Worts and All

When I first planted my garden, I was studying horticultural texts from the late medieval and early modern eras, and determined to have the same plants that I was reading about in my own backyard. In particular, I sought out plants that ended with the suffix wort, Old English and German for “plant” or “root”, believing that these ancient plants would connect me to the past–no matter what they looked like! And so, for the past decade or so, I’ve had some rather straggly plants in my garden just because of their heritage–or supposed heritage. Actually some “wort plants” are quite commonly used in modern gardens: varieties of stachys (woundwort), epimedium (barrenwort–containing an aphrodisiac essence), St. John’s Wort, pulmonaria (lungwort), the indestructible groundcover herniaria glabra (rupturewort, sometime called “burstwort”), saponaria (soapwort), astrantia major (masterwort). According to the Doctrine of Signatures and their appearance, the vernacular names of these plants reflect their uses. I have all of these plants in my garden still:  they survived our tough winter. However, it seems that some of my lesser-know wort plants did not: I seem to have lost my motherwort (leonurus cardiaca, of which Nicholas Culpepper commented in 1653, there is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart … and make a merry, cheerful, blithe soul for mothers and everyone else), the variety of campanula that is called “throatwort” is gone, as are many of my ferns, including a maidenhair variety referred to as “spleenwort” in the medieval herbals. Actually the motherwort was much too big for my garden, so I don’t think I’m going to miss it, or the very common mugwort (artemesia) which seems to be gone as well.  I ripped out my spiderwort (tradescantia) long ago because it was so ungainly, and I’m not convinced it was even that old: from the 17th century on, the word wort seems to be rather liberally applied to plants of all kind, even those from the New World.

Wort Fuchs Bloodwort-001

Wort Fuchs Hazelwort-001

Worts 002

Worts 004

Worts 005

Bloodwort and Hazelwort from Leonhard Fuchs’ New Herbal of 1543 (all plates available here; a great resource!); my surviving soapwort, lungwort, and barrrenwort.


11 responses to “Worts and All

  • diannefallon

    Fascinating. I have a lot of that lungwort (the plant with the blue flowers, right?). I didn’t know it was called lungwort. I purchased one or two plants at the annual York Garden club sale a few years back, and it loves the soil around here. I’ll have to look up its medicinal qualities — who knew?

  • mariathermann

    It’s so interesting that all these Wurzeln and Kraeuter are also calle Wort, since Wort means Word. What a great post, makes one come over all Cadfael and Ellis Peter. I can just imagine those plants being grown in tiny backyards of medieval houses in Luebeck, northern Germany, where I grew up (UNESCO World Heritage Site and all that). If anyone reads this and thinks, hey, where have I heard the name Luebeck before, look up Hanseatic League and Murnau’s Nosferatu silent film, which was partly filmed in my home town. It showes Dracula staggering past some of those little medieval mews gardens, which in Murnau’s day may well have contained some of your “worts”. Thanks so much for the lovely pics.

    • daseger

      Never been to Luebeck–and I know it’s my loss. It’s definitely on the list!

      • mariathermann

        If you ever get the chance, go in December for the Christmas market is on or during summer when they have various festivals happening. Be sure to take out a day at Wismar, a town in former East Germany, not so far from Luebeck…the other outdoor scenes of Murnau’s Nosferatu took place there, but I’m not recommending it for that, it’s just a lovely place to go.

  • D.L. Cote

    I’m sure you still have a lovely garden Donna, ‘wort’s and all!’

  • Matt

    One more reason I enjoy your company, Donna: you’re the only person I know who studies medieval horticultural texts when planning a garden.

    And, I can’t help but picture some 17th century Mick Jagger crooning about “mother’s little helper”, and meaning motherwort.

  • Richard Bevins

    I need to divide my spiderwort. How many hundred square feet do you need?

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