Ever wonder why there are so many plants in the world ending in –wort? Yeah, me neither, but it’s actually a pretty good question if you think about it for a minute. I mean, there’s adderwort, asterwort, awlwort, banewort, barrenwort, bearwort, bellwort, birthwort, bishop’s wort, bitterwort, bladderwort, blawort, bloodwort, blushwort, bogwort, boragewort, brotherwort, bullwort, burstwort and butterwort, and that just takes us through the b’s, with me skipping some of the duller ones. I could, in fact, go on and on for quite some time, but I believe you get the picture.
Recently, the question came up and I decided to do a little reading on the subject of wort plants. As it turns out, –wort is a suffix that’s derived from the Old English word wyrt, which is related to the even older term meaning root. Back in the day, it was generally used to indicate that a plant had some medicinal value and it was often attached to the word for the body part that it was believed to help. Although there were instances when a plant was named based on the fact that it actually provided relief for a given health problem (like feverwort or sleepwort), as often as not it would just be named for whichever component of the human anatomy that it most resembled, with the person naming it working under the assumption that if it looked a little like a specific body part, then surely it must be good for it in some way.
This rationale explains how we wound up with kidneywort, liverwort and spleenwort, none of which actually turned out to be beneficial to their namesake organs. As a matter of fact, liverwort can be fatal if taken in large doses. What I personally find more compelling however, are some of the other members of the wort family and the question of just what problems they were expected to resolve.
And so, with a better understanding of the meaning of the word under our belts, I thought it might be fun to examine more closely the wort specimen with the most exceptionally intriguing name, the noble nipplewort.
Nipplewort is a native of Europe and southwest Asia, but the plant has naturalized over the years to the point that it can now be found growing throughout the world, including in the American West. Its botanical name is Lampsana communis, which for me brings to mind a festive Asian celebration with a profusion of colorful lanterns everywhere, but for which I cannot find a literal Latin translation for the life of me.* The plant is a member of the sunflower family, and it’s generally considered a weed anywhere that it grows readily. Small yellow blooms resembling a dandelion flower appear on its stems from early spring through mid-summer.
Before these buds open however, they look a lot more like a human nipple than they do a dandelion, though I think it could successfully be argued that you’d almost have to have nipples on the brain in order to see it if you didn’t know what you were looking for. At any rate, the Europeans who named the plant decided that it looked enough like a nipple that it should make a good cure for breast ulcers and cracked nipples (a condition that I was completely and blissfully unaware of up until just this week). And so, nipplewort received its name.**
I should point out here that modern science has not shown that nipplewort is capable of solving these or any other medical issues, though it is considered safe to eat the greens, either raw or cooked. I also feel compelled to share the fact that it apparently doesn’t taste great and that its foliage is not only bitter, but also hairy, an especially unappealing characteristic for any plant that is named after nipples.
Well, that’s our post for today, ladies and gents. I do hope that you feel you’ve learned something worth knowing as I, for one, certainly have. I now know, for example, that our European forefathers were pervier than I’d ever realized and also that cracked nipples are a very real thing.