Who exactly was Black-eyed Susan? And how
did early North American native tribes lose many of their strongest braves because of a bizarre
method of choosing a new chief? Is Queen Anne’s Lace really effective for birth control? And how did the Forget-me-not
get its name? From strange and often dangerous herbal “cures” to black magic and wonderful
legends of love, it’s 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 man could not exist; they have
always played an essential role in his 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, man has gathered and cultivated plants for these reasons
and catalogued their benefits. Since man emerged from the cave, he has been working with plants
and flowers, and has 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, man 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,
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
A few years later, Discorides, a Greek writing in the 1 st century AD compiled what
is considered the first book on pharmacology, describing the medicinal properties of about 600
plants, including many wildflowers.
In 1492, Columbus sailed east in search of spices to season and
preserve food and herbs 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.
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
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
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.
(Rudbeckia hirta and Dianthus
Bouncing-Bet as a “useful” flower (Saponaria officianalis)
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
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
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
Scurage, 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
available in various forms in most drug stores, along with Echinacea (also a wildflower)
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)
Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
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.)
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