Well I never thought I would say it ….I am getting sick of the rain. If it ever stops we will get on with spring. Already flowers are blooming in the deserts, the Sierra foothills and even the San Joaquin Valley. I suspect that April in West Marin is going to be very showy this year. To whet your appetite for the upcoming display I would like to share a few of my favorite flower word origins.

We have about 16 or so different lupines growing in Marin. They are familiar to every one that lives in the West. I was amazed to discover that the Texas Bluebonnet was just a lupine. The word literally means wolf. This name originates from two mistaken beliefs. Lupines belong to the pea family and one of the characteristics of this plant family is the ability to utilize atmospheric nitrogen. Special bacteria associated with the roots fix this important compound and enable these plants to live in very poor soils. The people in Europe noticed this and thought the lupines were robbing the soil of nutrients (first mistake) just like wolves rob people of food (second mistake.) The lupines actually nourish the soil and wolves don’t rob people. Wolves are just being wolves. But the name has stuck.

Deadly nightshade is a common garden weed and is found growing along fireroads and trails in moist, shaded places. It is also known as Belladonna. It belongs to the tomato/potato family which is not only known for some very fine foodstuffs but also a whole bevy of very toxic chemicals. By the way I have the perfect way to rid yourself of an unwanted spouse. Green potatoes. Everyone has noticed that potatoes left out in the sun will turn green. A poison is created in the green skin that is not destroyed by cooking and tends to concentrate in the liver. It may take 5, 10, 15 years or so for complete liver failure and death. Oh, green potatoes again tonight dear? By the way if this isn’t your plan, you should cut the green skin away to be safe.

Anyway, deadly nightshade has a poison in it called atropine, an antispasmodic drug that is an antidote for nerve gas. Physicians use it to dilate the pupils for examinations. The ladies in Italy did the same thing years ago to their eyes to enhance their beauty, hence the name Belladonna (pretty woman). The next logical question is ..”why are dilated pupils considered beautiful?” I’ll let you think about for a minute….hmm, de dum, dum…give up yet? One of the early signs of sexual excitation is dilation of the pupils. Blood also rushes to the cheeks (that’s why women wear rouge) and blood engorges the lips (lipstick enhances this effect). The nostrils swell a little bit too but they haven’t figured out a way to imitate that. In other words when most women get dressed up they are carefully approximating a sexual flush. My mother hates to hear that.

Daisy. Apparently some of these species that grow in Great Britain close up at night and in Old English were called “daeges eage” or days eye. This eventually evolved into our word, daisy.

Columbine. This beautiful red flower (blooming now) resembles a cluster of five doves all huddled together. From the latin for dove, columba, columbine means anything that is dovelike. The dove “heads” are the flower spurs reflexing back. On the inside of the spurs are nectaries containing sugar that hummingbirds feed on. The blue kind that grows in the Rockies is the state flower of Colorado.

Nasturtium. When I first visited Stinson Beach in the mid-1970’s I was envious of the abundance of nasturtiums that grew wildly over everything. This was a flower I had cultivated carefully in my garden in Tennessee, but here in West Marin it is an untamed burst of colors flowing out from tended gardens. The name is once again from latin, nasus “nose” and torquere “twist”. They have a peppery flavor that will literally “twist your nose.” The orange, yellow or red flowers make a great addition to a green salad.

Dandelion. Another common garden weed brought from Europe and it, of course, is from the French, dent de lion or the tooth of the lion. This refers to the serrated edges of the leaves which reminded someone of the snarl of a lion. The modern French however call this plant, pissenlit. Which literally means “piss in your bed.” The roots of dandelions are commonly dried and roasted and mixed with coffee. Both are diuretics, that is they take water out of tissues and put it in the bladder. A folk legend persists that he who picks a dandelion will pee in the bed that night. Ahh the French.



Posted on

August 23, 2009