Behind the name

To the bewilderment of my parents and siblings I get excited by plants. Any of you who have been fortunate (!!!!) enough to meet me on a course will know that foraging and flora is one of my real passions. One of the main reason for this are the stories and folklore that seem too cling to their history and their names. It was a conversation between me and my dad which inspired this blog about a plant that most people will have growing all around them and they will for the most part either ignore it or persistently pull up as a weed – I’m talking of the very common Cow Parsley. When I was younger I used the hollow dead stems of Cow Parsley as blow tube to fire elderberries at my brother and sisters (and anything else that sat still long enough) which, being 8, entertained me for hours upon end. As a child I knew this plant to be called ‘Mother Die’ a name that is still commonly used for Cow Parsley in Leeds to this day. It wasn’t until some years later I discovered that the rest of the world called it Cow Parsley and I couldn’t help thinking ‘why?’ ‘And where did that come from?’ these questions started what was to become a very passionate (obsessive) exploration into some of the different names we use for different plants and some of the great stories behind them. So here it is then my top 5 plant names …..

 Cleavers  Gallium aparine

This one hits the top 5 just for the sheer volume of names that this plant holds claim to. Due to the fact that this plant is so common and entertains children for hours and due to the fact it takes several days’ worth of washing and scrubbing to remove the seeds children and mothers up and down the country usually know this plant from a very early age. Over the years I’ve heard of no less than 20 or 30 variations of this plant’s name form ‘Milk Maids’, ‘Monkey Tails’, ‘Horses Tails’, ‘Goose Grass’ to ‘Sticky Weed’, ‘Sticky Willy’, ’Sticky Buds’, ’robin-run-the-hedge’, ’Grip Grass’ ’Catch Weed’, ’Kisses’ , ’Bedstraw’ and there are still loads more as each locality and generation think up more inventive names for this plant. My personal favourite so far, ‘Everlasting Friendship’ because you really can never get those pesky seeds out of a woollen jumper no matter how hard you try. The Latin name for this plant Gallium Aparine comes from the Greek ‘milk catcher’ as shepherd would use cleavers to strain the hairs from the milk.



Lady’s Smock Cardamine pratensis

This small meadow flower has two names that are of some interest although one more useful than the other. ‘Lady’s smock’ which is usually the more common of the names is a sly reference as to why young sweet hearts would walk down by the meadows and ‘smock’ was once used to refer to a lady who was less respectable than was wise. The second common name for this plant is the ‘cuckoo flower’ and is much more useful to us woodland types. The blooming of the flower coincides with arrival of the cuckoo which is roughly Mid-April to early May. interestingly in each area locally you don’t find one without the other.  Father south the flowers open early and the cuckoos arrive in south of England first and then travel up the country at the same time as the flowers are opening up north. However one doesn’t arrive before the other. A real woodland clock almost.

ladys smock

Good-King Henry Chenopodium bonus-henricus 

This common weed has an interesting name with some wonderful folklore behind it. The name ‘good henry’ is an anglicised version of guter heinrich which is German for the same. In German folklore ‘good henry’ was a mischievous elf type creature much like our Robin Goodfellow or hobgoblin.  All these creatures were said to dwell in the woods but help out around the homestead or farm with odd favour i.e. churn the butter and finish the needlework. However a family or home that had fallen of favour with the hobgoblin would find all of these things reversed and everything in the house would be plagued by misfortune. This plants folk lore is reflected slightly in the plant its self as it is usually found around cultivated soil and offers a highly nutritional spring vegetable for those who don’t pull it up by the roots.


Ribwort plantain plantago lanceolata 

This trampled little verge side weed is the medical wonder of the foragers world. This little rosette plants is usually just ignored by most people these days but there is some interesting little stories behind some of the common names that have sprung up among the years. A common name for this plant in Scotland for example is Carl Doddies. Now on the face of it this name seems just a little amusing as a name, just for the fact it sounds silly however there is a story and a memory hidden in this innocent name. The long stems of the ribwort plantain were once used by children to play a game similar to ‘conkers’ called ‘dongers’, where one side would take it in turns to attempt to hit off the others. Now interestingly Carl and Doddie are diminutives of Charles and George and it obviously a reference to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 in which Bonnie Prince Charles and king George III of England attempted to knock each other’s heads off. Another similar story and name for this plant and the game is ‘soldiers and sailors’’ and is referring to the friendly completion that exists between the navy and army.

ribwort plantain - Copy

Greater plantain Plantago mayjor

Like it’s very closely related cousin greater plantain or rat’s tail plantain also has some interesting history and names associated with it. Unlike ribwort plantain, greater plantain has broad round leaves as opposed to the long spear shaped ones of ribwort and also the flower spike is much shorter and has seeds all the way along ( and looks like a rat’s tail hence the name) whereas ribwort has a much longer thinner stem and only has seeds at the very end. However unalike they might look the healing properties of both are used and harnessed in the same way and both were used interchangeably by many common people as almost cure all plants. It may have been this healing importance that helped it travel across the sea or maybe it was just a stow away however all we know is that somehow plantain travelled to America where is has established its selves very well. The native Americans that saw the first Europeans arrive noticed this little plant clung to the paths and wagon trails that were made by the new comers and as they spread across the continent o did the plant in their wake which inspired the name ‘white-man’s footsteps’ because in their eyes where ever a white man lay his foot this curious plant would automatically spring up. The Native Americans also quickly discovered the uses to which this plant could be used and was used as a treatment for rattle snake bites.

greater plantain - Copy



Joe Philbin



Mabey.R, 1996, Flora Britannica, Chatto & Windus: Sinclair Stevenson

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