Dew droplets glistened like tiny jewels on the blades of grass at the Diamond Grove Prairie Conservation Area. Walking quietly with binoculars in hand, I surveyed the horizon for birds. What caught my eye instead was a patch of brilliant blue.
Dancing on their tall, slender stems, blossoms of the spiderwort, a plant with many names and a wealth of folklore, drew me to a brushy edge in a wet swale of the prairie. I decided that this morning was perfect for more than just bird watching, and I retrieved a well-worn copy of Missouri Wildflowers from my car.
Feeling scientific and a bit poetic, I looked up the spiderwort and then information on a few other spring wildflowers. As I thumbed through my field guide, the names fascinated me: soapwort, rattlesnake master, Dutchman’s breeches, and Jacob’s ladder. I was inspired to investigate their legendary personalities.
Missouri’s woodlands, glades, wetlands, forests, bluffs, and prairies are filled with an abundance of plant life. Some flowers are easy to recognize and identify by common name. Others are lesser known and depend on Latin scientific names for accurate reference. Of course, there are those that stand out from the crowd both in form and identity.
The name Flora itself refers to the Roman goddess of spring and flowers. Today we use the term flora to refer to plants of a particular region or period. Native plants have long been revered for their reported medicinal or magical properties, both in folklore and in modern practice. A number of Missouri species were used as remedies for chronic ailments or as antidotes for venomous spider and snake bites. Others were believed to bring good luck or love at first sight or to be useful in casting spells. To this day many plants carry names that remain a part of Missouri’s legends. How did they get these names?
Wort’s in a Name
Many wildflowers found in Missouri have “wort” as an ending to their names: toothwort, bellwort, spiderwort, spleenwort, St. John’s wort, and ragwort. While it sounds like the word “wart,” it has nothing to do with bumps on the skin. Wort is a very old reference to plants that were used for medicine or food.
In Missouri, there are eight different species of spiderwort (Tradescantia), which also go by the names widow’s tears, blue jacket, and cow slobbers. Depending on whom you ask, the name spiderwort refers to the jointed stems, which resemble the legs of a spider, the web-like hairs found on the flower, or the belief that the plant had the ability to treat venomous spider bites. The name blue jacket is in reference to the bright blue-violet to blue flowers that this plant often displays.
Depending on the species, the beautiful three-petal flowers come in a variety of other colors, including purple and, rarely, rose or white, but blue is the most common. They are best viewed in early morning or on an overcast day. By noon, most blossoms will have withered in the heat of the sun until they resemble liquefied jelly droplets, hence the name widow’s tears. The tall stems contain a thick, mucus-like sap that has led some to call the plant by the rather unflattering name of cow slobbers.
Many plants have been used to treat human ailments. Names such as spleenwort (Asplenium) and liverleaf (Hepatica) have reference to such. It was widely believed that the shape of certain plants or their parts gave a clue to their medicinal powers. If a plant’s leaves were shaped like a liver, it was believed to hold the remedy for diseases affecting the liver. If it resembled a tooth, then it was good for toothache. If it was shaped like a kidney, then it somehow affected the function of the kidneys.
If you find yourself among the bluestem and brambles of a native Missouri prairie in summer, you may come across a hardy wildflower with a very tough-sounding name — the rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium),
or button snakeroot. Just as its name implies, parts of the plant were historically used to make an antidote for snakebites, especially those of rattlesnakes. At first glance, this plant, with its saw-toothed leaves, closely resembles the yucca even though the plants are from two distinctly different plant families.
Many other wildflowers have names that refer to treatment of venomous snakebites. These include species of blazing star (Liatris) and native coneflowers (Echinacea), both of which were known as snakeroot.
Color Me Wild
Color doesn’t just appear in the blossoms of wildflowers, but in their stems and roots as well. Native Americans and pioneers used many native plants as a source of dyes. One plant whose name tells of such use is the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Often found at the base of bluffs in rich, woodland soils, bloodroot plants send up a snow-white flower alongside a light green, curled leaf. After flowering, the blossom soon withers as the leaf unfolds. Deep beneath the soil lie the slender roots, or tubers, of this plant which are filled with a reddish- orange sap that easily stains both skin and cloth fibers.
In the same humus-rich soils as the bloodroot, one may find the light blue wildflower Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans). Like many wildflowers, the source of this plant’s name is unclear. It may be a reference to the Biblical character Jacob who dreamed of a ladder that spanned between Heaven and earth, or it may be named after a flexible rope ladder that was used on the sides of ships. With its sky blue flowers and ladder-like leaf structure, it is a favorite in the native garden and is often a companion of wild geraniums and columbines.
My Dear, Sweet William
As spring continues its gentle saunter into summer, other famous flowers appear. In the Ozarks, spring wouldn’t be spring without the lavender blossoms of wild sweet william, also known as blue phlox (Phlox divaricata).
Phlox is a shade-loving species that can be found in rich woodlands and along stream bluffs throughout the state. There are various fanciful stories surrounding how this plant received its name. Some say that it is related to centuries-old references to English ballads that spoke of young, love-struck men named William or even perhaps William Shakespeare. No matter the origin of its name, in a native garden wild sweet william is a striking gem that pairs well with other wildflowers to attract a variety of butterflies.
All About Looks
Other plants were named based upon their similarity to other everyday items. Some examples are Dutchman’s breeches, cardinal flower, and soapwort.
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), which are small, white flowers growing around wooded bluff areas in the spring, appear to be tiny pairs of breeches or pants that have been hung out to dry. Cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) are bright red, streamside wildflowers that are colored like the red cloaks worn by Catholic cardinals. Soapwort (Saponaria) gets its name from the soap-like sap in its stem that lathers when rubbed vigorously with water.
There are a great number of Missouri’s plants that carry names such as hound’s tongue and adder’s tongue due to their basal leaves. Adder’s tongue (Erythronium americanum) also goes by at least three other common names: dogtooth violet, fawn lily, and trout lily. It is said that the adder’s tongue name is derived from its early, emerging tongue-shaped leaves. As those same leaves unfold, they often have a mottled or spotted appearance like the spots on a brook trout or on a fawn. Its underground bulb is shaped like a dog’s canine tooth. Since Missouri does not have any adder snakes or native brook trout, and this plant is not related to violets, perhaps the name fawn lily fits it best.
One of the most interesting wildflowers in the state goes by the name jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). Somewhere in history, it was decided that the striped spathe, a deep, tubular, light-green structure with an over-laying flap, looked like an old-style pulpit. Inside the spathe, “stood” a little preacher, whom they named Jack. Scientifically “Jack” is a spadix, on which grow the actual flowers of the plant. The flowers may be either male or female. Alongside the flowering structure, there is usually
one or two leaves, each divided into three leaflets. After flowering, the “pulpit” withers, and pollinated female flowers develop bright red, poisonous berries.
Another name for jack-in-the-pulpit is Indian turnip. Some Native American tribes would dry the roots (corms) of the plant for medicinal purposes. The corms are poisonous and can cause pain to the tongue and lips by producing a severe needle-like, stinging sensation. The red berries are also toxic and are best left alone.
Missouri’s landscape is full of plants with lively names of interesting origins. While it is fun to learn about them, the folklore presented here regarding purported medicinal uses is for historical note only and is not to be taken as any sort of medical advice. Many plants have poisonous properties and should not be ingested.
Missouri’s native wildflowers are also protected on public lands from digging or disturbance. Some species are threatened by unlawful root digging, which can disrupt entire ecosystems. Wildflowers are best left in their natural setting for future generations to ponder and enjoy. Many popular species that are used for landscaping can be acquired as seeds or potted plants from nurseries that specialize in Missouri natives.
To learn more about these plants and others, explore our online Field Guide. The illustrated database contains information about the plants, where they grow, and their uses at mdc.mo.gov/node/73.
If you are a devotee of the state’s native plants, you’ll love the revised, sixth edition of Missouri Wildflowers. Descriptions cover plant characteristics, habitat, and range. No new species have been included in this edition, but the taxonomy has been updated in accordance with the most current naming conventions. Softcover, 296 pages. Available at MDC Nature Shops for $14. You can also order this book from MDC Nature Shop online at mdcnatureshop.com or by phone at 877-521-8632. Additional shipping and handling charges will apply.