What’s in a name?
25 July, 2013
At a recent meeting, I happened to mention a couple of the flowers found at Holyrood Park, known as sticky catch-fly and viper’s bugloss. These names were met with derision and disbelief until I explained what they meant. It set me thinking about some of the more strangely named plants that we have at some of our sites.
The plant is so-called because its sticky stem traps ants, flies, beetles and other insects, preventing them from eating the leaves or laying their eggs.
It is believed to have been the favourite plant of King James VI, but I have not seen proof of this. The proper name Lychnis is from the Greek for lamp and refers to the bright red flower.
Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) is another uncommon plant, also found in Holyrood Park, particularly around the Radical Road. Viper’s bugloss is as popular with bumblebees as Buddleia is with butterflies.
‘Bugloss’ is believed to derive from the Greek bouglossos, meaning ox-tongue. The leaves are said to look like a bull’s tongue, though some sources say the name refers to their roughness of texture.
But the common name suggests that the plant resembles a snake’s tongue. Some say the seed looks like a snake’s head; while others liken the stalks to snakeskin.
The proper name Echium is from the Greek for viper. Traditionally it has been used as a medicine for snakebites. It was believed that if a plant looked like something poisonous then by association it could be used as an antidote. This was known as the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’.
Bloody crainsbill (Geranium sanguineum) is another rare plant with a strange name. It particularly thrives on lime and can be found at Auchindoun Castle, which stands on the crest of a high bank overlooking the River Fiddich, near Dufftown.
Like the viper’s bugloss, bloody cranesbill has a medicinal use relating to its appearance. The Latin name sanguineum refers to the red color which the leaves turn in autumn and comes from the Latin sanguis, meaning ‘blood’.
Bloody cranesbill has been used in folk medicine along with other cranesbills to arrest bleeding and treat wounds. The plant has red flowers and its root is used as a red dye, but it is believed that this autumn colouring is the origin of its name.
Devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), finally, is a relatively uncommon flower that grows on damp grassland. I recently found it growing at Seabegs Wood by the Antonine Wall. Its pincushion-like flower heads attracting a wide variety of butterflies and bees, but it also has a medical history.
Historically, scabious was used to treat scabies and other afflictions of the skin – including sores caused by the bubonic plague.
The word scabies comes from the Latin word scabere, meaning ‘to scratch’. Traditionally it was believed that the short black root of devil’s-bit scabious was a stump left by the Devil, who bit off the rest in fury at the plant’s ability to cure these afflictions.
Such a colourful legend may have enhanced the plant’s standing as a folk medicine, but few reputable practitioners would prescribe such a remedy today.