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Deep Warnings in the Old Names of Flowers

Updated: May 24, 2023

I've been thinking about something recently and it begins with a few recurring themes I keep coming across in plant lore. It's about the deep warnings we pass on through the generations via the names and stories we assign to certain plants.

Delicate white flowers against a defocussed background of cow parsley plants
Cow parsley stands tall in the verges

Small white cow parsley flower against a background of green leaves and stems
Pretty cow parsley has been known by darker names

As you'll know if you’re a Woodlarking follower, spring is in full force here in southern Britain. The verges of the green lanes have grown tall in the warm sunshine, well over six feet tall sometimes, and they're billowing with beautiful cow parsley. The tiny white flowers remind me of petticoats and lace and it feels gentle and feminine. In Somerset, it used to be known as Gypsy curtains or Gypsy lace, and in Wiltshire it was known as moonlight. Sounds harmless enough, right?

Move further north in the search for old names though, and things turn a little darker - in Lancashire and Yorkshire, cow parsley was known as Mother's dead, possibly because it is similar in appearance to the deadly hemlock and may be picked by mistake. A recollection from Manchester, where it was known as Mother's die, says: "Mother went absolutely mad when I brought cow parsley into the house ... she feared it would predict her demise".

Pink trumpet-shaped flowers standing on a tall stem, against a grassy background
Red campion

The interesting thing is, this idea stretches further than just cow parsley. Red campion is an upright plant with pretty pink flowers, and it likes to grow in slightly shady places and roadside verges. It has a wonderful range of old names, including plum pudding (Essex, Somerset and Suffolk), red Jane, or red wolf (Somerset) and the wonderful gramfer-greygles (Dorset).

In Cumberland though, it was known as Mother-dee (Mother-die) and there was a superstition amongst Cumberland children that if they picked the flower, misfortune would happen to their parents. A similar name of fadder-dies (Father-dies) was recorded in Cumbria in 1937 and in 1960s and 70s Cumbria, it was still known as Mother-and-Father-die. One person recollects "We as children never picked them".

In Wales, red campion came with a slightly different warning - but a warning nonetheless. It was known as blodyn neidr meaning snake flower and one recollection says "My grandmother was convinced that I would be attacked by a snake if I brought it into the house". In Aberystwyth, also in Wales, it was called blod trane (blodyn taranau - thunder flower) as it was believed thunder and lightning would follow if it was picked. Along with Mother-die, snakes and thunder/lightning seem to be recurring warning themes with several types of flowers.

Pink five-petalled flowers against a background of filigree green leaves
Herb Robert, also known as Jenny-flower

Herb Robert is another pink flower and a member of the geranium family. It commonly covers woodland and verges. The "Robert" part of its name comes from rubus meaning red. Local names include Jenny-flower (Wiltshire), pink pinafores (Dorset), and wren-flower (Somerset). There are also occasional records of the plant being considered unlucky due to being associated with headaches, snakes and thunder. Tales in Gloucestershire told that snakes would emerge from the stems if it was ever picked and snake's food was another name it was known by.

White six-petalled flower against a background of light leaves and dark shiny ivy leaves
Wood anemone flower with ivy leaves in foreground

The wood anemone is one of the earliest in the spring to bloom and has just about finished flowering here. It's low-growing, and slowly spreads through woodland and along verges. Due to how slowly it spreads, it's an indicator of ancient woodland and its delicate white flowers always have a sense of magickal energies about them. It's often considered to be a plant of the Fae folk and shouldn't be messed with. Along with the pretty names of silver bells (Somerset), Moll-o'-the-woods and Fairies' windflower (Dorset), it was known as snakes-and-adders (Somerset) and snake-flower (Devon, Somerset and Lincolnshire). In Staffordshire, it was known as thunderbolt and had the warning never to be picked or it would bring on a thunderstorm and the picker would be struck.

Another plant with strong Fae associations is stitchwort. Its white starry flowers form clumps in the verges and they nod and waver in the breeze. Local names include Granny's nightcap (Dorset), Lady's needlework, starflower (Somerset) and nightingales (Wiltshire). We get to more familiar ground however with snake-grass (Hampshire) and snake's flower (Nottingham, Lincolnshire and Wiltshire). There is yet more overlap with thunderbolts (Dorset) and thunderflower (Cumberland). Why so many warnings? In Plymouth (on the Devon/Cornwall border) and further down into Cornwall, children still say that if you pick the flower, you will become Pixy-led - hopelessly lost in an area, even if you know it well. In many parts of Cornwall, it's told that a bite from an adder is sure to follow the act of picking the plant.

White starlike stitchwort flower against a background of fresh green growth
Starlike stitchwort flower

Even the name stitchwort is linked with Faeries. It was believed that chewing the plant would be a cure for having stitch, the pain in your side when you exercise. Scratch a little deeper though and we learn that the stitch it's referring to is actually the pain of being Elf-shot. This was described as being a medical condition in the Anglo-Saxon text called the Lacnunga, caused by being shot with arrows by an Elf. The arrows were invisible to the naked eye and believed to be the cause of disease. To be cured, required the aid of a skilled magickal practitioner.

These five plants, cow parsley, red campion, herb Robert, wood anemone and stitchwort, all fill the verges and lanes with their pretty flowers. Aside from that, they are seemingly unconnected, yet they all carry similar dire warnings within their old names and stories. What small child would ever dare test the theory that their beloved parent and protector would fall foul of them plucking a pretty flower?

Today though, the stories and the names are being lost and even the common names are being forgotten by many people. In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary began removing words like “acorn,” “bluebell,” “heron,” and “kingfisher.” It replaced these names for the natural world with entries like “broadband” and “cut-and-paste”. It created an outcry and led to the author Robert MacFarlane bringing the need for names to the attention of many. Names are important. If you can name the brown bird you see, there is a connection there. You’ll be much more likely to recognise it the next time you see it and when you think of it, you will probably call it by name. You’ll feel more of a push to protect it and its habitat than if it’s simply a nameless, unrecognised brown bird.

It's the same for the old names, the old stories. Our ancestors sent a warning through generations about certain plants - it's wonderful to imagine how many generations that may be! It may be a warning relating to the physical world, such as mistaking a harmless plant for a deadly poisonous one, or it may be a warning of something older, deeper and more hidden from us, like a warning to stay away from the plants of the Fae. Either way, the warnings have been attached to these plants for countless generations and need to stay attached.

Use the names, tell the stories and keep passing them on down the years.

White starry flowers growing tall amongst green stems and grasses
Pretty stitchwort growing along the old trackways

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