Friday, 17 July 2015

The Naming of Nature - Dragonflies

The Naming of Nature - Dragonflies and Damselflies (ordonata)

Whenever we see a dragonfly skimming across a pond we all start pointing and talking. The conspicuous beauty of these insects never fails to capture our attention which is why in olden times every culture, even locality, would have their preferred names for these creatures.  These names mingled and became mutated by folk stories and legends, the names often had very long histories and their own lives, we took them on journeys across empires where we left them to take on new meanings in other lands.   At times they lost their meaning altogether, or new meanings were reinvented for old names, or the names became irrelevant and were allowed lie and fade back into nothingness.  Fortunately some lists were made and kept, in the 1960s Elmwood Montgomery from the University of Indiana made this list of 95 English and 23 Celtic folk names.  There are other lists; One of 150 from Germany (I have not found it) another of 119 and from the US (appendix). 

95 English names collected by Elmwood Montgomery in the 1960s

Some of the loveliest folk names are descriptive and whimsical; for instance the English folk name Waterbutterfly is an idea that occurs across Europe.

Banded Demoiselle - Waterbutterflies?  Pic

Similar names are:

England Peacock 
France Papillion d'amour (love butterfly)
Italy Farfaya (butterfly)
Spain El Parot (butterfly)
Germany Pfaufliege (peacock fly)  Wasserpfau (waterbutterfly)

Then there are descriptive names that tell us about the insects behaviour.  This insect, The Common Blue Damselfly, is called a Water sniffer in Holland.  This refers to the fly's habit of touching the water surface with their tails as they lay eggs.

Common Blue Damselfly / Watersniffer / Enallagma cyathigerum

In Italy they have a similar folk name
Lavaku which means Tail washer.

The Difference between Damsel and Dragonflies 

It is easy to tell difference between Damsel and Dragonflies.

Dragonflies are usually larger fast flying insects that dart and skim over the water surface, which is why groups of dragonflies have been classified as Skimmers, Hawkers Skaters and Darters.   When dragonflies rest they always hold their wings flat like this American Slaty skimmer is doing.  Also notice how the eyes almost meet on the top of the head

A resting Slaty skimmer dragonfly pic

Damsel and Demoiselle flies are often very small and have a weak fluttery flight.  When they land they hold their wing up like a butterfly does.  This is how a damsel fly looks when at rest

Bright Blue Damselfly - California pic

 Also notice how the eyes of a damselfly are widely spaced apart.

The Scientists have classified the damselflies and dragonflies together into one Order; the Odonata which is derived from the Greek word for teeth.  This is appropriate because dragonflies are fierce hunters with strong mandibles that they use to crush their prey.

The Pagan cult of Freya, goddess of Love

Dragonflies and damselflies are as delicate and elegant as swans or butterflies, this beauty has made them revered in many cultures around the world (especially Japan). One of the loveliest traditions comes from the Scandinavian (Æsir) culture that  associates damselflies with maidenhood and Freya, the pagan goddess of love.  From this tradition we have folk names that liken the damselfly to maidenhood and chastity,  like Juffer (Denmark) which translates as Little Miss.   

Our English name Demoiselle is a corruption of the old French word "dameisele" which means a young lady or damsel.  Other names in this tradition are:  

English Merry Maid , Lady and Damselfly
French , Dame de Paris (Parisian lady) mariée (bride) Demoiselle (Damsel)  Moungeto (Little Nun) Papillion d'amour (love butterfly) 
Italy Monaca (nun) Muneghela (little nun) Signorella (Little lady)

German Edeljunfer  (Genteel Maiden) Wasserjungfe (water maiden) Junfer (Maiden)
Spanish/Portuguese Donzelinka (young lady) Le dimuzela (damsel)
Swedish Vattenjunfer (watermaiden)
Danish Vanderjunfer (watermaiden)
Dutch Waterjuffertje (watermaiden)
Portuguese  Donzelinha (damsel)

Then on the Continent, where language has male and female forms, there is a charming twist to this tradition; the smaller flies are given female names, and the larger flies male names.  So we find small flies being called Demoisella and larger Monsieur

Here is a selection of these

Portuguese  Donzelinha - Danzello
French  Moungeto (Nun) - Pretre (Priest)
French Demoisella - Monsieur 
Italy Monaca (nun)  Monaco (monk)

Classical (cult of the snake)

The Earliest known literary reference to the dragonfly is in a volume printed by William Caxton in 1483, he call it an Adder's Bolt (snakes arrow), a name that survived into the 20th century. In 1607 Moffet calls the dragon fly The Greatest Libelle and the Damsel fly the Smallest Libelle. (see later)

1607 - The Greatest Libelle - from The Theatre of Insect by Tho Moffet

The first known use of the folk name Dragonfly is in Francis Bacon's Sylva Syvarum which was published in 1667.


First known usage of Dragonfly - Sylva Syvarum which was published in 1667.

Bacon almost certainly did not make this name up, it was probably an oddball amongst a cluster of old European names that connect this insect with snakes, horses, needles and the devil; Adder Bolt, Eye Snatcher, Snake Doctor, Gwas y neidr (Welsh for: Snakes Servant), Horse Stinger, Devil's Darning Needle, Eye Poker, and
Tarbh-nathair-neimh (Gaelic: venomous bull-serpent).  It may seem that Dragonfly has no connection with any of these names which sound evil.  How did these beautiful butterflies of the water get connected with malice?

I want to start my explanation by looking at the names that conjoin the devil and horses.  This connection is widespread, here are a sample of the names from around Europe..

English  Devil's Riding Horse
French Chevau du diable (Devils horse) 
 Cavaleta del diavola (Devils horse)
USA Devils Horse / Devil's Riding Horse / 
German Tenfelspfred  (Devils Horse)
Danish  Fandens ridehest ("Devil's riding horse")
Spanish Caballito del Diablo ("Devil's horse")
Portuguese Cavallo d'o demo (Devils horse)
Romanian  Calul Dracului (Devils Horse) Pitingdul Dracului (The little horse of the devil)
Swedish trollslända (hobgoblin fly)
Australian Horse Stinger 
Finnish Pirum Hevonen (the devils little Horse)

There are other insects involved in our story.  One of the most obvious is a large nocturnal predatory drove beetle (Staphylinus ocypus olens) that looks like a giant earwig.  Although they do not live in water and are unrelated to dragonflies these insects share a similar collection of folk names that are to do with devils and horses (but not snakes or needles); Devil's Coach Horse, Devil's Steed, Devil's Coachman and Devil's Footman.   In Ireland the beetle is known as a deargadaol (Devil's beast).  The Irish said it gained it's magical powers by feeding on the bodies of sinners. 

English  Devil's Coach Horse, Devil's Steed, Devil's Coachman  Devil's Footman and Black Cocktail
Gaelic   deargadaol / darbhada (Devil's beast)
French  Le Diable (The devil) /  l’ocype odorant (the fragrant ocype)/ Le Fantassin du diable (One reference only Devils Soldier)
Maltese  Katarina-għolli-denbek (Catherine raise your tail) 
Italian scorpione-elaterio (Scorpian click beetle)
Spanish  Asnillos
Dutch Stinkende kortschildkever
German  Schwarzer Moderkäfer
(please let me know if you can add more names and myths to my list)
A drone beetle - The  Devils Coach Horse

The Devil's Coach Horse has wings that are tucked and folded in small wing cases on its back, it has a strong bite and if it is disturbed it
raises its tail like an earwig or scorpion does and makes an offensive smell.  For this reason the beetle is also call the Black Cocktail and in Italy
scorpione-elaterio (Scorpian click beetle) and in Malta Katarina-għolli-denbek (Catherine raise your tail).  Can someone tell me who Catherine was?

This has gained it another name Black Cock Tail. (Photo

When they unfold their wings, which are quite big,  they look a bit like ugly black dragonflies. 

Devils Coach Horse with wings unfolded

Devils coach horse live in rotting vegetation where they hunt insects and worms.  They must have been a common sight in amongst the strewing on medieval floors.  One can imagine how the superstitious rural people of the middle ages grew to dislike these big black flying insect and believed they were evil. 

As if this were not enough there is an even more revolting aquatic insect.    The beautiful The Great Diving Beetle (Dytiscus marginalis) and Great Silver Water Beetle (Hydrophilus piceus)

The Great Diving Beetle Dytiscus Marginalis

have disgusting larval forms that even today are called Water Devils or Underwater Devils Coach Horses.  Water Devils are as large as newts (7cms), they wiggle through the water like little water snakes catching small fish that they crush with their mandibles.  The also bite!

Water Devil (Dytiscus larva)
A few years ago my pond was infested with these creatures.  I have always loved insects, but these make even me nauseous.  To the innocent medieval mind the predatory water nymphs of immature dragonflies must have looked quite similar to Water devils; they might have thought they were the aquatic relation of the Devils Coach Horse.

Water nymph of Dragonfly

So it is not very altogether surprising that in the imagination of the medieval mind the folk names of these three insects became entwined.  My hunch is further confirmed when I find Coach Horse and Devils Riding Horse on the lists of folk names for dragonflies. 

The Dragonfly's Connections with Romanian Dracula Myths

When we look across Europe to Romania we find tales that closely relate horses, evil flying insects and the devil.  The myths tell how the devil cast a spell on St George's beautiful white horse; turning it into a giant, flying insect.  The Romanian's folk names for the dragonfly include Calul Dracului (Evils Horse),   Pitingdul Dracului (The little horse of the evil) , Calul St George (St Georges Horse), thus directly connecting this myth with the dragonfly.   The German's also seem to have shared this myth since one of the recorded folk names is  Gorgen pferdlein (St Georges Horse)

There is a popular theory that this Romanian  name travelled across Europe as Dracului fly, Drak fly or Drakon Fly to eventually land in England as Dragon Fly. 

There are long traditions of putting the devil on horseback. The Mongols who attacked Europe in 1240 were loosely known as the devil's horsemen. Perhaps this thought came easily to the frightened Christian victims who believed that the end of the world would be preceded by the arrival of the four riders of the apocalypse who would bring war, plague, famine and death.

The four horsemen as featured in the “Bamberger Apokalypse” Folio 14 recto (ca. 1000 AD) 

It is a fascinating to read that the third horse (famine) was a black horse (the colour of Devil Coach horse beetle) and the rider carried a weighing scales.

"When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard something like a voice in the centre of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; but do not damage the oil and the wine.”

The black horseman had come to weigh wheat and barley and bring famine, but everyone was aware of another more directly threatening use of the weighing scales. His scales could be used
to weigh their souls after they had died of famine.  Belief in weighing the souls of the dead was ancient and very widespread.  The Egyptian God Anubis weighed the hearts of the dead and against the weight of a feather.  If the weight was wrong Anubis fed the soul to Ammit, the Devourer of Souls.

The Christian belief was that sinful souls were heavier than virtuous souls, so the devil was looking to take the heavy souls of sinners to Hell.  For this task he would need an assistant with weighing scales or balance.

In Scandinavian there were beliefs that when dragonflies flew around your head they were weighing your soul for the devil.  
An old Swedish name for dragonflies is Skams besman ("Devil's steelyard"), a steelyard is a Roman weighing balance.  There are many other examples of dragonfly names alluding to balances and scales.  

Sweden Skams besman ("Devil's steelyard")
Norwegian Bismar (Steelyard) 
Italian  Blansette (Balance fly)  Bilancelle (little scales)
Britain Balance Flies / Libelle (1607 Moffet) 
France (Libellule) , 
Germany (Libelle) , 
Spain (Libelue)
Romanian (Libelula)
Holland Libel / Libelle

Portugal (Libelinha) which are all varients of Libella/libra which is Latin for Balance or Scales

NB Some say the etymological root is libre (Book) because the wings of a dragonfly look like the pages of a book

Roman steelyard from Pompei

Mixed in with the allusions to horses, balances and devils are many names that mention needles that are used maliciously to darn, pierce, cut and poke eyes and ears.

French Couturiere (Dressmaker)
French l'aiguille du diable ("Devil's needle")
Gaelic (Ireland) Devils Needle,  Big Needle, Battle Needle, Horse Needle

Italian Mattassaro (Needle)
German Tenfelsnadel  (Devils Needle)
Norwegian ore-sting (Ear piercer) Øyenstikker (Eye poker)
English  Devils Darning Needle,  Blue Needle, Horse Needle,  Spindle
Eye Poker, Ear Cutter
USA Devils Darning Needle / Spindle / Devils Needles /
New Jersey US  Spindle
Australia Horse Stinger 
Swedish Blindsticka  (Blind Stingers - because their sting the eyes)
Portugal  tira-olhos (Eye snatcher)

These tales have been transported to many parts of the United States where they are very prevalent, for instance in Iowa there are stories about how the Devils Darning Needle will sew together the fingers and toes of sleeping people, and in Kansas the mouths of scolding women.  Other stories tell how the Devils Darning Needle will enter a persons Ear and penetrate the brain, a story that is also found in Norwegian Folk law.  These stories are similar to the earwig's reputation for creeping into ears whilst people sleep and then burrowing through the eardrum and into the brain to lay their eggs.  (Devil Coach Horse beetles look like giant earwigs)

In Celtic tradition the Dragonfly is also reputed to look after snakes, the Welsh said the Adder's Servant stitched the wounds of injured snakes and these same stories are found in Ireland and America. But even outside Celtic traditions the connection between dragonflies and snakes is very widespread.

Welsh Adder's Servant

Celtic Adder Fly

Cornwall UK Horse Adder
English Adderbolt / Snake Arrow/ Snake Doctor / Snake Fedder / Horse Snake / Flying Adder
German Schalangentoter (Snake Killer)
Norwegian  "Dragonflies are the brothers of Adders"
Spanish Aspie dimonis (Devil's serpent)  El kabal de ser (serpent's horse)
USA Snake Flies

America Southern States Snake Doctor / Snake Feeder  

Dragonflies will land on watersnakes

The dragonflies association with snakes is the last piece of the jigsaw.  A Dutch linguist, Bostjan Kiauta, has traced 2,500 European Folk Dragonfly names that are connected to the snake, when he mapped them out he discovered their layout closely mirrored the territory of the Bronze age Urnfield Venetic culture.  

The Urnfield culture buried their dead in Urns and spoke a pre Indo-European language that is most similar to modern Slovenic - hence this culture has been named Urnfield-Slovenetic, shortened to Vanetic.  This culture was submerged about 2000 year ago under the expansion of Celtic and Roman influence over their lands, however Venetic territory is mapped through traces of their language that are still surviving in place names.    Kiauta's conclusion is that the myths associating dragonflies with snakes have come down to us from the Bronze age.

Our word Dragon is derived from the Greek word draco or drakon (Feminine form), which comes from the Indo-European source, derk, to see or look.  A drakon was a beast with an evil eye, usually a serpent of some sort. The Roman's Latin word draco was used for a particular sort of Temple Snake.  In Christian tradition it was the snake that tempted Eve and in St John's Revelation (Rev 12:9) both dragons and snakes are used  as descriptions of  the devil.  Early images of St George, like this icon, often depict St George slaying a serpent rather than a dragon.  The image is an allegory of good  slaying evil (the devil)

St George and the dragon - 14th century icon - origin unknown

The medieval Monks were fond of adding pictures to the margins of their illuminated manuscripts, and from these doodles we can see how inventive and plastic the medieval mind was. In this illustration we see two mating vipers with dragon ears and feet; the female is eating her husband as the young snakes emerge through her skin.

Two vipers mating - Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633

We will probably never know where Francis Bacon picked up the name dragonfly but it seems certain to have developed from very old beliefs that have roots in Bronze Age traditions that were shared with paganism in Northern Europe and Christianity in Southern Europe.  It is natural that ancient folk names blurred and interchanged snakes, dragons and the devil. 

When I made my picture of a dragonfly I was inspired to draw something elegant and cute.  To my modern mind dragons and fairies are quaint and non-threatening.  Modern cultures have dropped most of their fear of the devil and we have sanitised medieval images of evil.  This sanitising of evil has continued to happen during my lifetime, at university forty years ago we watched Hammer horror films about vampires, today we watch TV series about friendly vampires with guilt complexes. Our cultures are never static, and with these changes we invent new names and legends to use as names for the plants and animals.


Writing this summary has been exciting and also frustrating.  It is surprisingly difficult to find new source material, every website seems to repeat the same stories. If you have knowledge of more lists of dragonfly names please share them with me so that I can add the information to my  summary in the appendices.  It would be wonderful to know how widespread these traditions and folk law spread. 

 I could find no information about the folk names given to rove beetles and larva of water beetles and earwigs in other countries.  This knowledge would be very useful to either debunking or reinforcing my my theories.  (please contact me at this address)


USA Dragonfly names "Evolution of Englishes" Sarah Buschfeld


Celtic Dragonfly names collected by Elmwood Montgomery in the 1960s




  Finding new species of Dragonflies in Africa



With thanks to Stephen Moran for showing me this!

German dragonfly folk law:

Japanese dragonfly culture:
British Species guide:

How did the Dragon get it name?:


The Dazzle of Dragonflies dragonfly&f=false

Bugs Britannica :

Survey of Dragonfly names used in USA

Study of dragonfly names (1960)

Urnfield Venetic Culture -

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Naming of Weeds - The Stinging Nettle

The Naming of Weeds - The Common Stinging Nettle (Urtica incisa)

We all know nettles because we have learnt to avoid getting stung, naturally the vicious plant has gathered a collection of unflattering names that reflect its nature, these include Devil's leaf, Naughty Man's Plaything and Hoky-Poky.  The nettle's reputation is not enhanced by it's habit of thriving on the fertile soil of graves.

They also thrive in damp soil on abandoned farmland and buildings where the soil has had its phosphorous and nitrogen levels boosted by animal or human waste, consequently it is a very nutritious foodplant that supports and protects the larva of some of our prettiest butterflies and moths (Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Angle Shades, Buff ErmineLesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, Mouse Moth, and Setaceous Hebrew Character). There is a lot for humans to appreciate about this troublesome plant, the list of its healing capabilities is long

In Hans Andersons tale of the Princess and the Eleven Swans, the princess made coats of nettles in order to change the swans into princes.  This is not so far fetched because Nettles are a related species to hemp and for centuries their fibres were used to make cloth; in Danish burial mounds they found bodies wrapped in nettle shrouds, the use of nettle gradually died out after introduction of flax, but it was still going on in Scotland in the seventeenth century 

'In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen.'  Poet Campbell

In the first World War the Germans made their uniforms from nettles because cotton was unavailable.

Some believe the common name nettle is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "netel" which is said to have come from "noedl" meaning needle.   Others believe the word has common origin with "net" being the passive participle of ne, a verb common to most of the Indo-European languages in the sense of 'spin' and 'sew'  It is all needles and threads!

There are many plants that look like stinging nettles but do not sting, like the very pretty White Dead Nettle.

Just now the Hedge Nettle. otherwise known as Woundwort is in flower.

Woundwort is sometimes known as Hedge Nettle

 Nettle Recepies from

Nettle Pudding
To 1 gallon of young Nettle tops, thoroughly washed, add 2 good-sized leeks or onions, 2 heads of broccoli or small cabbage, or Brussels sprouts, and 1/4 lb. of rice. Clean the vegetables well; chop the broccoli and leeks and mix with the Nettles. Place all together in a muslin bag, alternately with the rice, and tie tightly. Boil in salted water, long enough to cook the vegetables, the time varying according to the tenderness or other vise of the greens. Serve with gravy or melted butter. These quantities are sufficient for six persons.
Pepys refers to Nettle pudding in his Diary, February, 1661: 'We did eat some Nettle porridge, which was very good.'

Nettle Beer
The Nettle Beer made by cottagers is often given to their old folk as a remedy for gouty and rheumatic pains, but apart from this purpose it forms a pleasant drink. It may be made as follows: Take 2 gallons of cold water and a good pailful of washed young Nettle tops, add 3 or 4 large handsful of Dandelion, the same of Clivers (Goosegrass) and 2 OZ. of bruised, whole ginger. Boil gently for 40 minutes, then strain and stir in 2 teacupsful of brown sugar. When lukewarm place on the top a slice of toasted bread, spread with 1 OZ. of compressed yeast, stirred till liquid with a teaspoonful of sugar. Keep it fairly warm for 6 or 7 hours, then remove the scum and stir in a tablespoonful of cream of tartar. Bottle and tie the corks securely. The result is a specially wholesome sort of ginger beer. The juice of 2 lemons may be substituted for the Dandelion and Clivers. Other herbs are often added to Nettles in the making of Herb Beer, such as Burdock, Meadowsweet, Avens Horehound, the combination making a refreshing summer drink.

As an arrester of bleeding, the Nettle has few equals and an infusion of the dried herb, or alcoholic tincture made from the fresh plant, or the fresh Nettle juice itself in doses of 1 to 2 tablespoonsful is of much power inwardly for bleeding from the nose, lungs or stomach. Old writers recommended a small piece of lint, moistened with the juice, to be placed in the nostril in bad cases of nosebleeding. The diluted juice provides a useful astringent gargle. Burns may be cured rapidly by applying to them linen cloths well wetted with the tincture, the cloths being frequently re-wetted. An infusion of the fresh leaves is also soothing and healing as a lotion for burns.

Nettle Tea Nettle is one of the best antiscorbutics. An infusion known as Nettle Tea is a common spring medicine in rural districts, and has long been used as a blood purifier. This tea made from young Nettles is in many parts of the country used as a cure for nettlerash. It is also beneficially employed in cases of gouty gravel, but must not be brewed too strong. A strong decoction of Nettle, drunk too freely, has produced severe burning over the whole body.

The homoeopathic tincture, Urtica, is frequently administered successfully for rheumatic gout, also for nettlerash and chickenpox, and externally for bruises.

'Urtication,' or flogging with Nettles, was an old remedy for chronic rheumatism and loss of muscular power.

Young Nettles, mashed and pulped finely, mixed with equal bulk of thick cream, pepper and salt being added to taste, have been considered a valuable food for consumptives.


Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Naming of Weeds - Meadowsweet

The Naming of Weeds - Meadowsweet  Filipendula ulmaria

Being on the west side of  the British Isles we get a lot of rain in Pembrokeshire, and at this time of year our lanes become feathered with the cream white blooms of  sweet smelling Meadowsweet, a plant that likes damp meadows.  Another common name used widely across Europe is "the Queen of the Meadow"

The Tudors made good use of their knowledge of weeds.  Some weeds such as Lavender and Lady's Bedstraw were used to repel insects and kill fleas, these were often stuffed into mattresses and called Bedstraws.  Other plants were chosen for their sweet smell which disguised the insanitary conditions of their homes and palaces, these were dried and made into pot-pourri or scattered on the floors as  Strewing Herbs.  Meadowsweet was particularly loved by Elizabeth I for this purpose
In  John Gerards Herbal (16th century) it says

'Queene Elizabeth of famous memory, did more desire it than any other herb to strew her chambers withall.'


'The leavs and floures farr excell all other strong herbs, for to deck up houses, to straw in chambers, halls, and banqueting houses in summer time, for the smell thereof makes the heart merrie, delighteth the senses..."

Meadowsweet was also known as Bridewort, because it was strewn in churches for festivals and weddings, and often made into bridal garlands.
Meadowsweet has traditionally been used for culinary uses.  It is said to tastes of almonds and has been widely used across Norhern Europe as a flavouring herb for meads, wines and vinegars, hence another of its common names was  "Meadsweet".   The flowers can be collected, dried  and made into tea which is supposed to be good for sore throats and colds.  The roots can be dug up and peeled and crushed, they smells like Germolene, and when chewed is a good natural remedy for relieving headaches.  But is also induces Asthma in some people.

In  1897, a German Chemist working called Hoffmann synthesised acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) from Meadowsweet.   This was drug marketed by Bayer under the trade name Asprin 

Meadowsweets Latin Name Filipendula comes from the Latin noun filum, a thread, and the Latin adjective pendulus which means hanging - a reference to the way that the underground tubers hang upon fibrous thread-like roots. The specific epithet ulmaria is a reference to elm trees (Ulmus species), whose wrinkled leaves are similar to the leaflets of Meadowsweet.


Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Naming of Weeds

Red Campion

The Naming of Weeds

It is early June.

The green lanes of  Pembrokeshire are again narrowed by hedges of Queen Anne's Lace and new clumps of  Red Campion  and bee buzzing Columbine.  The tendrils of Common Stitchwort have threaded nests of small white flowers amongst tall stands of  slender Cocksfoot and Foxtail grasses.

Threaded tendrils of White flowering Commons Stitchwort

The vibrant bursts of the still cold winds make the year feel fresh and young, but none of this is really new; each emerging plant, animal or insect already owns a collection of old names that touch us with the woken memories of forgotten peoples that once, oh so many years ago, tilled the land and walked the footpaths of West Wales.

In our village there used to live an old lady who waged a constant war with Dandelions that infested her lawn, I would meet her in front of her house digging up the roots with a pocket penknife.  A few generations ago she might have been too frightened to touch the Pissy Beds, which was the name given to them by folk who believed that touching a Dandelion was enough to make you wet yourself.

April/ May - Pissy Beds and Celandines

It is hardly surprising that common weeds like the dandelion have many names, we all have our own reasons for either loving or despising this hardy plant.  It is said that the Romantics enjoyed noticing that the flowers open for the bees as the day breaks and then close again when the moon rises, they likened the large yellow blooms to the sun. Eventually, the pollinated flowers would close for a last time, but then the sleeping buds began to re-awake and swell to burst open once more as seeded blow balls which the children called Face clocks.  The Romantics looked at the hovering pale blow balls elevated over the grass on long stalks and exclaimed "Look, the dandelion heads that were once suns are now Moons!" and when a light breeze un-clung the parachute tufted seeds they said again  "Look now, rivers of stars are drifting  across the meadow".

When all the seeded stems lost their mantles children came passing by and looked with disappointed faces at all that was left of their fair clock flowers, all they saw were nobs on stalks that reminded them of the tonsured shaven heads of monks, thus the plant received a sarcastic name "Priest's Crown"
Dandelions, inherited their most common name from the French who call the plant "Dent de Lion" (Lions teeth).  This probably refers to the plants toothed leaves.  But can it be just chance that the yellow flowers look like the ruffs of a lion's mane?   Common names are never fixed and we are all free to dream new names.  Surely the name could be now be spelt dandy, not dande, and instead of suns perhaps we will see the dandy faces of  little lions

In modern centuries a new group of walkers have arrived to name our plants, they are the scientists who hang names on unbending trees of Latin, they say they are classifying nature and settling the matter for ever!  But even these cold rationalists do not escape adding poetry and history into the Latin names they choose for our weeds.  They call the dandelion "Taraxacum" which roughly translates as "remedy for Disorder" after the plant's ancient reputation to aid digestion and cleanse the body.

The dandelions are now mostly over, but the grass verges is still speckled with the suns of False Dandelions or Catsears which will continue in bloom until autumn.  This drawing was made on grassy bank that overlooks the sea wall at Wiseman's Bridge. 

 Cat's Ear, Red clover amongst grasses
Catsear is derived from the words cat's ear, and is said to refer to the soft down on the hairy leaves that is supposed to resemble the fur on the inside of a cat's ear.  The roots of this plant can be eaten as a coffee substitute.

The Cuckoo Flower is another plant that has almost finished its flowering season.  A few weeks ago the dainty orange tip butterflies flew over the clustered congregations of their lilac blooms that were spread across the meadows.

Lady's Smock and Orange Tip

In olden times they said that from a distance they looked like linen lying exposed on the grass as “maidens do to bleach their summer smocks.”  This illusion brought the plant a poetic name, Lady's Smock and even a nursery rhyme

When Ladies' smocks of silver white
do paint the meadows with delight

The Day's Eye (Old English  dægeseage) or Daisy is another lawn-infester with eyes that open at daybreak and close with the arrival of the moon. 

Day's Eyes
Daisies have always been revered for their healing properties.  In ancient Rome, the surgeons who accompanied Roman legions into battle, would order their slaves to pick sacks full of daisies in order to extract their juice.  Bandages were soaked in the juice before being used to bind sword and spear cuts.  Knowledge of their healing properties carried on through the ages, the English called them Woundwort or Bruisewort.

Daisies are also the flower of childhood and innocence, they whiten our lawns with summer snow and are blessed with the loveliest Latin name of any plant, Bellis perennis, which loosely translates as "prettiness that is everlasting".  Little wonder the Victorians worshipped this flower's purity, named their daughters after it, taught their children how to make them into necklaces, put their flower heads in sandwiches and at the brink of adulthood asked the frail petals to be truthful about the chastity of their lovers.   Today chefs are again recommending the flower heads can be added as a garnish in green salads.
Don't put Foxglove's flowers in your salad, they are poisonous.  The tall spikes are already standing high over the other weeds.   This plant was in my garden last year, today I saw a first bloom.

Foxglove flowers are often likened to bells, thimbles and gloves.  The French call it gantelée (little Glove) but the plant has also attracted names that reflect its toxic nature, names like Dead Man's Bells  and Bloody FingersFoxglove is a very ancient name that was already known to Edward III in the middle ages.  The names of weeds, like fairy tales, have the habit of being brutally unsentimental.  Foxglove is a name about which there has been a lot of controversy amongst etymologists who question why the people of the Middle ages paired Fox with Glove to create a playful harmless name for such a dangerous plant.

Medieval people had a strong belief in fairies who they called "the good folk".   Foxgloves have been  a history of being associated with fairies, in parts of Wales they are called "maneg ellyllon", (fairies’ glove) and in Scotland "Teviotdale" (Witches’ thimbles).  Scholars ask "when naming this plant were they really imagining foxes or fairies?"  It is suggested the common name started as Folks Gloves, but as belief in fairies died out the name became corrupted into Fox Gloves.

Bluebells are also associated with Fairies

Blue Bells

Britain has the highest density of bluebells anywhere in the world, a Bluebell wood is usually an ancient wood

It used to be believed that when the bluebells were rung the fairies would come.  A patch of Bluebells was supposed to be alive with the spells of the Fairies and you should not walk amongst them or bring the flowers into the house.  The Latin name for the flower is Endymion who was the lover of the Moon Goddess, Selene.  The Moon put Endymion into eternal sleep so that she alone could enjoy his beauty

Another flower that carpets the grass blue is ground creeping Germander Speedwell.

Germander Speedwell
Speedwell was a good luck token for travellers, in Ireland they were sometimes sewn into the lining of jackets.  Germander is a corruption of the Latin chamaedrys which means "on the ground".  It is also sometimes called Birds Eye Speedwell, perhaps because of the little white eye at the centre of each flower.

The Germans were rather hard on this plant, noticing that it would wilt as soon as it was picked.  With irony they call it "Männertreu" (Man's faithfullness) sarcastically associating the wilting of the plant with the wilting of a man's ardour after he has had his way.

Another very pretty, very poisonous plant that seems to have colonised our lanes is the Columbine.


The common name "columbine" comes from the Latin for "dove", due to the resemblance of the inverted flower to five doves clustered together, for the same reason the plant is sometimes called Clucky Bell or Meeting House (a Quaker name perhaps?).  This is especially so when the flower is very pale cream.
A cluster of five doves

Its other name is Aquilegia which is derived from the Latin word for eagle (aquila), because the shape of the flower petals, which are said to resemble an eagle's claw.

For a few short weeks the glorious white umbels of Cow Parley or Wild Carrot dominate our hedgerows

(Cow Parsley, Devil’s Parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, Mothers dies)
Remains of Cow Parsley were found in the stomach of an iron age Celt whose body had been preserved in peat and it is thought that our garden carrots may have been developed from this plant. They are sometimes called Wild Carrots.

 Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585)
Unfortunately foolish people who are tempted to collect and eat the harmless Cow Parley often end up poisoning themselves by eating toxic Hemlock instead, the two plants are hard to separate.

John Gerard's Herball  - The Historie of Plants 1597
Collecting wild carrots was a matter for expert herbalists, this is perhaps why Cow Parsley is sometimes called Fools/Devils Parsley or Mothers Dies and why children were always told it was unlucky to pick or bring the flowers into the house.

Ancient herbalists believed in the wilde carrot  "The roote boiled and eaten, or boiled with wine, and the decooction drunke, provoketh urine, expelleth the stone, bringeth foorth the birth; it also procureth bodily lust." John Gerard's Herball  - The Historie of Plants 1597

A prettier name is Queen Anne's Lace.  But which Queen Anne and why?

A common legend is that Queen Anne of England (1702-1714) pricked her finger while making lace and stained the lace with blood, this being the origin of the red/purple dot commonly found at the centre of  the white florets.  Biologist speculate this dot evolved as a decoy insect that attracts other pollinating insects.
A drop of Queen Anne's Blood?

Others say Queen Anne refers to St Anne, "queen of heaven," and mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. She was the patron saint of lacemakers (among other professions) and pregnant women.  The seeds of Queen Anne's lace have been used as a contraceptive by women for centuries. Recent research with mice has confirmed that the volatile oils of the seeds block the formation of progesterone, essential for the uterine wall to receive the egg.

Creeping Cinquefoil is a member of the potentilla family called .  It is growing delicate flat trails over the stones of our terrace and looks like a creeping buttercup.  It is quite common.

Creeping Cinquefoil
13th century sink foil, from Old French cincfoille, from Latin quinquefolium plant with five leaves.  People have used creeping cinquefoil for the tannic acids that can be found in its rootstock to treat different kinds of sickness and disinfect wounds.

Just now the central reservations of the dual carriageways are white with the blooms of the Oxeye Daisy, or Goldens as some people call them.   The specimen was about three feet tall.  They are growing so thickly we are hardly aware of the slender stiffened stems that are needed to lift the fragile daisy tops so high in the sky. 


But why is it an ox eye? Perhaps it is because the ox had the biggest eyes of all the animals in the farmyard, and this daisy has the biggest eye of the daisy family?  There is plenty of folk law attached to this plant, other names include Baldur's Brow (northern) Goldens, Marguerite, Moon Daisy, Horse Gowan (Scotland), Maudlin Daisy. Field Daisy. Dun Daisy (Somerset) Butter Daisy, Horse Daisy, Maudlinwort.

Amongst the many plants I looked up  was Goose grass.  It has a wide range of common names including Cleavers, Stickywilly, and Annual Bedstraw

Goose Grass, Clever, Annual Bedstraw or Stickywilly 

The genus (Gallium) is a member of the coffee family and the little seed balls can be gathered and roasted to make one of the best low caffeine coffee substitutes.  The young shoots are also edible; "young shoots and or tip of older plants raw or boiled 10/15 minutes. Serve warm with butter or olive oil, salt and pepper. Or, let them cool and use them in a variety of ways, salads, omelets et cetera."  (  

Goose grasses were used as bedstraws in medieval mattresses because after they are dried the matted foliage sticks together and maintains a uniform thickness.  
It is called Goose Grass because Geese love to eat it, silly me, I never thought of that!  With this new knowledge I picked some and took it to our two geese, Gordon and Maggy.  They ignored my offering, it was not bread.  The next day I tried again and Gordon started eating some.  Maggy thought she would try some too.  Gordon is often very protective towards Maggy, but goose grass turned him into a thug, he wouldn't share it with her at all, he wanted it all for himself.

Eventually Maggy slipped in, pinched a bunch and ran off to be out of Gordon's reach

Geese just love Goose Grass!