Stephen plants and Mary plants

By Inger Larsson

In: Ortnamnssällskapets i Uppsala årsskrift 2020


A given plant may be known by many different historical names, and a particular name may in turn refer to several different plants. Not until the publication of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum in 1753 was every plant given a unique, internationally recognised scientific name, consisting of a generic and a specific name. Today, there are ‘approved’ Swedish names for all the native plants of Sweden, but standardisation of these vernacular names did not begin until the 20th century. Historically, the plants that tended to be given names by local communities were ones that were considered useful in some way. Folk names for plants often tell us something about their supposed properties or uses, and not uncommonly they refer to biblical figures or saints, such as the Virgin Mary, John, St Stephen and St Bridget (Birgitta). In this essay, the focus is on Stephen and Mary.

Only four different plants have at some time in history had Swedish names alluding to St Stephen (Stefan or Staffan): Delphinium staphisagria [stavesacre], known by the names stefansfrö ‘Stephen’s seed’, staffansört ‘Stephen’s wort’ and staffanskorn ‘Stephen’s grain’; Pedicularis palustris [marsh lousewort], with the names staffansgräs ‘Stephen’s grass’ and S:t Staffanskorn ‘St Stephen’s grain’; Conium maculatum [hemlock], known as Stephansyrt ‘Stephen’s wort’; and Circaea lutetiana [enchanter’s nightshade], with the name Stephansört ‘Stephen’s wort’. These plants have all been regarded at some time and in some place as medicinal. Three of them were used in veterinary medicine, and their names may have to do with the fact that Stephen was the patron saint of horses. The medieval cult of St Stephen (Staffan) was widespread and well known in Sweden, and the song Staffansvisan, referring to Stephen watering his horses, is still very much alive.

A biblical figure who has featured all the more in the naming of plants is the Virgin Mary. In Swedish, there are around 120 different names, for some 60 different plants, containing Maria, jungfru Maria, jungfru or vår fru (‘Mary’, ‘the Virgin Mary’, ‘Virgin’ or ‘Our Lady’). These plants appear in literature, visual art, music, mythology, legends and folk tradition as symbols of Mary and of characteristics ascribed to her. Many of them have been regarded as important healing plants in women’s medicine, and a relatively large number have been considered to affect menstruation or have abortive properties. One example is Alchemilla vulgaris, lady’s mantle, with ten known names referring to Mary: Mariekåpa ‘Mary’s cape’, Jungfru Marie kåpa ‘Virgin Mary’s cape’, Marie kåpgräs ‘Mary’s cape grass’, Jungfru Marie kåpört ‘Virgin Mary’s capewort’, Jungfru Maria tvättskålar ‘Virgin Mary’s wash basins’, Jungfru Marias förkläde ‘Virgin Mary’s apron’, Jungfru Marias kjol ‘Virgin Mary’s skirt’, Mariekrage ‘Mary’s collar’, Vårfrukåpa ‘Our Lady’s cape’ and Vårfrumantel ‘Our Lady’s mantle’.

From the point of view of the reasons for names, those referring to Mary can undoubtedly be said to form a group of their own, in that many of the plants concerned were believed to have properties relevant to women’s medicine; the names may have been a way of communicating knowledge about women for women and among women, relating to vital but sensitive issues. As for the names alluding to Stephen, we have only a handful of examples, but I would nevertheless suggest, with some hesitation, that they too form a group of their own in terms of the reasons for giving them.