There’s nothing quite like wandering around a garden nursery looking at all the various tiny plants that I’m far too stupid to actually manage. Of course you can say that about many things: there isn’t anything quite like building a multi-use sports arena out of nothing but discarded satellite TV dishes, for instance, unless you count building several single-use sports arenas all close up against each other. But that shouldn’t be counted against the fun of wandering around all these little rows of plants nestled in tiny plastic pots and reading how relentlessly Anglo-Saxon a name they can get, and what sorts of folklore attach to them.
Many plants enjoy these blunt, old-fashioned names that speak of their folkloric origin or of something we were trying to keep secret. Putting the secret right there in the name of the plant doesn’t seem to have worked but bear in mind, before the rise of mass printing where were we going to put secrets instead?
Shunted Gutter-Berrys, also known as King Pym’s Chortles. These are found lining the roofs that other, lesser, plants build to shelter them from the elements and clumsy, plummeting chipmunks. They have become invasive in parts of the country (any country) with a chipmunk shortage, such as the space between eight and twelve feet above the ground and away from all trees or other structures. A post-Columbian Exchange plant, these were first identified by settlers in Connecticut who asked the Indians what they were, and didn’t recognize sarcasm when they heard it. Their flowering between the 30th of April and the 1st of May is considered a sign that your calendar-maker ripped you off.
Whelking Bells. These purple-spotted, pink-leaved plants can be identified easily by considering how much more they look like whelks than anything else in the yard does, and by the RFID chips. They formed the basis for a popular children’s game during the 14th and 15th centuries, in which the youngest child would have to run out to find the greatest whelking bells they could, then fall over. The plant was introduced to England in 1905, and reintroduced in 1912, leading to embarrassment on both sides ten minutes later when they realized they’d forgotten each other’s name. Extractions from the roots are said to be good for wasting plampsy, mulledged unction, and severe cases of finger- and toenail infarction. These statements have not been evaluated by the United States Maritime Administration, which was caught off-guard by our requests. “We thought we did ships,” they said, and wouldn’t they?
Gallivanting Tooth-Fire. These small plants, originally found in Rhode Island, form hard shells and stay close to the ground where they can complain about the music, and were traditionally given out as candy to disliked children and told they were marshmallows. This inspired westward migration, and Roger Williams alone is said to have founded over twenty new settlements just to stop dealing with them. The plant is now considered an endangered species because of how it’s on fire, and the state’s residents use johnnycakes to get rid of people instead.
Jack Ketch’s Wort. This is a grubby little dark-green vine with several long, dangling upshoots which it uses to grab tomatoes or small fruits from the ground and throw it, laughing, at the garage or any other large structure on the property. Folklore has it these plants are good fortune when they appear in the neighbor’s yard and catastrophic for yours, unless you park too close to the property line. According to myth, the plants were formed when Titania, feeling wistful or as the contemporary word had it, worstfelled, went to Oberon and said “we didn’t have any sorts of plants that could go there”, whereupon Oberon said, “even if we had plants to go there you wouldn’t want them.” The spurred Titania stomped off to meet with Erebus, who, being part of the Greek mythology, was dumbfounded to find himself there and gave something from the back of the fridge he had been planning to have as leftovers for the past three centuries. Titania examined the curious weed and threw it out, leaving the origins of the wort to the marketing department instead.