Flora and Folklore

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Published on: Jul. 15, 2014

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

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