From strange and often dangerous herbal "cures" to black magic and wonderful legends of love, it is all what's called Wildflower Folklore. This is where the real medicinal and poisonous properties of wildflowers meet the romantic legends, histories and wild superstitions that surround many of our favorites.
The Importance of Plants and Flowers
Without plants, humanity could not exist; they have always played an essential role in our survival. Plants provide food, clothing medicines, and, in fact, the very air we breathe--plants are the source of our atmosphere's life-giving oxygen. Since the beginning of time, humankind has gathered and cultivated plants for these reasons and catalogued their benefits. Since humankind emerged from the cave, they have been working with plants and flowers, and have built up an enormous amount of fact and fiction about them.
Medicinal, Herbal, Poisonous, Religious, Magic, Romantic
Historically, wildflower folklore is the original "grapevine." Since plants are a basic food source, from the beginning, humankind has hoped, noticed, and prayed that the plant world would provide more than simple subsistence. The "special properties" of certain plants were first studied as being "useful", which meant mostly medicinal. Many of these properties, real or imagined, were permanently attached to the flowers in their names, both botanical and common.
Through various civilizations and centuries of superstition, fear, apocalyptical events, wars and peace, mankind has assigned almost everything good and bad to many plant species. And many of these "properties", whether real or imagined, were permanently attached to various species in the form of their names, both botanical and common. As can be expected, certain species have built up major sets of "uses" and stories, while others have been largely ignored. For example, if a plant had, or seemed to have, toxic properties, that attracted "scientists" who investigated if for medicinal uses. If a species was thought to be successful as a medicine, its use became familiar, and perhaps a psychic added a few additional ideas. This is why certain wildflowers carry very long and fascinating histories, some amazing, some amusing, and some very important, even today.
Wildflowers have always been important for medicinal purposes since hundreds of them are herbs. The Roman, Pliny,the Elder, (23-79AD) wrote an encyclopedia of agriculture in which he described plants of his time in great detail, including many wildflowers and their uses as medicines
A few years later, Discorides, a Greek writing in the 1st century AD compiled what is considered the first book on pharmacology, describing the medicinal properties of about 600 plants, including many wildflowers. It was the ancient Egyptians who believed our common Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) was useful for birth control.
In 1492, Columbus sailed in search of spices to season and preserve food and herbs, and to cure European diseases. The famous voyages of discovery by Columbus and others of his time led to many exotic plants from the "New World" being sent back to Europe, thus setting off a major traffic in the worldwide distribution of plant species. This kind of exploration coupled with the scientific advancements of the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press led to the proliferation of plant study and publication of many books by the so-called Herbalists of the period.
The Medicinal Plants of North America
Today, with approximately 20,000 native plants known in North America, fully 10% of them have been documented in some way as having medicinal properties. This includes uses already known by North American Native populations before European settlement plus the discoveries by the Europeans after their arrival.
The medicinal practices of Native Americans have led to hundreds of effective modern uses of North American native plants. But many of the Indians' early uses are no longer practiced. A good example is the method some Northeastern tribes used for choosing a new chief. They required their strongest young braves to chew the bulbous roots of Veratrum veride, commonly called Indian Poke. This native plant sprouts very early in spring, often along stream banks, and is known for its unique, spiral vase-shaped arrangement of tough glossy green leaves, each leaf deeply pleated like an accordion. Indian Poke sprouts so early, it is often confused with Skunk Cabbage. In any case, it is one of the most virulent, poisonous plants in the world, and eating the root of this beautiful spring plant is almost always fatal. The Indians knew this, and thought any young brave who could endure this deadly poison deserved to be their chief. Needless to say, most of the candidates did not survive. Indian Poke is still common in wet spots in Northeastern woodland. One expert notes that eating a single leaf can kill a cow. (Cows always avoid it.)
A Few Examples:
Below are just a few examples of wildflower lore. However, in each of the plant profiles on this website, you'll find each wildflower species page tells you if that species is one with medicinal properties, or if the wildflower has a rich history of folklore and legend. These examples are provided only to open this fascinating subject. Many excellent books on wildflower folklore are available.*
Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria)
Other common names of this wild plant include Birthwort ("wort" simply means root.), Virginia Snakeroot, Serpentary Root, and Snakeweed. According to the medieval herbalist, Gerard, writing in his Herbal of 1633 this plant, as its name suggests, was used as an antidote against the bite of a snake. American Indians used the root to make a poultice for the same purpose and also brewed a tea from the plant and prescribed it for fevers and coughs. The ancients are reputed to have used this plant to aid in childbirth.
Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva)
All the words in this species name are interesting. Bitterroot is self-explanatory. Lewisia, the genus name, is for Captain Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The species name, rediviva, is because it was thought that the roots of this plant were revivable. American Indian tribes in the Oregon territory valued it highly as a culinary delight.that brought about vitality. Today it is the state flower of Montana.
The Legend of Black-eyed Susan and Sweet William (Rudbeckia hirta and Dianthus barbatus)
These two much-loved wildflowers have a romantic legend in common, told in an old English poem by John Gay: "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, if my Sweet William sails with you.'" This search for Sweet William is one of the all-time favorite wildflower legends, and good gardeners always note that these two species are both biennials, bloom at exactly the same time, and look lovely together.
Bouncing-Bet as a "useful" flower (Saponaria officianalis)
This lovely white to pale pink roadside flower (It looks a lot like phlox.) is common over much of the eastern states, but it's a European native. The common names say it all. Besides Bouncing Bet (after a washer-woman), it's also called Soapwort, Scourweed, Sheepweed, and Soaproot. Over the centuries, everybody noticed that this plant's leaves possess a scouring quality. For this reason it was brought to North America from Europe to be used as a soap. The early English herbalist, Culpepper, believed that it was an absolute cure for the "French Pox". So as you drive along a country road today and enjoy its beauty, you're actually looking at a "useful" wildflower and a fascinating piece of botanical history.
Catchfly (Silene armeria)
Also known as Catchwort, Limewort, and None-So-Pretty. This beautiful magenta-flowered plant gets its most popular name from its sticky flowers. Gerard called it Limewort because it resembled a sticky lime substance of the medieval period that was placed on trees to snare small birds.
How the Forget-me-not got its name(Myosotis sp.)
This European perennial is one of the world's most-loved wildflowers, and though the little clusters of sky blue flowers are wonderful, the romantic legend of how it got its name is ever better. The plant is a streamside species, so the setting makes sense. A medieval German knight is said to have been picnicking on the bank of the Danube with his lady love. He descended the bank to the water's edge to gather some of the lovely blue flowers he saw there, but while he was near the water, tragedy struck. A "freshet" (flash flood) suddenly appeared and pulled the young man into the churning river. As he was literally swept away, he tossed the bouquet to his lady on the bank with the three now-famous words: "Forget me not!"
St Johnswort and its long, rich lore (Hypericum perforatum)
This common wildflower has one of the richest histories of them all. From wildly imagined magical properties centuries ago to real uses in herbal medicines today, this yellow-flowered European weed is common over most of North America today. Other common names give you some idea of its history: Devil's Scourge, Witch's Herb, Touch and Heal. The genus name (hypericum) is Greek and means "above a picture", a reference to the fact that this wildflower was hung over a religious image or in the windows of a home to ward off evil spirits during midsummer festivals when it happens to bloom. (St. Johns' Eve is June 20) Supposedly it was one of the herbs of St. John, the Baptist and one which later Christians came to believe could be "put out in a mannes house from whence would come no wicked spyrte therein." (Banckes, 1525). In addition to the claims for warding off evil spirits, St. Johnwort was also used for happier things. At one time, it was said to foretell the time of a young woman's marriage, and even to indicate whom the lucky groom would be. The species was also prescribed for a host of medicinal uses and cures. But later, in colonial America, this long-historied wildflower was reduced to the status of a common pest in pastures: "It is a pernicious weed that spreads over the fields and spoils pasturage, choking the grass and infecting our horses and sheep." said John Bartram writing in 1758. Yet today, St. Johnswort is much more than a weed. It is being commercially produced and is one of the most widely-taken herbal remedies, since it has been proven to have calming qualities. This has led it to be commonly called the "natural Prozac." It's available in various forms in most drug stores, along with Echinacea (Purple Coneflower, a native wildflower) and others.
Dame's Rocket (Hesperis matronalis)
This lovely lavender-flowered plant's Latin genus name (hesperis) means "evening" and its species name (matronalis) means "matronly." Also called Dameswort, Evenweed, Rockset and Summer Lilac. The folklore surrounding this one is both positive and negative. Some sources say it is a symbol of woman's independence. And other folklorists, noting the strong cinnamon fragrance which is more noticeable in the evening than during the daytime, mention it as a "flower of deceit."
Mayflower, beautiful welcome to a New World (Epigaea repens)
The famous state flower of Massachusetts is a small ground-growing woodland vine with magnificent pastel pink bloom. Also called trailing arbutus, the Latin name means, literally, "to creep upon the earth". It received the name, Mayflower, from the Pilgrims. The story goes that upon landing in Plymouth, and seeing this wildflower in full bloom, the settlers were struck by this never-before-seen flower and named it for their ship. The early colonists later learned that the native Potawatomi Indians had always revered these beautiful pink blooms, and believed that this special wildflower came directly from the hands of their divinity.
Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora)
This mysterious woodland wildflower is a great example of one that has been singled out for its unusual appearance. Common names say it all. They include Broomrape, Convulsion-Root, Corpse Plant, Fitsroot, and Ghost-Flower. The Latin name simply means "one turn, one flower" referring to the nodding form of the flowers. The name Indian Pipe comes from the fact that many American Indian tribes used it to treat sore eyes. They also used it as a remedy for spasms and other nervous conditions. It was called Corpse Plant and Ghost-Flower because of its unique, bluish-white waxy appearance.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
This is a common North American shade-loving annual growing up to 5 ft. tall and blooming with small, dangling orange tubular flowers. Also called Eardrop, Silverleaf, and Balsam Weed, this is a close relative of the South American impatiens we all enjoy now in our flower gardens. It has the same watery, succulent stems and leaves but beyond that, is very different. While the glamorous hybrids we enjoy in our shady gardens are small plants with large flowers, this impatiens, a common wildflower in shady thickets in most of the east, is the opposite: A large plant with small flowers. One American naturalist called it the Hummingbird Tree because its nectar and small, but brilliant orange flowers are so attractive to hummingbirds. In early American annals it is celebrated as a cure for jaundice and bruises, something never proven in modern times.
Water Hemlock, a wildflower of death (Cicuta maculata)
This sinister wildflower is one of the great poisons of the plant world. It is similar in appearance to Queen Anne's Lace, but usually found in wet woodlands, which is the reason for "Water" in the name. It is also a close relative of another poisonous hemlock called simply "Poison Hemlock" which is the deadly herb with which the famous execution of Socrates was carried out in ancient Greece. Other common names for water hemlock are Cowbane, False Parsley, Poison Parsnip, and Muskrat Weed. It is described as the "most violently poisonous plant of the North Temperate Zone." All parts of the plant are poisonous, but seeds and roots are supposed to be particularly deadly. If this plant is ingested (and people have often confused it with herbs such as dill), its symptoms begin with nausea and quickly advance to a violent convulsive attach on the nervous system. The victim is dead approximately 15 to 20 minutes after ingestion. These symptoms and results have been described since ancient times. The toxin carried by the plant is called Ciutoxins. And most people are shocked to hear that this deadly plant is very common today in eastern woodlands, and should be avoided at all costs. (These plants are unrelated to hemlock trees.)
Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
This is an example of a wildflower that received an undeservedly frightening name based simply on its looks. Also called Viper Grass, and Thistle Blueweed, this bristly blue and pink wildflower has a genus name that comes from the Greek word "Ekbis" meaning "viper". Some people think the plants somehow create a hiding place for snakes, or that the plant is guilty of other serpent-related qualities, but it is not. The name is simply because someone long ago thought the flower looked like the head of a snake.
Some of Our Favorite Books on Wildflower Folklore:
Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles, by Jack Sanders, Ragged Mountain Press, 1993
Magic and Medicine of Plants,Readers Digest Assn., 1986
Wildflower Folklore, by Laura Martin, East Woods Press
Requiem for a Lawnmower, by Sally Wasowski, Taylor Publishing, 1992