (lilium) flowers curl back to create the shape of a turban, associated with residents of Turkey and other exotic locales. One of my favorite flowers in both its wild and cultivated forms, Bleeding Heart (dicentra eximia) has a dangling, heart-shaped bloom that took on the common term for a softhearted sad-sack. In literature, Sir Percy Blakeney uses the Scarlet Pimpernel (anagallis) as his nom de guerre (alias) and the flower as his symbol, giving the title to Baroness Orczy’s swashbuckling 1905 novel. The flower name simply means a small red pepper plant; it is also known as Poor Man’s Weather-Glass because it only opens when the sun shines.

Many wildflowers are named after high-born or beautiful women. These include the well-known Lady’s Slipper (cypripedium) or wild orchid, shaped like a dainty shoe, and Queen Anne’s Lace (daucus)—named for Anne, Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1702 to 1714, through the 1707 Acts of Union that created Great Britain—that in full bloom resembles white lace, but later wilts into a cup resembling a “bird’s nest,” its other common name. The story goes that Queen Anne challenged her court ladies to fashion a lace as exquisite as the flower growing in her garden—a contest in which she herself participated. The red dot in the center was said to represent a drop of Queen Anne’s blood resulting from a needle prick while she was working her lace. And my favorite of these names, Venus’s Looking Glass (triodanis), has multiple small, delicate, star-shaped blooms “clasping” a stalk to create a superior beauty worthy of its name. Black-Eyed Susan (rudbeckia)—which has a deep brown center reminiscent of a coquette’s flashing eyes—got its name from an Old English poem of the post-Elizabethan era, written by a famous poet of the day named John Gay (1685-1732). 

All in the downs, the fleet was moored,
Banners waving in the wind.
When Black-Eyed Susan came aboard, and eyed the burly men.
“Tell me ye sailors, tell me true
Does my Sweet William sail with you?”

Indeed, the Sweet William (caryophyllaceae), or wild pink, blooms at the same time. The Germanic legend of the Forget-Me-Not (myosotis) is similarly romantic. As a knight was gathering blue flowers for his lady love along the banks of the Danube, he is said to have slid down the bank just as a “freshet,” or flash flood, roared down the river. As he was swept away forever, he tossed the bouquet to his lady, calling three immortal words: “forget me not!” (americanmeadows.com). The similarly named Touch-Me-Not, or Jewel Weed (impatiens), has showy orange flowers that dangle like jewels, and seed pods that explode when you touch them.

Another group of wildflowers are known for their medicinal or culinary uses, such as Heal-all or Self-Heal (prunella), Goldenseal (hydrastis)—used to treat infections—and Liverwort (hepatica), whose three-lobed leaves are similar to the shape of the human liver, leading to its use to cure liver ailments. Witch Hazel (hamamelis), which is used in many skincare products, may have been named for the use of its twigs as divining rods, or from the Old English wice, meaning pliant or bendable—which has less to do with the practitioner of magic meaning. Joe Pye Weed (eupatorium) is named for a colonial American Indian Medicine Man known for his cures, who used this plant in his medicine. The name Bloodroot (sanguinaria) was derived from the blood-red or orange color of the juices from this wildflower’s root, which the Indians of North America used to paint their faces, and the early colonists used as a dye. The root of the Marsh Mallow (althaea), a member of the mallow family that grows near wet swamps and marshes, was used since ancient Egyptian times to make sweet confections, but most modern marshmallow no longer contain any Marsh Mallow root. The leaves of the Virginia Native Plant Society’s 2019 wildflower of the year, New Jersey Tea (ceanothus), were used for making tea during the American Revolution.

Jack in the Pulpit

The wildflower names with religious associations attest to our country’s largely Christian beginnings. The most familiar of these is Jack in the Pulpit (arisaema), whose long, fat spadix—covered with tiny flowers—stands up out of a tall cup (or spathe) under an arched overhanging hood to resemble a Catholic pulpit with its suspended canopy. Jack was an everyman’s name (think Jack and Jill or Jack and the Beanstalk), so this guy was probably not divinely appointed! Virgin’s Bower, or wild clematis, is a vine studded with masses of fragrant, milky white blossoms. Most believe the name refers to the Virgin Mary, since according to legend, wild clematis sheltered Mary and Jesus during their flight into Egypt. Its name goes back as far as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832): “The clematis, the favour’d flower / Which boasts the name of Virgin’s Bower.” Passion flower (passiflora) is so named because its central, crossed floral structure was believed to symbolize the Crucifixion. Monkshood (aconitum) and Star of Bethlehem (ornithogalum) simply describe their shape, while the root of Solomon’s Seal (polygonatum) bears a mark which some think resembles the Star of David, or the “Seal of King Solomon.” St. John’s Wort (hypericum), named after the youngest of Jesus’s twelve apostles, was hung in windows during the Middle Ages to ward off witches on St. John’s Eve (June 23). It was used for all sorts of cures, and is still used today to relieve anxiety.

Venus Looking Glass

Still other wildflowers are named for the animals of farm and forest. Pussytoes (antennaria), like Pussy Willow, has soft, fuzzy white flowers that resemble a cat’s paw. The blooms of Turtlehead (chelone) are indeed shaped just like a turtle’s head, and the brilliant red Cardinal Flowers (lobelia) are splayed to resemble a cardinal’s wing feathers. The center of the Oxeye Daisy (leucanthemum) flower has a prominent yellow center surrounded by white petal lashes, and the Foxglove (penstemon) looks just the right size and shape to accommodate a fox’s paw. Bee Balm (monarda), or wild bergamot, is so beloved by bees that they become lazy and harmless when they visit a stand to fill their bellies with nectar. According to www.first-nature.com, Viper’s Bugloss (echium) “lives up to its common name in many ways: as the flower stem develops it does so in a coiled form, the red stamens of the flowers stick out like an snake’s tongue, the stems, which are red-flecked, resemble snake’s skin, and even the fruits are shaped like adders’ heads.” The flowers of the showy Spiderwort (tradescantia) sit in the center of many leaf spokes looking like nothing other than the legs of a giant spider! “Wort” is a common flower suffix meaning root or plant. 

There are too many more unusual wildflower names to mention, but names like Baby Blue Eyes (nemophila) and Spring Beauty (claytonia) speaks for themselves! These unique, imaginative wildflower names reveal a history of American pioneer life and add mystery to our appreciation of our beautiful natural landscape. To learn more about Virginia native wildflowers, you may now purchase the gorgeous and supremely informative 2017 book Flora of Virginia as a mobile app for $20. Highly recommended for gardeners and wildflower lovers alike. 

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