Bartlett On Gardening: What's in a Name?

Have you ever wondered why there are so many plants with “wort” in their names? Until recently, I assumed that all the worts must have been medieval medicinal plants and indeed many were. The word “wort” is the Old English term for vegetable or herb. Let’s have fun looking at some of these interesting plant names.

​​Our old pal Linnaeus thought the foliage of moneywort (left) looked like coins, and the name has stuck. He named fumewort for its flower shape. Pearlwort has small translucent white flowers, and the flowers of bellwort look like bells.

Folk tradition taught that bees gathered wax to make honeycombs from cerinthe. Thus it has the common name honeywort. This annual is worth growing. The unique flowers are held within pendulous bracts. It’s about 18 inches tall and wide. Look for seeds as I’ve never seen plants in a garden center.

The ancient Greeks thought the leaves of lungwort looked like diseased lungs. They took that as a sign from Olympus that the plant was useful for treating lung problems.

Feltwort (mullein) has wooly leaves. European settlers brought it to America because asthma sufferers smoked the dried flowers and roots for symptom relief. It must have worked because Native Americans quickly began smoking it for respiratory problems.

Soapwort leaves contain sapogenic glycosides. Soak crushed leaves in water to make liquid detergent. This detergent is used today to clean antique tapestries. The ancient Greeks used it as a diuretic.

In Europe mugwort (Atemesia vulgaris) was seen as a magically protective herb associated with John the Baptist. The Lakota believed North American native mugwort wormwood (aka sagewort) had the spiritual power to drive away evil. Both herbs were used as insect repellents.

Looking for a multi-purpose cure all? The ancient Greeks used ribwort (right) tea to treat fever, cough, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids as well as snake and insect bites. Catswort is so named because it is irresistible to cats. Tea made from the leaves was used into the modern era to treat ailments ranging from indigestion and diarrhea to arthritis, headaches, and hives. It was also used for fevers and coughs and as an insect repellent.

Motherwort, as the name implies, was used to treat many female health issues, cardiac problems, high blood pressure, stress and anxiety. Spiderwort tea was also used to treat a variety of female complaints as well as kidney and stomach problems. It may have gotten its name because it was used as a poultice to treat spider bites.

St John’s Wort is now thought of as an alternative mood stabilizer. In medieval times, it was harvested on St. John’s Day, June 24th, and then hung in homes to ward off evil, much as the Druids used mistletoe.

​​“Wort” sounds like “wart” and rhymes with “hort” as in horticulture. Worts were named for their appearance, use, or association. These plants give us a unique window

into past relationships between people and plants.

Ann Bartlett is The Planet's favorite master gardener, worts and all!

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