Did you ever notice that spring wildflowers often have funny names? What’s with “wort” being tagged on the end of these plants? Why the references to human anatomy? To me, one of the best parts of greeting these early bloomers is getting to know the often-fascinating history behind the name.
The term “Doctrine of Signatures” refers to an archaic belief that a plant’s physical resemblance to a part of the human body was a divine sign indicating that plant’s medicinal properties. Before modern medicine, the ailments of body and mind were most often treated with various tinctures, poultices, and pills concocted from wild plants. Sometimes these medicines worked, often they didn’t, and occasionally the treatment was more poisonous than the original malady! Regardless of their true effectiveness, plants with the root “wort” (meaning “herb,” derived from the Old English wyrt) in their common names were most often thought to possess medicinal qualities.
OK, so we know “wort” is telling us this plant once had some medicinal use. To guess at how it was used, look to the flower’s long, drooping, bell-like shape. It was thought the flower resembled the uvula, that rarely-seen and oft-forgotten little projection that sits at the back of our soft palate. The Latin genus, Uvularia, reflects this association. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, bellwort was used to treat throat problems, though its effectiveness remains unproven.
It’s hard to guess from looking at this beautiful, pure-white flower why it would ever have such a macabre name. Even the Latin genus, Sanguinaria, refers to blood. The answer lies underground in the roots, which when cut exude a deep orange, bloody-looking sap. Commonly used by American Indians as a dye, the sap was also used as a medicine. Pioneers would put a drop on a sugar cube to treat coughs that had turned bloody. This is a good example of a presumed medicine not actually helping the patient… the sap is actually poisonous when consumed in large doses!
Again, the genus Dentaria alludes to the presumed medicinal properties of this species. What’s so toothy about toothwort? Being in the mustard family of plants, this flower has only four petals. Before the bud blooms, its shape and white color are thought to resemble a human tooth! The rhizomous root is also rather tooth-like in appearance. As you might imagine, toothwort was used to treat toothaches. Its effectiveness is unproven.
The common name doubles as the genus for this plant. Hepatica refers to the three-lobed shape of the leaf, which resembles the lobes of a liver. This beautiful spring wildflower was once used to treat internal infections, though its effectiveness has not been proven.
Many more spring wildflowers await you out in Cleveland Metroparks! Stop out to see them soon, as they bloom for but a short time each season.