My friend C. writes:

…it would be very satisfying to grow a collection of herbs just for their names, to wit: balm of Gilead (not used as a balm, and not native to Gilead); Texas mudbaby; pellitory-of-the-wall; brown radiant knapweed; gill-go-over-the-ground; freshwater soldier; bissy nuts; kex (acceptable in Scrabble, by the way); witches pouches; twice writhen; mad-dog skullcap; dirty Dick; nose bleed; kiss-her-in-the-buttery…

In the course of investigating this excellent list, I discovered that there are two entirely different words “pellitory”; the AHD obscures this by conflating them into one entry with a single etymology (tsk!), but Merriam-Webster properly separates them, with 1pellitory (‘a southern European composite plant (Anacyclus pyrethrum) resembling yarrow—called also pellitory-of-Spain‘) derived from “Middle English peletre, from Middle French piretre, from Latin pyrethrum” and 2pellitory (‘any of a genus (Parietaria) of herbs of the nettle family with alternate leaves and inconspicuous flowers—called also pellitory-of-the-wall‘) from “Middle English paritorie, from Middle French paritaire, from Late Latin parietaria, from feminine of parietarius of a wall, from Latin pariet-, paries wall.”

The e-mail was in response to my entry LOOSESTRIFE, wherein I mentioned that purple loosestrife is considered an invasive species. This sparked the following impassioned and enlightening analysis, which I reproduce both for its own sake and as an appetite-whetter:

Which reminds me, in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, about gooseneck loosestrife (a plant that may be “illegal” in MA, but which is sold in nurseries here, as it’s quite legal; so is bittersweet (Celastrus sinensis), which is not legal in any state in the Northeast)… I have always been amused by the absurdly arbitrary and invariably ill-informed decisions made by various state legislatures regarding plants. Very often one state will outlaw a plant on the grounds of its being allegedly pestiferous, while its neighbor has no problem with the very same species. These decisions are usually based upon the biases of garden club members or particularly vocal USDA local extension agents who happen to know a legislator. So what if a certain plant is invasive? Ultimately they all die and become part of the topsoil. Kudzu, crown vetch, evening primrose, mullein, honeybees, horses, wild white Chinese roses—these were all deliberate introductions to North America, and served perceived purpose at the time. Every single one of these species has become naturalized here. (Kudzu is legal in Arizona, by the way.)
Plants and animals have been moving from continent to continent as a result of trade or inattention, since time out of mind. The Romans brought lambs-ears and a number of Mediterranean herbs to Britain; the Dutch managed to get tulips from Central Asia to their homeland; peppers, yams, and tomatoes moved from Meso-America and thrived (throve?) in wide swaths of Africa; Sir Joseph Banks underwrote the Cook expeditions to bring breadfruit, native to Australia, to Jamaica so as to nourish slaves working the cane fields. As long as humans move about, so will plants; and some of them will unexpectedly do well in certain ecosystems. Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria, fam. Lythraceae) is a case in point: native to the Old World, it was introduced to and has become naturalized in North America, as was gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides, fam. Primulaceae), which is native to the east coast of China as well as Japan. Purple loosestrife thrives in very moist soil and the margins of wetlands. The plant finds its way in many Massachusetts wetlands, which overly concerned ag agents & garden clubs consider a no-no, because it’s seen not as a sign of ecological progression but rather as a sign of premature filling in of the wetlands; so, in order to preserve wetlands, they make the sale and cultivation of purple loosestrife illegal instead of addressing the larger problem of wetlands being drained for development. This narrow-mindedness finds its way into too many state laws concerning plants, and results in a silly patchwork of legal vs. illegal plants with no real consideration of the local ecosystem.

I’ve been getting these e-mails, full of extended meditations on people, flora, fauna, and places, for years now, and I’ve been feeling increasingly guilty about being the sole beneficiary of so much learning, observation, and well-honed writing, so I’ve been urging her to start a blog and share her thoughts and words with the world. I see her as fitting in very well with, say, Beth in Vermont and Nancy in Chennai/Madras. If you like what you read here and wish to join in the encouragement, please say so in the comments; maybe if we all click our heels three times…
Addendum. Giornale Nuovo discusses the names of trees and constellations.
Further addendum. Ramage is inspired (as befits the ramifications of its name) to a meditiation on plant names.


  1. Yes please!

  2. Well I see some familiar names (Beth and Nancy) here from the Ecotone site. But I wandered to your place by totally random means and enjoyed your naming conundrums, having more than a few of my own in the past, as I related here last summer:

  3. A nice tale of distorted plant names; here‘s the direct link.

  4. Well, as a (computational) linguist who married to a crop and soil science major (it was only recently that I realized that this meant she has a *double* major), I’d love to these ‘extended meditations.’

  5. I would too. A very nice combination of learning and style.

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