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Lionsí Teeth and Gallant Soldiers

Bill Meredith

"Whatís in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." ÖShakespeare

One of the joys of gardening is that it lets your mind wander into unexpected places. While pulling weeds this spring, I found myself subconsciously naming each weed as I pulled it, and that led me to wonder how I knew their names. Obviously I had learned the Latin names (many of which I no longer remember) in botany courses, but it dawned on me that I had learned the common names as a very young child. From the time I could walk I followed my father and grandmother as they worked in the garden, and they always referred to weeds by name. They did not specifically teach the names to me; I just picked them up, the way all young children absorb information when all the world is new to them. So dandelion, smartweed, ragweed, dock, or pokeweed took on personalities; they were toys when I blew their seeds into the air, personal enemies when I got big enough to pull them, or sometimes friends when they turned up in salads.

When I got to college and started learning about plants, three things in particular surprised me. First, I had assumed that country folk had just made up the names I had learned as a toddler, but according to the reference books, nearly all of were correct and consistently used by botanists. Second, it turned out that very few of the common garden weeds were native to America; most were introduced from Europe. And third, my father was wrong about the commonest weed in the garden. He called it "smartweed," but he was vague about it, and there was another, very different, plant that also had that name. The textbooks verified that smartweed was the correct name of the second plant, but I could not find the correct name of the first one.

Names can be fascinating, as illustrated by the common dandelion. Its scientific name is Taraxacum officinale. The first part comes from an Arabic word, "Tharakhehakon," which in turn comes from two Greek words, "taraxos," which means disorder, and "akos," which means remedy. Dandelions were used by Greek physicians as a cure for several disorders, including liver and kidney diseases; they were brought to Egypt when Alexander the Great conquered that country around 330 B.C. The second part, officinale, means "of the shops;" dandelion roots were sold in European apothecary shops as an ingredient in several medicines and as a source of blue dye. As for the common name, the English "dandelion" is a mispronunciation of its French name, "dente de lion," which means "lionís teeth," a reference to the jagged edges of the leaves. (Dandelions had another French name that was based on the use of the roots to prepare an herbal medicine to stimulate the kidneys; the most polite translation I can think of is "wet the bed." The same X-rated name also exists in Spanish and Italian.)

Bits and pieces of this and other names were drifting randomly about in my head that day as I methodically weeded the onions, and at some point I realized that I still didnít know the name of that weed my father had misnamed. So that evening I got out my old books and finally found it. It has several names; technically it is Galinsoga parviflora. In this country it commonly is called raceweed, speedweed, Peruvian daisy or hairy galinsoga; in England it is called "gallant soldiers." It was obvious that the first two common names referred to the speed with which it grows and spreads through the garden, but the other names made no connections. Further research clearly was called for.

Over the next couple of days I discovered that this weed is native to Central and South America. Sometime in the 18th century some specimens were collected in Peru and brought to a museum in Europe to be classified. The plant was named in honor of a Spanish doctor, Mariano Martinez de Galinsoga; I was not able to find out why, but at least I now knew where the names "Peruvian daisy" and "hairy galinsoga" came from. The species name, parviflora, means "poor flower," an accurate description of the tiny blossoms. As for the English name, it turned out that some specimens were sent to a museum or botanical garden in England, and some seeds escaped; and true to its American name, it wasnít long before the weed spread to every garden in the country. Since it had no English or European name and the Latin name meant nothing to English farmers, they started mispronouncing "galinsoga" as "gallant soldiers."

This weed, and many others, got to America the same way my ancestors did. Thomas Meredith arrived on a sailing ship from Wales in 1800, and Peter Brown came from Ireland the same way in 1845. In addition to immigrants, ships in those days carried livestock, and hay for food and bedding; and mixed in among the hay were weed seeds. In addition to their meager belongings, my forbearers brought with them the names of all the garden weeds they had known in the old country; and when they arrived in West Virginia they found those weeds were there to greet them. So they continued the oral tradition of passing plant names to their children, just as I learned them. This explains why my father did not know the right name for the galinsoga; it probably had not reached their part of Wales when the Merediths left.

My generation is the last one in which the majority of families had gardens, so we are the end of the oral tradition that handed down plant names. To us, those names were practical knowledge; to later generations, as I learned from my students, they are of no interest. But "no interest" does not equate to "no value;" there is a heritage involved here. So in spare moments I have started writing out the names and descriptions of common weeds for my grandchildren. They are not interested in this now, but some day when they own their own homes and plant their first flower beds, they may be. And even if they are not, I will enjoy doing it for the memories it recalls.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith