Dear Miss Floribunda,
My witch hazel is blooming, and I love the smell of its yellow flowers, which look like curls to me. While I admit the little tree does look kind of scraggly, like an old hag, or maybe even an old scag with bed head, I don’t know why it’s called a “witch.” It doesn’t seem fair, although I admit it’s fun to have something with a name like that in my garden at Halloween. I have some spider wart [sic] too, and that has pretty purple flowers. They don’t look like spiders with warts or warts from a spider bite. How do nice plants get bad names?
Puzzled on Powhatan Street
Let’s apply a little etymology to our botany. I turned to my old professor, Dr. Wordsworth Worterbuch, for help. He explained that the “witch” in witch-hazel comes from the Middle English “wiche,” evolved from Old English “wice,” and means “flexible.” Its flexible twigs were used as divining rods, so it’s not hard to see how “wiche” became “witch.” To reinforce this idea, the bark has medicinal qualities that have been effectively employed by folk healers — who sometimes have practiced darker arts. Its modern use is mostly as an astringent. The “hazel” comes from “haesel,” which referred to any tree in what was long ago considered part of the pine family. Witch hazel is not a pine, nor is it related to the hazel tree (corylus). I surmise from the autumn-blooming time that your shrub is our own native Hamamelis virginiana, whose late-season berries are a boon to birds.Witch hazel is entirely benevolent.
Your spiderwort is not the only plant to sound distasteful because the word “wort” gets confused with “wart.” Dr. Worterbuch would like for you to know that “wort” means “plant” in Middle English, derived from the Old English “wyrt” or herb. I can tell you that “spider” describes the plant’s sprawling habit rather than the flowers themselves. Once again, I find myself having to defend spiders — which rarely bite people and certainly don’t cause warts — but in any case, you can get around the negative associations the name has for you by calling it by another of its names. Although I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to choose it, another of its names is “cow slobber.” Then there’s “widow’s tears,” which may be lugubrious, but at least it’s poetic. The name “trinity flower” alludes to the three luminous petals that form the flower’s corolla. Or you could call it by its Latin name, tradescantia. Your spider wort is Tradescantia virginiana, a beneficial native plant that harbors many pollinators. By the way, there are many, many other plants with “wort” in their names, and I am particularly glad that the charming little forget-me-not (myosotis) is rarely called “scorpionwort” any more. Harry Potter fans might be interested to know that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was consciously named by J.K. Rowling after the plant known as “hogwort,” or croton. The kind of croton that grows in England produces a substance used in making blue dyes, and was among the ingredients in the paints that illuminated medieval manuscripts. The native American variety is called Croton alabamensis, and is an easy-to-grow ornamental shrub, with yellow flower clusters and bright orange leaves in autumn. It should not be confused with the toxic hogweed (heracleum) that causes blisters when touched.
On the other hand, some plants get the names they deserve. Skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) really does smell like an annoyed skunk. Very elegant with its furled yellow flower, it is related to the deliciously scented arum lily. (As we all know, family members can differ markedly in their characteristics and personalities.) Although skunk cabbage is a native plant, most would agree that it would be taking local pride too far to include it in any garden. Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is indeed deadly, and it’s commonly called belladonna (“beautiful lady”) because women in the past dared to use tiny doses of its oil to enlarge their pupils for what was assumed to be seductive effect. As with the use of arsenic to blanch the skin, fashion can be fatal. In our hemisphere, we have toxic belladonna relatives. One is jimson weed (aka devil’s snare aka locoweed) which is a hallucinogenic that has tempted curious teenagers. Another is henbane, and here the word “bane” in the plant’s name is to be taken very seriously. Bane comes from “bana,” which in Middle English means “poison.” Henbane, dogbane, wolfsbane — any kind of bane kills the animal cited in the name and anyone else who dares eat them. In miniscule quantities, they are effectively used in medicine, but they should not be in the garden — not even at Halloween. The beautiful wolfsbane (aconitum), with its splendid spikes of blue-purple flowers, has been used by poisoners for centuries. The most notorious was Dr. Henry George Lanson, who was hanged in 1882 when discovered to have used aconite to poison his wife’s rich brother in order to finance his morphine habit.
Dr. Worterbuch informs me that the word “weed” refers to the old English “weod,” which originally meant only “grass.” In the 17th century it referred to tobacco, and perhaps from that practice on to marijuana. He doesn’t know exactly when the word took on the meaning of an unwelcome plant. Certainly neither the butterfly-attracting milkweed nor the beautiful magenta-flowered ironweed are considered weeds in the pejorative sense. Other languages, such as Spanish and French, refer to what we call weeds simply as “bad grass.”
For more gardening lore, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, Oct. 21 from 10 a.m. to noon at the home of Joe Buriel and Dave Roeder on 3909 Longfellow Street. There will be a plant exchange after the meeting.