Treacherous Origins of Common Plant Names

Forget-me-nots, the small blue flowers at the side of the road, are so called because a young man who was picking them for his lover tumbled into a river and drowned. His parting cry to his love? “Forget me not!”

The common red poppy is known as Blind Man because it was believed that you would go blind if you rubbed it on your eyes.

In medieval times, the Savin tree was nicknamed Bastard Killer due to the powerful abortifacient properties of its fruit. Middleton alludes to this practice in his play A Game of Chess: “To gather fruit, find nothing but the savin-tree/Too frequent in nuns’ orchards, and there planted/By all conjecture, to destroy fruit rather.”

The French word for dandelion is pissenlit. Direct translation: piss-in-the-bed. American and European folklore both hold that children who handle dandelions will wet the bed. What’s more, this isn’t just an urban legend: dandelions contain a powerful natural diuretic, which just might push weak bladders over the edge.

The wild Red Trillium is sometimes called Stinking Benjamin because of its rotting-carrion stench. In times when people believed the scent or appearance of a plant indicated what it was good for, people used Stinking Benjamin to treat a stinky disease—gangrene.

The Corpse Plant, or Indian Pipe, turns black and oozes a clear goo when picked. Said Alice Morse Earle, “It is the weirdest flower that grows, so palpably ghastly that we feel almost a cheerful satisfaction in the perfection of its performance and our own responsive thrill, just as we do in a good ghost story.”

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