Jul 28 2012
Pictured above is shrubby St John’s wort, one of the many plants that share my last name.
Most St John’s worts are in the Hypericum genus, the most common being Hypericum perforatum. Originally from Europe, Common St John’s wort got its name because it’s harvested for folklore and medicinal reasons on St. John the Baptist Day, June 24. My husband’s family was undoubtedly named for St. John as well.
Where did ‘wort’ come from? It’s an Old English word of Germanic origin that means “root.” Similar sounding words for root existed in Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse and Gothic.
It’s no surprise then that many European plants have wort in their English names. For instance: bellwort, bladderwort, golden ragwort, hogwort (yes, it’s a plant) and miterwort. Plants are often named for their medicinal uses so you’ll find names like toothwort and liverwort. But this can be misleading. Were they named because they were good for treating toothache or liver trouble? Or because their leaves looked like teeth or liver spots?
As time passed wort fell out of use and the “St John’s wort” name spread to plants outside the Hypericum genus. In North America, Marsh St Johns wort (Triadenum virginicum), pictured below, is not a Hypericum and is not even yellow so I’m not sure how it got its common name.
It’s pretty and pink.
But since it’s a St John’s wort I can call it “my root” too.
(photos by Dianne Machesney)