Wildflowers: What’s in a Name?

Written by: Alicia Daniel 

To walk in the woods in Arms Forest in Burlington’s New North End on a spring day in early May is to dip one’s toes into a pool of wildflowers.  The limestone outcrops are awash with wildflowers, lapping up against the trail edges along the northern and eastern parts of the forest.  Fat-lipped yellow lady slippers, fuchsia gaywings, ballooning Dutchman’s Breeches, and the tiny snowflake flowers of miterwort.  With a little imagination, yellow lady slippers do look like medieval slippers, Dutchman’s Breeches look like white bloomers hanging on a clothes line, but miterwort?  What does that even mean?  What is in that name?

Photo: The Mansfield Herbarium

All plants have common names and Latin or scientific names.  There is something to love about both.  Scientists prefer the Latin nomenclature because one name is consistent across languages and geographic locations.  But common names with local origin have a certain sass.  So let’s explore a few of the flower names in Arms Forest and nearby Ethan Allen Park from both perspectives.

Anyone who has named a baby (or a boat or cottage or a business) knows that a lot goes into choosing a name.  Names carry history and meaning.  Plant names can tell you the geographic place they are discovered, the person who discovered them, physical characteristics of the plant, medicinal uses (real or imagined) and more.

Let’s return to miterwort.  The capsule that holds the ripening seeds looks like a “miter,” the tall pointed hat with two peaks worn by a bishop.  Wort is from the old English for root or herb.  Thus the name miterwort takes us on a brief journey through time to arrive at an ancient language and religious apparel.

Bloodroot is an early blooming woodland wildflower with white petals and a bright yellow center.  The flower emerges in late April wrapped in a single basal leaf with five to seven lobes. It takes its common name and its Latin genus name “sanquinaria” quite literally from the blood red sap that oozes from its broken root.  This red-orange to yellow sap is found in the all members of the Poppy family, which includes Bloodroot.

Photo: American Medical Botany

Jack-in-the-pulpit a kind of trumpet with a long flap that curls over the top, is variously called Bog Onion, Cooter Wampee, Dragonroot, Devil’s Ear, Parson-in-the-Pulpit and more throughout its range.  The pulpit “Jack” stands in is sometimes all green, sometimes striped green and purplish-brown, with a great deal of variation.  Of course, not all the flowers are “Jacks;” some of them are “Jills.” And last year’s Jill could very well be this year’s Jack – and vice versa. Jack-in-the-pulpits change sex from year to year based on how much energy a plant contains in its corm, a bulbous underground stem that stores the plant’s carbohydrates.  Since producing fruit takes a lot of energy, the plants are female in years when they have stored enough energy to do so.  More on this flower at:

The low growing and lovely Hepatica is in the Buttercup family and recently renamed Anemone.  Hepatica refers to the three-lobed leaves that look like the three lobes of the human liver.  The name comes from hepaticus which is Greek for liver.  This way of naming emerged during a medicinal phase called the doctrine of signatures.  Europeans convinced one another that God put a sign on plants to help us know their medicinal uses.  So the three lobed hepatica was thought to help with liver aliments.

Wild Ginger and Indian Cucumber Root do have roots that taste of ginger and cucumber respectively.  But the Latin genus name for Indian Cucumber Root is Medeola was named after the sorceress Medea “because it was thought to possess rare medicinal properties, and medicine and sorcery have always been more or less confounded in the opinion of mankind,” wrote John Burroughs in 1894.  So the scientific name is just as likely to take flights of fancy as the common ones.

Do go for a hike through Arms Forest in late April and early May or in Ethan Allen Park along the path under the tower with a field guide and see where the wildflowers take you.  You may travel to ancient Greece, visit medieval Europe, or conjure up a parson in a pulpit in colonial times.


Featured photo: ‘hepatica’ from Diana Wood


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