From the time that I was very small, my father would take my mother, brother, and I up into the hills surrounding our little town, and drive us up and down narrow roads with barely a tire track worn into them. We would find our way down these paths so many times that we would give them names. My father also named trees, animals and plants for us whenever he spotted something he thought was interesting. Often, as we grew older, my brother and I would mumble some sort of affirmation that we had seen what he was pointing out, but our interest waned as our teenage years blossomed.
Who knew that a short time later, I'd want to know the name of everything, and what healing properties it might hold, and what its flower might look like, and how it might continue on, leaving seeds or spreading roots behind for next season.
How strange that my father used to tell me handfuls of odd names for plants I couldn't care less about, and now I want to remember why he calls creosote bush “buck-brush” (my guess is that it rather looks like stag horns when bare in the winter.) It's called greasewood too. And chapparal.
This is what folklore is, at its most basic. A family, community, spiritual or ethnic group develops and passes on stories and names, and ways of doing things, and tales about folks who have done things in a very bad way - in order to warn you off doing the same. Words have power in folklore. They point the way out of trouble and speak of healing and tell of a future mate if you twist the apple stem just right. But it's the naming that gets me every time. Often in relation to how a plant looked, or what animal might be attracted to it, the naming of flora stretches the imagination and flows from exotic, to practical, to plain silly.
Take mullein for example (a favourite of mine,) its folk names include hag's taper, Jupiter's staff, flannel leaf, torchwort, Quaker's rouge, and so many more. It looks quite like a torch, standing several feet high with its bright yellow flowers.
One of the other plants my father identified for me many years ago was "grouse-berry."
"Grouse-berry" is a low growing, spreading plant that can sometimes develop into a small shrub if trained. With pretty little jade leaves, the plant blossoms dainty and pink, and then forms bright red berries that attract grouse. "Grouse-berry" is actually bearberry. Other folk-names include crowberry, foxberry, uva-ursi, and when combined with tobacco or other plants for smudging or smoking, it is called kinnikinnick.
Another cheery yellow wildflower that pops up this time of year is toadflax. It has the most charming folk names: butter and eggs, calf's snout, dragon bush, dead man's bones, bridewort, and devil's flax, to name a few.
I always called it wild snapdragon.
When my older niece was a little girl, I took her for walks down by the river. As we made our way south, I'd tell her the names of several plants we saw, just like my father had done for me, and on the way back it would be her turn to name them. Once, when we arrived at the wild snapdragon I had pointed out, she struggled for the name. I offered to give her a hint, but she said "no - I know it," and then shouted "clap-lions!"
I laughed a bit more than I should have that day, but I've never forgotten my niece's first plant folk-name.
Are there any plant folk names that you or your family were partial to - or outright invented? Do name them for me!