The phrase “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’” usually means things are what they are, no matter what name they’re given.
The phrase is from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, one of several lines spoken by Juliet Capulet (Act 2, Scene 2) to herself on her balcony but overheard by Romeo Montague. Despite the long-standing feud between their two families, Juliet expresses her determination to see and love Romeo for himself, ignoring his family name and the baggage that comes with it.
I thought of this as I researched the names of various wildflowers I’m finding in Vermont’s woods this spring. There are the scientific names, which often have intriguing ties to Greek or Roman mythology, and then there are the common names, which are frequently more flamboyant and descriptive, with maybe a dash of folklore for spice. My small field book – Wildflowers of Vermont by Kate Carter – only offers hints and tidbits about common names, but usually enough to spark my curiosity.
So yes, this post is yet another example of me tumbling down a natural-world rabbit hole in my quest for knowledge. I’m sharing what I learned about these four woodland wildflowers so you won’t have to waste hours doing the same!
In the end, regardless of name, wildflowers are always beautiful in their natural setting, especially when – as I’m discovering in Vermont – they’re elusive and shy, requiring patience and persistence to find.
The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size.Gertrude Wister
On June 6th at 7:09 am I received a text from Sally, my neighbor across the road: “Have you seen the Lady’s Slippers in the woods near the Bear Field? Do you and Conall want to join me and Poppy?”
My immediate response: “No! Yes!” I had yet to see a Lady’s Slipper in the wild, and they were high on my list of wildflowers to find.
Lady’s Slipper are orchids, in the Orchidaceae family. The ones Sally pointed out to me that morning are Pink Lady’s Slippers. There are two other types in Vermont: Yellow, and Showy. (I remain on the lookout for the other two.)
An explanation of the flower’s name and the folklore associated with it from The Farmer’s Almanac: The genus name comes from two Greek words: cypris, which refers to a Greek myth about Aphrodite, and pedilon, which means “sandal.” This is partly how the delicate flower got its name—because it resembles a tiny’s lady’s slipper or moccasin. You’ll often hear them sometimes called “slipper orchids” or “moccasin flower.”
The pink lady’s slipper, Cypripedium acaule, is the state wildflower of New Hampshire and the provincial flower of Prince Edward Island, Canada. [This prompted me to Google Vermont’s state flower. It’s the red clover. How… common. Pretty, yes, but uninspiring as a state flower.]
These flowers have an interesting tale behind them. While it’s a common bit of folklore among Native Americans in the east, it also pops up in western folklore, too. Some attribute this story to the Ojibwe people, who lived in areas around the US Great Lakes and Canada. According to the legend, one winter had been a particularly hard one, with lots of people falling ill. They were in desperate need of medicine, but most of the men who would normally make the journey were too sick to go, so a woman snuck out of the village one night to get help for her people.The woman made it to the next village, got the medicine, and started her trip home—but the snow and ice made for a difficult journey. She kept going, but as she drew closer to home, the journey grew harder, and eventually, she found herself unable to walk. People from the village rescued her and brought the medicine back, saving not only her life but the lives of those who had fallen ill. And, as the legend goes, tiny slipper-like flowers grew in the places where her moccasins left prints in the snow—a reminder of her bravery and courage.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, of about 50 species of these orchids worldwide, over 30 are distributed in the Northern Hemisphere, with twelve in the U.S. For centuries Cypripedium species have been sought after and collected not only for their unique beauty but also for the medicinal trade. Widespread collection, attempts at transplantation, and loss of habitat have drastically reduced their numbers. Wild lady’s slippers have special requirements that make them difficult to cultivate, and rarely survive transplanting from the wild. Because of that, on federal lands it is illegal to dig or pick the orchids.
The University of New Hampshire Extension delves into the fascinating biological reasons its best to leave the orchids alone on their website. It is a long-standing myth that pink lady’s slippers are rare and that it is illegal to pick them, but this has been a very good thing for the species. Pink lady’s slippers grow in a narrow range of soil and climate conditions, making them very vulnerable to habitat destruction, climate change and over-picking.
They also do not transplant well or propagate from seed easily, and it can take a decade or longer for a plant to bloom for the first time. Though it is technically legal to dig up pink lady’s slippers on your own property and transplant them into your garden, such a practice is discouraged. Plants that are moved from one location to another often do not survive.
Paraphrasing now, like most orchids, Pink Lady’s Slippers rely on a specific fungus in the soil to germinate and grow. Unlike most seeds, though, those of Pink Lady Slippers don’t have food stored within them. Instead, a fungi breaks them open and attaches to them, passing food and nutrients to the embryo inside the seed, allowing it to germinate. As the plant grows, the symbiotic balance of the relationship shifts, with the roots providing food for the fungi.
Wildflowers aren’t meant to be cut and tamed. They’re meant to be loved and admired.Anthony T. Hincks
I’m quickly learning that there are many flowering plants with a common name that includes the word weed, giving them a bad rap.
Blasphemy, I say.
The plants are usually given such common names because farmers or gardeners consider them a nuisance. But pollinators love and depend on them. A few examples: Dandelion; Milkweed; Jewelweed; Sneezeweed; Ironweed; Joe-Pye weed; Staggerweed (aka Bleeding Heart); Pickerelweed. Since we depend on pollinators for our food, we need to stop demonizing certain wildflowers by calling them weeds and instead, let them participate in the dance of life that sustains us all on this planet.
Speaking of demonizing, this vibrant flowering plant – Orange Hawkweed – found blooming in the fields across the road and in my yard, is also known as Devil’s Paintbrush.
From a 2005 U.S. Forest Service bulletin titled Weed of the Week: Pliny, the Roman Naturalist [AD 23-79], believed that hawks fed on the plant to strengthen their eyesight and thus it became the Greek and Latin name for this and similar plants, called hawkweed. Common names: orange hawkweed, orange paintbrush, red daisy, flameweed, devil’s weed, grim-the-collier, devil’s-paintbrush, fox-and-cubs, king-devil, missionary weed. Native Origin: Europe; introduced as an ornamental for desirable flame-colored flowers.
Apparently in Maine, Orange Hawkweed was once called Burmah Weed or Missionary Weed, since its appearance in that area came shortly after the return of a missionary who had been converting natives of Burma.
And then I found this quote, from a time shortly after Shakespeare, painting an unusual yet vivid picture of the Orange Hawkweed flower:
The stalkes and cups of the floures are all set thicke with a blackish downe or hairinesse as it were the dust of coles.John Gerard, 1633
I’ve found a Yellow Hawkweed in the fields as well, also known as Meadow Hawkweed.
Blue-bead Lily (Clintonia)
This plant, with delicate and intricate flowers, is found in the cool, acidic forests of northeastern and north central North America, often near Indian Cucumber Root, Red Trillium, Hobblebush, and Striped Maple. The porcelain-blue berries produced by the flowers in late summer give the plant its common name, Blue-bead Lily. It’s scientific name – Clintonia – is a nod to a politician, a former New York governor, Dewitt Clinton, (1769-1828). (Personally, I prefer names referring to mythical figures.)
It was while moving through the trees and undergrowth to find and photograph the elusive Pink Ladies Slippers that I stumbled upon some Blue-bead Lilies growing nearby. Because their flowers are pale green-yellow, they blend in with their surroundings. They’re nowhere near as showy as the Pink Lady’s Slippers, or Orange Hawkweed, but now that I know what to look for – broad, shiny leaves at their base – I spot and appreciate more of them each time I’m out.
I look forward to seeing its berries this summer. According to the U.S. Forest Service, Transitioning from green to white, and ultimately to a deep porcelain blue, the berries of blue-bead lily, on stalks ranging from 4 to 16 inches in height, stand out in sharp contrast to greens and browns of the forest floor. These blue berries may look appetizing, but they are not blueberries. Although the berries aren’t poisonous, they are foul tasting and should be avoided.
According to Wikipedia, other common names for the plant include corn lily, poisonberry, or snakeberry. Some folklore associated with the plant: Hunters in North Quebec rubbed their traps with the roots because they believed bears were attracted to its odor. According to a Mi’kmaq tale, when a grass snake eats a poisonous toad, it slithers in rapid circles around a shoot of the blue-bead lily to transfer the poison to the plant.
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.Algernon Charles Swinburne
Confession: the first thing I learned when researching the name of this plant was that I’ve spent a lifetime mispronouncing the flavoring used in root beer and in the novelty drink I loved ordering at a certain restaurant (Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor) as a child growing up near Seattle. Instead of sarsaparilla, I called it sasparilla. Since I had a lisp until about second grade, maybe my parents figured that was close enough.
This is another wildflower I discovered by accident. I was kneeling in the dirt with my camera and head near the ground, black flies and mosquitoes buzzing all around, in order to get closeups of Canada Mayflowers and Creeping Dogwood with some tree trunks in the background.
When I got home and edited my photos, I noticed the two plants with big leaves on either side of the stone, back near the tree trunks, in the photo above. And then I noticed the spherical flowers hanging below them. The next day I went back and using the Google Lens app on my phone, learned they are Wild Sarsaparilla. (In my mind they’ll always be Wild Sasparilla. Old habits die hard. Or, don’t die at all, in my case.)
From the Wild Adirondacks website: Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis, part of the Ginseng family) is a wildflower that produces globe-shaped clusters of greenish-white flowers in spring. The species name (nudicaulis) comes from the Latin nudus (meaning naked) and cauli (stalk) because the flowers grow on a leaf-less stalk.
The common name (Wild Sarsaparilla) refers to the former use of the plant’s root as a substitute for sarsaparilla in making root beer. Alternate common names include Rabbit Root (a reference to reports that the plant is tasty to rabbits), False Spikenard, Small Spikenard, Sweet-root, Virginia-sarsaparilla, American-Sarsaparilla, and Wild Licorice.
The Oxford Dictionary defines sarsaparilla as “a preparation of the dried rhizomes of various plants, especially smilax, used to flavor some drinks and medicines and formerly as a tonic.” Think: root beer.
Sarsaparilla belongs to the Smilax genus. According to Wikipedia, Smilax is a genus of about 300–350 species found in the tropics and subtropics worldwide. They are climbing flowering plants, many of which are woody and/or thorny. Common names include catbriers, greenbriers, prickly-ivys and smilaxes. Sarsaparilla (also zarzaparrilla, sarsparilla) is a name used specifically for the Jamaican S. ornata as well as a catch-all term, in particular for American species.
That bit of information led to this: Greenbriers get their scientific name from the Greek myth of Crocus and the nymph Smilax. Though this myth has numerous forms, it always centers around the unfulfilled and tragic love of a mortal man who is turned into a flower, and a woodland nymph who is transformed into a brambly vine.
Which brings us full circle to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet which opened this post. Cool, huh?
Sarsaparilla has had many uses in this part of the world. More information from Wild Adirondack: The plant was reportedly used as food by the Indians during wars or when they were hunting since it is very sustaining. It was also used by native Americans to make teas. The Algonquin, Montagnais, and Iroquois reportedly used the berries to make wine. The Kwakiutl roasted the roots for food.
This plant had a much wider use among native Americans as a medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments. A number of groups, including the Mohegans, Abnaki, Cherokee, and Delaware, used the plant as a tonic. Wild Sarsaparilla was also used by many groups as a poultice for wounds, burns, or sores. The root was also used as a cough medicine.
White-tailed deer and moose eat wild sarsaparilla plants. Eastern chipmunks, striped skunks, black bears and red foxes consume the berries.
Now I’ve got two type of dark blue wild berries to look for in the woods this summer. (No wonder bear poop is so dark in color in the fall.)
And finally, coming back up for air after digging this deep rabbit hole, I offer this wonderful bit of trivia about the soft drink Dr. Pepper. I consume a lot of diet Dr. Pepper on a daily basis. It provide me with caffeine, which stimulates the production of cerebral spinal fluid and helps my body replenish what I lose through my leaky spinal dura. Since I don’t like coffee, diet Dr. Pepper has become my go-to caffeine delivery device.
But how does that tie into the theme of this post?
From Weebly: What are the 23 flavors [of Dr. Pepper]? The 23 flavors are cola, cherry, licorice, amaretto, almond, vanilla, blackberry, apricot, blackberry, caramel, pepper, anise, sarsaparilla [emphasis added], ginger, molasses, lemon, plum, orange, nutmeg, cardamon, all spice, coriander juniper, birch and prickly ash.
Feature photo: Pink Lady’s Slipper, Vermont woods, June 6, 2022. All photos mine unless otherwise noted.