10 Weird Plant Names and Where They Came From

Have you ever wondered where plants get their names? Why would someone call a plant Hound’s Tongue, Soapwort, Passion Flower or Queen Anne’s Lace?
The thing is, they are not random names, given because someone had a vivid imagination or imbibed in a little too much dope (weed, dagga, reefer, or any of the other 25 names for marijuana). The names had a meaning, often referring to their medicinal properties, magical attributes or relationship to a person or people. And have you ever noticed how many plants, especially herbs, end with ‘Wort’? Over the years ‘wyrt’, the Old English word used for beneficial herbs, roots, or plants, has gradually transformed to ‘Wort ‘. The opposite of wort was ‘weod’, now pronounced weed, for the plants not valued for use or beauty
Now let’s take a look at some of the more interesting names, from days gone by, that we still use today.

Soapwort – A name which is obvious if you think about it. The whole of theSoapwort soapwort plant contains Saponins which are natural cleansers. Originating in Europe and the Middle East, Soapwort has been used for centuries for cleaning. Syrians washed their woolen fabrics, and the Swiss went a step further and even washed the sheep. In Medieval times before it was sold, new wool went through a treatment called ‘Fulling’. Dirt, oils and impurities were washed out, making the wool denser, softer and fuller. Hence another name is‘Fuller’s Herb’.
The extremely gentle soap made with the roots has long been used for washing fabric, and you would find patches of this herb growing next to textile shops in England and France. Even now, the soap is used by museums and conservators for cleaning the finest lace, old delicate tapestries and fabric artwork.
There are several other names for this plant, Lady’s washbowl, Lather-wort, referring to the cleansing properties, and the most interesting of all, Bouncing Bet. The pink flower petals looked like the jiggling buttocks of a washer-woman, presumably called Bet. She must have been washing with soapwort, but the question arises, was she naked?
If you do have a very sensitive or inflamed skin, it is worth seeking out this herb and using it as a wash to replace a chemical soap.

housellek on roofHouseleek – This very common succulent has plenty of names, such as Hen and Chickens, Jupiter’s Eye, Thunder Plant, Healing Leaf, Mallow Rock and the oddest one, Welcome-Husband-Though-Never-So-Drunk. (I cannot find any explanation for this last name, so I’ll leave that for you to work out).
‘Leac’, which became ‘leek’, was the Anglo-Saxon word for plant and, as they really were grown on roofs, House Leek was a logical name for it.
The Roman Emperor Charlemagne (842-814AD) proclaimed that every one of his subjects should plant it on their homes to ward off lightning strikes and fire – hence the reference to Jupiter and thunder. Perhaps that wasn’t so ridiculous, the water content would prevent small fires igniting the thatch. There is still an old folk belief in Wales that houseleek between the slates ensures health and prosperity of the inhabitants of the home. Nowadays, you will find it planted on roofs as a green method of insulation.

Broom – A logical name for a plant that was used for sweeping floors during theBroom Middle Ages. And not only did the floors gleam. Broom had the added benefit of warding off witches, sending them out of the door along with the dust. Did the houses go dirty in Summer? Perhaps, as using Broom in the house came with a caution– never use it in full flower. The old saying goes ‘If you sweep the house with blossomed broom in May, you are sure to sweep the head of the house away’. Although, there are plenty of people who would consider that an added bonus!



Jerusalem artichoke – This one is confusing. It is neither an artichoke or from Jerusalem artichokeJerusalem, and is, in fact, a member of the sunflower family. The name is a corruption of the old Italian name ‘girasole artichoka’, translated as ‘Sunflower Artichoke’. Artichoke refers to the taste of the edible roots, which are supposed to be reminiscent of globe artichokes. They look nothing like each other, and even come from different ends of the plant. Globe artichokes are green flowers, and edible part of the Jerusalem Artichoke is the knobbly rhizome. Girasole became Jerusalem as the Brits couldn’t pronounce it. Just say it a few times, very fast, and it does get closer to sounding like Jerusalem.


Teasel – The Romans were a clever bunch, and it didn’t take long for them toTeasel realise the flowers of this common weed would be great for teasing and raising the nap of woollen cloth. They began cultivating the plants and found that giving it a bit of love and attention made the bracts become hooked, making it even more effective. The practice spread throughout Europe and America and teasel was used extensively in the textile industry until modern machinery replaced it. A sign of a good Fuller would be a bed of teasel and soapwort growing outside his shop. Nowadays it is only used in small home industries, which is a pity, as the quality of hand- teased cloth is far superior to a machine manufactured one.



Meadowsweet – No, it has nothing to do with frolicking outside with your Meadowsweetsweetheart. This is yet another corruption of a name. ‘Meodu-swete’ was the 16th century Old English for Mead Sweetener. A reference to its use of sweetening and flavouring of the alcoholic beverage made with honey. Another name for this plant is Meadow Queen, as it was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1, who had it strewn over her floors to dispel smells. During the Middle Ages bathing was not popular, and herbs were used to disguise the aroma of bodies, clothing, bedding and furniture. Royalty bathed only once a month, and a commoner once a year, or less. Brides, not wanting to smell like a bag of old laundry, would make a bouquet of the flowers, hence yet another name – Brideswort. However, it was not considered such a lovely herb in Wales. Falling asleep in a field of meadowsweet, or even in a room with a bunch of the flowers, was sure to predict your upcoming death.

Hounds tongue – Hound’s tongue may come in handy if you enjoy a jog around Hound's Tonguethe block. Having a leaf shaped like a dog’s tongue supported the belief that keeping one in your shoe would stop dogs barking at you, and if they did bite (obviously without a warning bark) the leaves would cure the wound. Another name for this plant was Rats and Mice, referring to the dreadful smell emanating from crushed leaves. Perhaps you should change your route, or run faster, a hounds-tongue leaf in your shoe really will give you stinky feet.



Belladonna – Belladona means ‘Fair Lady’ in Italian. During the Renaissance,Belladonna Italian women discovered that drops made from the berries would enlarge the pupils of their eyes, making them look more seductive and desirable. One would hope they found a husband quickly, as excessive use causes blindness. The other common name for this herb is Deadly Nightshade due to it extreme toxicity. Before the advent of anaesthetics, it formed part of the ‘Sorcerer’s Pomade’, a poultice applied to the skin before surgery to put you to sleep. Quantities were a hit and miss affair so if your physician miscalculated, you were doomed before the first cut.


Passion flower – Don’t get excited, this isn’t an aphrodisiac. In fact, it is more Passion Flowerlikely to put your beloved to sleep, because it is a sedative. So, if it isn’t for passion as we know it, where did it get such a name? In the16th century Spanish explorers and Christian missionaries arrived in South America, and reportedly this was the first plant they saw. When they saw the flower, they took it as a confirmation that this was indeed the right path. The flower was surely a symbol for the Passion of Christ. The fringed corona represents Christ’s crown of thorns, the three stigmas show the nails piercing his hands and feet, his wounds are the five stamens, and ten sepals are for the Apostles, excluding Judas who betrayed him and Peter who denied him. Long tendrils on the vine must surely be the whips used against the Lord, and right in the centre of this glorious flower is a cross.


St John’s Wort – The Ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to considerSt John's Wort St John’s Wort as magical and used it to chase away demons and bad spirits. These beliefs were carried down for centuries throughout Europe with many cultures keeping it in their homes and wearing sprigs of the flower on their clothes, all to ward off the devil. During the Middle Ages priests used St John’s Wort to expel demons during exorcisms, and stuffed bunches into the mouths of suspected witches. The powers were mostly attributed to the red ‘blood’ which oozed out of the crushed yellow flowers, and partly to the scent that was released and caused the evil spirits to fly away. Interestingly, bad spirits were considered to have invaded the minds of people suffering with melancholia, or as we know it today, depression. St John’s Wort is well known as a natural remedy for anxiety and depression, and administering it to patients would have improved their state of mind, proving that the demons had been expelled by the magical herb.
Early Christian priests converted it to a more holy symbol and named it for St John the Baptist as it flowers about 24th June, the day which was designated as St John’s Day. Five yellow petals look remarkably like a halo, and the red oil symbolized the blood of the beloved Saint. The peasants of the Middle Ages were not swayed by this new naming and continued to wear, or carry, a sprig of St John’s Wort as a charm against witchcraft.

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