Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bellybutton Hedgehogs and Piggyback Plants

My latest reading kick is a botanical one--I've been fascinated with plants the last few weeks. But one of the things that's fascinated me most about them has more to do with human creativity than any principle of botany: plants have some truly wonderful names. There's the Piggyback Plant, Bouncing Bet and Herb Robert, Grass of Parnassus, and Mother in Law's Tongue. There's Toadflax and its disreputable impersonator, the Bastard Toadflax. And there's my personal favorite, the Upright Snottygobble. As impessive as the plant kingdom is on its own terms, it's also one of the great showcases of linguistic virtuosity. What unknown poet named the stinging plant called Tread Softly, or the seemingly unclimbable Monkey Puzzle Tree? What lovestruck botanist saw a flower surrounded by lacy bracts and named it Love in a Mist? What heartbroken herbalist named Love Lies Bleeding? Who was the whimsical character that looked at fat little desert succulents and named them Warty Tiger Jaws, or Fairy Elephant's Feet?

Some plant names strike our fancy because they hint at the old and arcane. Liverwort, spleenwort, birthwort, toothwort, and several other worts got their names from the Doctrine of Signatures--the idea that a plant's shape was a clue to the illnesses it could cure. Liverworts look vaguely like a liver, and lungworts look like lungs (if you squint), so people figured they must be good for those organs. The suffix "-wort" still has an air of alchemical mystery, but it's really just an old word for "plant" or "herb". Even the word "herb" sounds more potent than "plant", or "weed", but it really has no particular botanical meaning. An herb is just a smallish, non-woody plant. It might heal you, yes, but then again it might kill you, if you are foolish enough to eat one with a name like Death Camas, Fly Poison, or Deadly Nightshade.

Many plant names come from a more religious time, when the Church and Bible were at the top of people's minds. Hence we have Friar's Cowls, Monkshoods, Bishop's Hats, Angel's Trumpet's, Job's Tears, Jacob's Ladder, and Solomon's Seal. From the darker side of theology we get Devil's Claws and Devil's Walkingsticks. Other plants evoke folk legends and mythology, like Fairy Slippers or the spiky Hercules' Club tree. Some plants carry warnings. The Touch Me Not's name is rather histrionic--its seed pods explode if you touch them, but it won't do anything more than surprise you. Dumbcane won't actually make you stupid, but it will make your tongue go numb. But some plant names truly mean business. Even a goat, which will happily eat poison ivy, will rue the day it ate Goat's Rue, and so will you, if you try it. The same goes for Dogbane. You don't want your cattle getting into a patch of Locoweed, also known as Staggerweed. As for the aforementioned Death Camas, eating that is about as well-advised as handling the snake called the Death Adder. What's in a name? A whole lot, in those cases.

Some plant names, like many words and phrases in general, are so familiar we forget how clever they really are. Larkspurs, formerly known as Lark's Heels, really do have spurs that look like a lark's heel's. Foxgloves are just the right size to slip on a fox's paws, and snapdragons will open their little dragon mouths if you squeeze their cheeks. Another plant whose name will give you an aha! moment if you stop and think about it is the Marsh Mallow. It's a kind of mallow that grows in the marshes, and it was once made into the confections know as Marshmallows.

Some plants are named for virtues, like Honesty and Obedience. Why do plants inspire such names? Can you imagine a species of rodent called Honesty? Legions of plants, of course, are named for their appearance. The Common Donkey Orchid looks just like a long-eared jackass, and Bleeding Hearts look like injured valentines. The carnivorous Cobra Plant looks just like a cobra, complete with a forked tongue emerging from under its hood, while the Snake Lilly winds serpent-like around other plants. The Old Man Cactus has wispy white spines like an old man's hair. Dutchman's Pipe and Dutchman's Breeches look just like they sound, but I can't figure out how Bear's Breeches got their name. Everyone knows bears don't wear breeches--just look at Winnie the Pooh. Finally, there are plants whose names just sound fittingly funny. The Boojum and the Baobab Tree both look like they were designed by Dr. Suess, and their names suit them perfectly, whatever they actually mean.

As great as plant names are, a more humble kingdom reaches even greater heights of nomemclature. I'm talking about the fungi--particularly their fruiting bodies, known as mushrooms or toadstools (a great word in its own right). Mushrooms have some of the best monikers ever. I'm just starting to learn about them, so I'll just mention some of the best ones I've found. There's the Freckled Dapperling and the Lawyer's Wig, the Silky Piggyback and the Dingy Agaric (which is dirty-looking, not airheaded). The Splendid Webcap and the Petticoat Mottlegill seem like well-dressed, classy fungi. But the Dung Roundhead and the Blue Green Slimehead look as disreputable as they sound, and Devil's Fingers and Dead Man's fingers are downright macabre. Most offensive of all is the Stinkhorn, which truly smells horrid, and as its scientific name--Phallus impudicus--suggests, it looks perfectly lewd. It's an ill-mannered fungus all-around. And then there are the dangerous ones: Death Cap, Destroying Angel, Poisonpie, Deadly Gallerina, and Beechwood Sickener. You don't pick a fight with a Hell's Angel, and you don't eat a Destroying Angel.

Some mushrooms are imminent enough to have single names worthy of philosophers or pop stars. In fact, one is called The Prince. There's also The Miller, The Gypsy, and a shady figure known as Deceiver. Along with the Weeping Widow, these sound archetypal and mysterious; like figures in a tarot deck. More whimsical mushrooms include Plums and Custard, Chicken of the Woods, Jelly Babies, and best of all, Bellybutton Hedgehogs. Like plants, many mushrooms get their names from fairytales: Fairy's Bonnets, Pixie Webcaps, Green Elfcups, and Elfin Saddles. Circles of mushrooms that sprout after a rain are known as Fairy Rings. Step inside a fairy ring, the legend says, and you may become enchanted. That's surely true, at least metaphorically speaking. The more I hear about the names of mushrooms and plants, the more enchanted I get.

No comments:

Post a Comment