Monday, August 12, 2019

Word of the day: flea-bane

Elaine and I went on a walk not long ago, following the paths through a ten-acre wildflower-covered prairie (“Savanna,” someone corrected) on the property of friends who live out in the country. Way out in the country. Our guide would pause every so often to point to and talk about a plant or tree or some change in the natural world. Many of the people on this walk are as knowledgeable as our guide is: they know the Latin and common names of countless species. I know a small number of flowers, mostly from literature — gentians, daffodils, sunflowers, Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans. I didn’t see any daffodils on our walk. I did see lots of Queen Anne’s lace. It occurred to me at one point that I must resemble a person for whom most of the paintings in a museum register only as “art” and “more art”: I saw mostly “flowers,” and “more flowers.” But I still found this walk through nature a beautiful, restorative experience. And because I asked about one tiny flower I’ve seen many times in town, I brought back a word: flea-bane. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as

a name given to various plants: esp.

a. A book-name for the genus Inula (or Pulicaria), esp. Inula dysenterica and I. Pulicaria.

b. A book-name for the genus Erigeron, esp. E. acre (called also blue fleabane).

c. Applied to Plantago Psyllium (from the appearance of the seed).
The dictionary’s first citation for flea-bane is from William Turner’s Names of Herbes (1548): “Coniza maye be called in englishe Flebayne.” Yes, Conyza is yet another (Latin) name for flea-bane. And yes, Inula dysenterica was used to treat dysentery.

Out on the prairie, I was already wondering if flea-bane is trouble for fleas. And indeed, the dictionary’s second citation confirms it. From Thomas Hill’s Arte Gardening (1593): “The Gnats also be . . . chased away with the decoction of the herbe named Flebane, sprinckled on the beds.” And here’s a page of botanical lore that describes flea-bane being burned to repel fleas and other insects. Flea-bane, bane of fleas!

Back in the OED, the word flea has since 700 signified “a small wingless insect (or genus of insects, Pulex, the common flea being P. irritans), well known for its biting propensities and its agility in leaping; it feeds on the blood of man and of some other animals.” From Geoffrey Chaucer, The Manciple’s Prologue (c. 1386): “Hast thou had fleen al night or artow dronke?”

And sometime before 800, bane signified “a slayer or murderer; one who causes the death or destruction of another.” By 1398 the word meant “poison” and was joined to other words to name poisonous plants or substances. For instance, wolf’s bane or wolfbane. (As in vampire movies, right?)

I did not get a photograph of the prairie’s flea-bane: I was too busy seeing. But here’s a particularly good photograph of some other flea-bane, via Wikipedia.

And here, to provide a stately ending to this post, is an observation Elaine and I just encountered in a little anthology of writing about walking. From Richard Jeffries, Nature Near London (1905): “It is not only what you actually see along the path, but what you remember to have seen, that gives it its beauty.” I remember flea-bane.

See also Verlyn Klinkenborg’s account of “deep taxonomic yearning.” And thanks to Stefan Hagemann for reminding me of the Klinkenborg passage.

Further reading
Savanna vs. prairie

comments: 5

Pete said...

Despite letting our yard go organic and seeing it fill up with random native vegetation (I won’t say “weeds” - too judgmental), I am woefully ignorant about any of their proper names. But I love them all - even the dandelions.

I’m sure you already know this, but in case you don’t: Queen Anne’s Lace is wild carrot. Pull one up and smell the root, and you’ll see what I mean.

Daughter Number Three said...

I know that flea-bane is native, but when I see it appear in my yard or in the public gardens I work in, which are oriented to pollinators and have a lot of native plants, I pull it because it's pretty aggressive and not (I hate to admit I use this word) showy enough, with its tiny flowers.

Some other native plants that many knowledgeable gardeners remove because of their weedy habits: Virginia waterleaf, white snakeroot, and Canada goldenrod. I'm sure there are others, but those are the ones that come to mind right away.

I haven't seen a prairie with flea-bane in it, though. Maybe if I looked at more prairies I would change my mind.

Chris said...

There are also several plants called baneberry, including Actaea pachypoda, which looks like doll's eyes on a stalk and is highly toxic.

Michael Leddy said...

@Pete: I know the name “wild carrot” from William Carlos Williams — “the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf” — but I’ve never pulled one up for smelling. I will.

@DN3: The flea-bane in this prairie was a tiny detail, on the edge of a path, not even a featured player. Goldenrod I think I know from vacant lots — does that sound right?

@DN3 and @Chris: I feel my lack of knowledge deepening, or widening, or both. :)

Daughter Number Three said...

@Chris: I have baneberry growing in my back yard... yes, it's toxic, but also beautiful and I don't have anyone around who would try nibbling on it. Animals know better, generally, and there are no children about these parts. The doll's eyes (berries) are beautiful.