Michael McCarthy: Their majesty lies in their mystery

Nature Notebook
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The Independent Online

If I were asked what betony is – and did not know – I think I would say it was an obscure sin of the Catholic church, perhaps related to simony. "Father forgive me: I have committed betony."

I think I might say the same about agrimony, and maybe about melilot, and definitely about weld. "Is that all, my son?" "Well, Father..." "Yes?" "I have also committed agrimony, melilot and weld."

Good to get that off my chest. And I would Go In Peace. Yet these are not sins, which in a way is a pity, because they would surely be transgressions of the most exotic or, at least, the most specialised kind. They are English wild flowers, and I increasingly find them as charming in their names as they are in their appearance.

Betony is a member of the mint family with a dense purple flower head: I admired it last week enlivening the grassy rides of Chiddingfold Forest in Surrey. Agrimony, pictured, is a thin, intense-yellow spike, melilot is a yellow sort of lupin, and weld is another yellow spear that once was used as a source of dye.

While I love the look of all of them, I think their names are beginning to draw me in even more. I have tried to explain this to myself, and I think it is because they have lost meaning for us now, and so have an irreducible magic merely in their sound. Bird's-foot trefoil or woundwort are estimable plants both, but it's not difficult to work out why they're called that. But what about madder? Or gromwell? Or sainfoin? No immediate meaning there, only mystery.

The writer of recent times who most understood this sort of name-magic was Tolkien, and he took it to such extremes in 'The Lord of The Rings' with Boromir and Faramir, etc, that he opened himself to parody: I can't read the words "Gimli, Son of Gloin" without cracking up.

Yet some of his creations are enchanting: Lothlorien, with its hints of longing and loss, and Galadriel, the loveliest name of all. I often think Tolkien might have created tormentil: but no, that's just a tiny buttercup, as pretty to look at as it is to hear mentioned.

An ode to name-magic

There is a terrific poem about the allure of name-magic by Stephen Vincent Benét, pictured, the American writer from the first half of the 20th century (an exact contemporary of Hemingway, but much less well known). It begins: "I have fallen in love with American names", and if you Google it, you will not only find a wholly original and captivating piece of verse; you will come to the last line and exclaim out loud: "Oh! So that's where that comes from!"