Growing garden words.

Actually yes, a rose by any other name would be a teeny tiny bit different. To me.

Plant names and their associated old stories and romantic historic diversions have a huge impact on impressionable gardeners like me who were English majors with no related career (not healthy).  I become putty, putty in the  hands of dusty gardening books and ancient traditions and flower references found in early literature. I simply lose my mind and am not responsible for what I do and that includes ordering seeds of peculiar plants or ripping out grass to make bigger flower beds.

Here’s something that ambushed me a few years ago:

This perennial has many traditional names, but it’s often called Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi). It’s from the same plant family as the old-garden fringed pinks, but with smaller (about one inch wide) blooms, flowering stems two feet or more tall and (unfortunately) not fragrant. Mercilessly driven by the irresistible common name, I ordered the seed from Chiltern Seeds in far away England.

Somewhere in life I came to own a copy of John Gerard’s giant old herbal. The pages are photo-copied from the 1597 original, and there Gerard says this about Ragged Robin, which by the way he calls Wildefield Pinks, Cuckow flower and Crow-flowers:  

These are not used either in medicine or in nourishment:
but they serve for garlands & crowns, and to deck up gardens.

It leaves me breathless to think of my decked up garden, and of Gerard writing such things 400 years ago, and that these blooms are here like time travelers, linking my garden to those ancient times. Yikes.

Ragged Robin and MugwortBut wait, there’s more.

Even-better-even-better, this little flower makes a cameo appearance in nothing less than Hamlet (ca. 1602), traveling incognito in Ophelia’s garland!

Ophelia, bless her heart, has drowned (Act IV):

“There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies…”

Here again the plant is called  “crow-flower,” and I am just so happy that a more cheerful name for it has endured. (I probably wouldn’t have ordered seed from Chiltern for crow-flowers– Sorry Ophelia.) (And I know what you’re thinking and no, I don’t cultivate nettles.)

Ragged Robin and Mugwort

The images above show Ragged Robin growing with Mugwort in my garden today. (Ragged Robin and Mugwort would be great names maybe for cats, or  goldfish, or gnomes–probably not so much for actual children…)  Mugwort has its own rich trail of dreamy folklore, but that is another story.

Ragged Robin blooms by fence

I gather from zippy online reading that Ragged Robin is quickly disappearing as a wild-flower in Great Britain (see this Western Isles wildflower page about Scotland), due apparently to the draining of wet areas, although it grows just fine in my moderately watered flower beds. But perhaps the dryer conditions here control its self-seeding in my garden; it is rumored to have problems with personal boundaries in some locales.

For example, it is naturalized in parts of the U.S., mostly in the east, and Connecticut has it on their plants Blacklist.  But they have Dame’s Rocket on there too, and Forget-Me-Nots, so I do wonder if possibly the Connecticut List Committee may be suffering from an inadequate level of romance when it comes to wildflowers.

Ragged Robin doesn’t self-sow at all in my garden, it just pops up in the spring right where I settled it initially.  I have come to love its lacy pink dependability and the way it trails upward between other plants like a polite person moving through a crowd.

I particularly like how, as the truly ragged blooms just start to wilt, they look like they have been living in their car, disheveled, badly needing ironing, and that the plant seems totally unaware of these shortcomings. Instead it is oblivious, happy, sociable and confident.  (Ragged Robin never has to pay a therapist.)


About linniew

Unpublished novelist seeks therapy in gardening. Westie assists.
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10 Responses to Growing garden words.

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I never new the name of this plant and have seen it on rare occasion. It is a pretty renowned character to show up in a Shakespearean piece and another book 400 years ago. I am amazed you found this informational too. Certainly not something to jump out when reading Shakespeare.

    • linniew says:

      Thanks Donna– There are lots of reference sources to Shakespeare’s flowers — I have a whole book about them. The tricky part is deciphering the changing names, but that has largely already been done by the scholars so I just read and get all excited about it.

  2. Your in depth discussion of this plant with clever side comments was very fun to read. Maybe you should consider nettles. I have been told they are edible if cooked.

  3. Grace says:

    What a sweet plant and one with such a rich history. It definitely deserves to be in more gardens–including mine. 🙂

  4. Ginny says:

    I love this post. You have me wanting to run out and find dusty old gardening books to read. I just love thinking of Ragged Robin being used in garlands and crowns. And I love your description of how it trails upward between plants like a polite person. I hope you will do another post on Mugwort – I will be waiting eagerly to read it. Mugwort is a plant I would imagine being in a Harry Potter book.

    • linniew says:

      Dear Soul-mate Ginny,
      Sorry to hear you share with me this romantic-plant-history addiction, actually no it’s really fun! You would LOVE Lys de Bray’s Manual of Old-Fashioned Flowers, endless great stories there. It’s on my booklist at the top of this page… I’ll try to get back to mugwort sometime– likely it does grow at Hogworts.

  5. Interesting post! I enjoyed learning about this plant….a very beautiful and interesting plant.

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