“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”– Alice Walker, The Color Purple
From time to time, I’ll grab old books that other people are throwing out and bring them home. My wife accepts this as part of the cost of living with me. Most of the time they sit on my bookshelf collecting dust or end up being taken to Goodwill, but sometimes I do actually make use of them.
A few days ago, just for shits and giggles, I dipped into a faded old guidebook that I scrounged at some point from God-knows-where called Wildflowers and Weeds: A Field Guide in Full Color, published in 1978. Like most old art books, textbooks, travel books and other guidebooks, the print quality of the pictures in it is so poor and yellowed as to make the book decidedly unpleasurable to peruse, regardless of how useful the information may be. I’ll probably send it to Goodwill in a few weeks.
That said, as I flipped through it, what I discovered was how wonderfully creative and culturally expressive many of the common names are for well-known wildflowers in this country. I love that sort of thing – creative names for towns, schools, bridges, animals, plants, etc. It seems like such a waste when people give something newly-christened an utterly bland and forgettable name. Why not be creative? Why not be a little colorful?
The same could be said of how we choose to adorn even the most commonplace of shared objects. Why not cover vacant city walls in blighted urban neighborhoods with something meaningful and expressive – even at the risk of being at times provocative? Why not decorate manhole covers and bus stops or build elegant brick patterns into the sidewalks?
In my opinion, allowing for this kind of creativity is actually no small matter. These seemingly gratuitous creative flourishes, these insertions of human personality into industrial or corporate processes – are the kinds of things that do wonders to beautify or humanize public spaces, that give communities a unique character and flair and encourage a sense of pride in their members for the spaces they share. These flourishes represent the distance between the cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs of the suburbs and the architecturally-diverse neighborhoods of old urban centers – between the music of the 1950s and the 1960s, between English food and Indian food, between Leave It to Beaver and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Why be boring? Why be so conservative? Life is too short for that.
By and large, I loathe the industrial bland-ification and cultural homogenization that has taken place over the last century or two in some spheres of modern culture. The tendency to privilege what is safe – in corporate or political terms – over what is expressive, is fundamentally anti-humanist. It discourages the creative impulse and in so doing alienates us from each other and from culture itself (and collective participation in it) by limiting the incorporation of that which is human for the purposes of corporate efficiency or political expediency. Haven’t you ever wondered why there are so few options for car colors?
Of course, in many spheres of modern culture, we’ve also seen the opposite occur: there is probably greater diversity and expressive freedom today than ever before in art, literature, and music – not to mention religion, politics, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Yet this opening up of creative and expressive space has still occurred alongside the imposition of strange modern limits or creative restraints – and not just for the purposes of political correctness. I think that restraining process is particularly evident in something like the collective act of naming, whether of towns, bridges, schools, sports teams, etc. Ask yourself, as an example, if in this day and age any newly incorporated community would give itself outrageously colorful names like some of those American place names Bill Bryson highlighted in Made in America – e.g., Bugscuffle, TN, Lick Skillet, TX, Bald Friar, MD, Shittim Gulch, WA, and Superior Bottom, WV – or some of those British place names he highlighted in Notes From A Small Island – e.g., Titsey, Nether Wallop, Helions Bumpstead, and Shellow Bowells. I doubt it!
Now, you may say that’s for the best. Those are extreme examples to be sure. But the point still stands: there is something lost when you close off space for that kind of folksy expressiveness and local flair. Would you rather be from a place called Springfield (there are 41 so-named towns in the U.S.) or a place called Bugscuffle? I know what I’d prefer.
Anyway, with that absurdly long preamble, let’s get back to the matter at hand: the charming and often ridiculous names our ancestors gave to many of the wildflowers in our midst. To give a creative, expressive name to something is a way of adorning it – of paying it special notice and respect (see the Alice Walker quote above). And that is, I think, partly why I enjoy so many of the names that I gleaned from the old field guide. For mostly better and occasionally worse, there is much human imagination, experience, and culture piled up in these names – references to animals and food, to religion and mythology, to fashion and cultural stereotypes. Let’s just say, I’m much more likely to remember these commonfolk wildflower names than their official scientific ones.
So without further ado, here are 30 of the most memorable American wildflower names I found:
1.) BEARDED BEGGARTICKS, Bidens aristosa
Poor beggars, they get no respect in folk botany. (See also: Beggar’s Lice.) Bearded Beggarticks is a species in the sunflower family native to the eastern and central United States and south-central Canada. It flowers between August and October and is most commonly found in wet meadows, marshes, and on shores. How did it get this name? Well, the plant’s fruits are “dry achenes bearing barbs that get caught in fur or clothing, thus aiding in the plant’s dispersal.”
2.) BLEEDING HEART, Lamprocapnos spectabilis
As with many wildflowers on this list, Bleeding Heart looks remarkably like what its name describes. It is a species in the poppy family native to Siberia, northern China, Korea and Japan. It flowers in spring and early summer and is highly valued in gardens and floristry for its distinctive heart-with-a-droplet shape and bright fuchsia-pink petals. It was first introduced to England from Asia in the 1840s by the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune.
3.) BULL ELEPHANT’S HEAD, Pedicularis groenlandica
Once again, the Bull Elephant’s Head flower resembles exactly that – the forehead, trunk, and ears of an elephant. In fact, the resemblance is astonishing. (It reminds me of the old thought experiment: Don’t think of a pink elephant!) The plant grows in wet environments such as riverbanks and is primarily found in the high mountain ranges of western North America, particularly the Cascades and High Sierra mountains.
4.) BUTTER AND EGGS, Linaria vulgaris
Butter and Eggs is a species of toadflax native to Europe and Central Asia but commonly found in parts of North America as well. It flowers from May to September and typically grows on disturbed ground or sandy soil. Like Snapdragons (Antirrhinum), Butter and Eggs are “often grown in children’s gardens for [their] ‘snapping’ flowers which can be made to ‘talk’ by squeezing them at the base of the corolla.” Sounds like fun!
5.) DRAGON’S MOUTH, Arethusa bulbosa
This is another fantastically imaginative name that clearly suits the shape and color of the flower. Dragon’s Mouth is a rare species of orchid found in eastern North America from Manitoba east to Newfoundland and St. Pierre & Miquelon south to Virginia. It flowers from May to June and most commonly grows in bogs, swamps, and other wet lowlands. Its genus name (Arethusa) is derived from the name of a naiad-nymph of sacred spring found in Greek mythology.
6.) DUTCHMAN’S BREECHES, Dicentra cucullaria
My wife says these charmingly distinctive flowers make her think of tiny elves hanging out their laundry. Dutchman’s Breeches flowers between April and May and is a perennial plant native to the woods of eastern North America. According to Wikipedia, “Native Americans and early white practitioners considered this plant useful for [treating] syphilis.” I feel like there’s a bad joke in there… something about the perils of getting inside a Dutchman’s Breeches, perhaps?
7.) ENCHANTER’S NIGHTSHADE, Circaea lutetiana
Enchanter’s Nightshade is a species in the evening primrose family native to Europe, Middle Asia, and Siberia. It typically grows in medium woods in deep shade and flowers from June to August. The genus name (Circaea) comes from the enchantress Circe of Greek mythology who was known for her skill with making potions for various purposes, including poison. Despite its name, the plant is not particularly toxic and has in fact been used for some medicinal purposes.
8.) GOAT’S BEARD, Aruncus dioicus
Goat’s Beard is a perennial plant found in moist woods in the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, and eastern and western North America. Its feathery white flowers – vaguely goat-beard-like – appear in May and June. According to Wikipedia, “In Italy the young shoots are eaten, usually boiled briefly in herb infused water, and then cooked with eggs and cheese.” I don’t know about you, but I’d try it. Think they use goat cheese with their Goat’s Beard eggs?
9.) GRASS OF PARNASSUS, Parnassia palustris
Parnassus is a limestone mountain in central Greece that played a prominent role in Greek mythology, being known as, among other things, the home of the Muses – inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. This flowering marsh grass was apparently given the name because “the cattle on Mount Parnassus appreciated the plant.” It flowers between August and October and is most commonly found in wet limy meadows and on shores. It is native to northern temperate parts of Eurasia but is widespread in similar climates around the world and has long been used in folk medicines to treat ailments such as indigestion, kidney stones, and disorders of the liver. I’m not sure if it did any good, but at least the cows seem to enjoy it.
10.) HARBINGER OF SPRING, Erigenia bulbosa
According to Wikipedia, Harbinger of Spring was given its name “because it is one of the earliest blooming native wildflowers of rich forests in the mid-latitude United States.” It typically grows in medium woods and flowers between February and April. Edible even when raw, the Cherokee are said to have chewed this plant as a medicine for toothaches.
11.) HORNED BLADDERWORT, Utricularia cornuta
“Wort” is a common name for a wide range of plants and herbs and has nothing that I know of to do with warts. That said, it’s hard not to shudder a little at the thought of a horned wart on my bladder. It perhaps doesn’t help that this is in fact a carnivorous plant, one that is endemic to North America. It typically flowers between July and August and grows in marshes, swamps, and shallow pools, mostly at lower altitudes.
12.) HOUND’S TONGUE, Cynoglossum officinale
This coarse-appearing herb is native to Asia, Africa, and Europe, but is also widespread in North America where it is believed to have been accidentally introduced from Europe. It is generally considered a noxious weed because it spreads quickly in primarily wet places and open woods and can be poisonous to grazing animals when ingested. That said, components of the plant have historically been used for a number of medicinal purposes including the curing of madness, inflammatory diseases, and “as an antiaphrodisiac to combat venereal excesses.”
13.) INDIAN PAINTBRUSH, Castilleja (genus)
Perhaps you’ll know a favorite children’s book from my own childhood called The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush (1988), by the recently deceased Tomie dePaola. It was certainly the first thing that came to my mind when I read this name. Indian Paintbrush is in fact the general name for about 200 related species of brilliantly-colored flowering plants native to the west of the Americas from Alaska south to the Andes, as well as northern Asia. Typically found in wet to dry meadows and prairies, the flowers of these plants are edible (unlike actual paintbrushes) and were apparently consumed by Native American tribes as “a condiment with other fresh greens.”
14.) JACK-IN-THE-PULPIT, Arisaema triphyllum
The large curled leaves and “efficiently wrapped cylindrical spadix” (i.e. the “Jack”) of Jack-in-the-Pulpits do rather appear like some bald-headed minister standing erect in an elevated pulpit of the style you see in some more traditional churches. Interestingly, Georgia O’Keefe produced a whole series of paintings of this striking plant, which is native to eastern North America. It flowers between April and June and typically grows in wet woodlands and thickets.
15.) JACOB’S LADDER, Polemonium caeruleum
The name Jacob’s Ladder is of course a reference to the Biblical patriarch Jacob’s dream involving a ladder ascending to heaven and traversed by angels, as described in Genesis 28. The tall-stemmed flowering plant most often grows in moist grasslands and meadows and on the edges of woodlands and is native to temperate areas of Europe. It has historically been used in a number of medicinal remedies – for ailments as diverse as dysentery, toothaches, syphilis, and rabies – but today is used more for decorative purposes, as well as in dyes and hair dressing.
16.) LABRADOR TEA, Rhododendron (genus)
This plant name first brought to my mind the image of some sort of hilarious doggy tea party rather than the windswept region of eastern Canada with which is it is associated – hence why I’ve included it on this list. It’s not an especially creative name, but it’s memorable! Labrador Tea is actually the common name for three species of flowering shrubs that grow primarily in wetlands at northern latitudes in North America and parts of Europe and Asia. Tea made from the leaves of these plants has long been a “favorite beverage among Athabaskan, First Nations, and Inuit people.” In addition, according to Wikipedia, German brewers in the 1700s also used one species in their beer “to make it more intoxicating,” but were eventually forbidden from doing so “because it led to increased aggression.”
17.) LIZARD TAIL, Saururus cernuus
The common name of this shallow water plant clearly comes from its curled, erect white “tail.” It is native to eastern North America and has medicinal properties long known to Native tribes like the Cherokee and Choctaw, who have used it to treat swelling and inflammation. Lizard Tail can grow up to three feet tall and flowers between June and August.
18.) MARSH MALLOW, Althaea officinalis
Like Labrador Tea, Marsh Mallow is not actually a terribly distinctive name, but it is memorable for obvious reasons. In fact, when I first read about it in the guidebook I wondered if someone hadn’t named the plant after the white, fluffy treat and campfire staple we all know and love. (Shows how much I know about plants!) Of course, it was the other way around. As I learned, a confection made from the Marsh Mallow root has actually existed since ancient Egypt. The storied plant – native to Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia – typically grows in shallow water and marshlands (like the Nile Delta?) and flowers between August and September.
19.) MONKSHOOD, Aconitum (genus)
Monkshood is a family of over 250 flowering species native to mountain areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The beautiful purple flowers, which bloom between August and October, do have something of the shape of a traditional Christian monk’s hood. However, what is actually most noteworthy about this plant family is that most species are extremely poisonous and have long been put to use with that in mind. A number of species have historically been used to poison arrows and spears used in both hunting and warfare, including among the ancient Chinese, Minaro in Kashmir, and Ainu in Japan. Perhaps most astonishing, “Aconitum poisons were used by the Aleuts of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands for hunting whales. Usually, one man in a kayak armed with a poison-tipped lance would hunt the whale, paralyzing it with the poison and causing it to drown.”
20.) PINK LADY’S SLIPPER, Cypripedium acaule
My wife says the charmingly dainty little flowers of the Pink Lady’s Slipper plant make her think of little fairies leaving their shoes out after a night of dancing. So the name is apt, I guess. A member of the orchid family Orchidaceae, these distinctive flowers bloom between April and June and are most commonly found growing in the more acidic soil of bogs, dry woods and forests, cliffs, and inland sands. The Pink Lady’s Slipper is notably the state wildflower of New Hampshire and the provincial flower of Prince Edward Island in Canada.
21.) PRAIRIE SMOKE, Geum triflorum
Another memorably evocative name, Prairie Smoke (also called Old Man’s Whiskers) is a perennial North American herb ranging from northern Canada to California and east to New York. Most commonly found in dry to wet prairies and sandy woods, Prairie Smoke blooms between April and June and its roots have historically been used in teas by Native peoples.
22.) QUEEN ANNE’S LACE, Daucus carota
Despite its association with British royalty, this fast-spreading member of the carrot family has anything but a highfalutin’ connotation in my own native Kentucky, where country folk grudgingly refer to it as “chigger weed” – it being one of the local plants most beloved by those devilish little mites. According to legend, the plant gained its name when Queen Anne of England (1665-1714) pricked her finger on it and “a drop of blood landed on white lace she was sewing.” Of course, the pattern of its flowers, which bloom between June and September, are also rather lace-like. Perhaps more interestingly, Queen Anne’s Lace has been used as a wild food source for centuries among peoples as diverse as the ancient Romans, early American colonists, the Irish, Hindus, and Jews. Second only to the beet in sugar-content among root vegetables, the taproots of Queen Anne’s Lace have been used to sweeten wines, puddings, and other foods, while the edible flowers are sometimes battered and fried. However, if you’re planning to do a little foraging, watch out because this species also “bears a close resemblance to poison hemlock.”
23.) ROSY PUSSY TOES, Antennaria rosea
Here’s one for the cat-lovers. Rosy Pussy Toes is a member of the daisy family that can grow wild in a range of habitats and is widespread across much of Canada, Greenland, and the western and north-central United States. The trait that gives the plant its name is of course the head of its flowers – cream-colored tufts surrounded by rose-colored bracts – which bloom brightly through the spring.
24.) SLENDER LADIES TRESSES, Spiranthes lacera
This is one of the most remarkable plants I’ve come across during this little excursion – a species of orchid that produces an incredible spiral of white flowers in the summer months. Presumably, it was this stem-wrapping spiral that brought to mind “tresses” – locks of a woman’s hair – for whichever person first gave the plant its common name. The species is native to eastern North America and most commonly grows in damp to dry sandy soil and at the edges of woods.
25.) SOLOMON’S PLUME, Smilacina racemose
Okay, if I’m honest, my first thought here was that this name was intended to evoke what one can only assume was a luxurious plume of hair on old King Solomon’s chest. Who’s to say I’m wrong? This common flowering plant native to North America is found in every U.S. state except Hawaii and typically grows in dry to medium woods and forests. Apparently the ripe fruit of Solomon’s Plume is edible both raw or cooked, but can be a laxative if consumed in large amounts.
26.) SWAMP CANDLES, Lysimachia terrestris
As you might expect from the name, Swamp Candles typically grow on wet shores or in shallow waters and produce beautiful bright-yellow-colored flowers, which bloom between June and August. It is widespread in swampy habitats in the eastern United States and eastern Canada.
27.) TURK’S CAP LILY, Lilium superbum
The name given to this eye-catching species of wild lily is likely a relic of the West’s long tradition of orientalism – the exoticization of the peoples and cultures of the Middle East – and may not actually resemble any headwear common among the Turks, past or present. Having lived in the Middle East myself, I can’t remember ever having seen any such cap. That said, it’s quite a colorful and imaginative name for quite a colorful plant, which bursts with brilliant red blooms between July and August. The species is native to eastern and central North America and most commonly grows in wet meadows and along stream banks. It’s one I’d sure love to see in the wild!
28.) VENUS LOOKING GLASS, Triodanis perfoliata
The natural range of the Venus Looking Glass extends almost the length of the Americas from Canada down to Argentina. Its charming name comes from “an early botanical description of a similar-looking plant native to Europe… In that species, the seeds are said to be so shiny that they appeared to be tiny mirrors, or looking glasses.” Venus is of course the Roman goddess of “love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory.” In the summer months, the Venus Looking Glass certainly produces a pretty flower, but I’m not sure she’s quite all that. Anyway, the Cherokee apparently used the root of the plant as a dyspepsia for overeating. Now of course we just reach for the Tums.
29.) VIRGIN’S BOWER, Clematis virginiana
In case you don’t know, a “bower” is a “pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants.” Perhaps that will help explain why I find this name, um, memorable. Virgin’s Bower is an aggressive vine of the buttercup family native to eastern and central North America from Newfoundland to Manitoba and down to the Gulf of Mexico. It flowers between July and August and typically grows in woodland clearings and edges and along streambanks.
30.) YELLOW BEDSTRAW, Galium verum
On this last one, I’m going to be honest with you again: I wet the bed a lot when I was a kid. It was pretty traumatizing. Perhaps that’s why my mind immediately went there when I read the common name for this herbaceous perennial weed that grows across much of Europe, North Africa, and temperate Asia. Yellow Bedstraw is most often found on dry disturbed ground and its bright yellow flowers bloom between June and September. Interestingly enough, according to Wikipedia, “In medieval Europe, the dried plants were [indeed] used to stuff mattresses, as the coumarin scent of the plants acts as a flea repellant.” I wonder what they did if a kid wet the bed in medieval Europe? Can’t imagine it would be much fun sleeping on wet straw. Anyway…
That’s about it, folks! Hope you enjoyed the list. Just for the heck of it, here are a few more memorable wildflower names that could easily have made the cut but didn’t: Adam and Eve, Adder’s Mouth, Bastard Toadflax, Beardtongue, Beggar’s Lice, Black-Eyed Susan, Blazing Star, Broomrape, Cursed Crowfoot, Devil’s Bit, False Mermaid, Forget Me Not, Gaywings, Gill Over the Ground, Goat’s Rue, Golden Dewdrop, Goosefoot, Great St. John’s Wort, Hawk’s Beard, Heal All, Hog Peanut, Hooker’s Orchid, Indian Physic, Indian Pipe, Kitten Tail, Lion’s Foot, Moonseed, Morning Glory, Motherwort, Mouse-Ear Chickweed, Ox Eye, Pale Indian Plantain, Parrot’s Beak, Puke Weed, Ram’s Head Orchid, Rattlesnake Master, Sea Rocket, Shepherd’s Purse, Shooting Star, Skunk Cabbage, Snapdragon, Squirrel Corn, Sticky Willy, Sweet Everlasting, Turkey Tangle Fogfruit, Turtle Head, Wild Four O’clock, Wood Nymph, and Yellow Monkey Flower.
Did I miss any good ones? Let me know!