What’s in a name? Exploring the story behind the names of our most beloved plants.

Have you ever experienced this unique moment that you listen to a name and your heart starts beating faster and louder? Have you ever felt that something unknown deep inside you is being touched by a magical spark and it starts vibrating and unfolding like a seed growing up or a flower that opens its petals under the sunlight? A word completely new to our consciousness that we have never heard before can vibrate in a frequency that is somehow familiar to our heart.

Stachys germanica

Photo: Stachys germanica. Photo credit: Maria Nikolouzou. The photo is taken with permission from the facebook page «Άγρια λουλούδια και μανιτάρια της Κέρκυρας» (Wild flowers and mushrooms of Corfu).

This is what happened to me when I first listened to the word Stachys. It was literally the first day I started walking on my herbal path. I offered to host a herbal weekend at my place, just because it was the most adequate place for an event like this in the given moment. The day before, I had a walk with the herbalist that would teach the workshop around my garden and the countryside close to the house, so that she would prepare a plant walk for the attendees. I looked for more than thirty plants during that day. Looking down to the earth, I could only see a green carpet in which everything looked more or less similar. It was impossible for me to differentiate between the parts of the greater image or remember a thing about each one of them.

I have to admit it! I was born with a talent to identify every little bird flying in a long distance from a spark of the wings but I couldn’t separate from each other these plants that were standing there without moving, providing me plenty of time to connect with them.

Suddenly, the word was spoken. “This is Stachys”… and then, silence. Nothing else was told. We stood there just looking at this thin, tall plant and I knew that, this was love in the first sight.

I never forgot this plant although I didn’t hear a thing about Stachys for many years to come.

Στάχυς 2

Photo: Stachys germanica. Photo credit: Eleni Christoforatou.

Many years passed since then and when I now look at the green carpet on the earth, I can see herbal friends and allies that have a permanent place in my heart and my everyday life. After many years of studying herbal medicine, it seems that I am coming to a place that this first emotional heartbeat about Stachys is transforming into knowledge, medicine, experience and a powerful plant ally.

It is very intriguing studying a plant like Stachys. This is a plant that was highly esteemed for centuries but now it is very rarely remembered. I highly recommend Matthew’s Wood “Book of Herbal Wisdom” as the best piece of modern literature on this plant. Personal experience is the other teacher provided.

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Photo: The Stachys’ growing close to the earth leaves, just before the long stalks emerge. According to Matthew Wood, this is a signature of “a remedy that helps establish rootedness, connectedness, earthiness and groundedness”. Photo Credit: Eleni Christoforatou

I quickly found out that this is a plant that works its miracles in low doses. This is the first thing someone realizes when trying to cure a headache with Stachys. The tincture will definitely affect the headache, for better or worse. Overdose is very easy to happen and this is where the herb stops working. Stachys taught me to proceed slowly and carefully, listening to my body symptoms and not to my mind’s wish to erase the headache in order to go back to accomplish my usual list of duties that will drain all my energy.

Headaches are a complicated issue, caused for so many different reasons that it wouldn’t be possible to be addressed by just one herb. However, my feeling is that most of the times that Stachys didn’t work is because people couldn’t slow down and make the effort to give themselves what they really needed which was rest and care.

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Photo: Early morning dewdrops on Stachys germanica leaves. Photo Credit: Eleni Christoforatou

I won’t write more about my personal experiments with this plant since this could be another post in itself. I have definitely dedicated myself to learn more about this amazing herb. And I started by trying to find out, what’s behind the name…

The current scientific name Stachys officinalis, Lamiaceae has replaced the older names Betonica officinalis (LINN.) and Stachys betonica (BENTH.). The word Betony or Wood Betony goes hand in hand with the word Stachys but the herb must be differentiated from the American Wood Betony which is a plant in the Scrophulariaceae family, Pedicularis spp.

The most known common names are Bishopwort and Woundwort while several other common names are attributed to different species. In Greece, the plant is called Stachys , Betonica, Betonka (Cephalonia) or Prionitis (Lakonia). In most old Greek herbal books, the herb will be found under the name Βετονίκη η φαρμακευτική.

Stachys is a greek word that immediately calls in our mind the word “stachy” meaning “the upper part, stem and seeds of the cereals” that somehow resemble Stachys with their long lanceolate shaped stems. Thinking about it, I took some dried stems in my hands. The dried tip of one of the flowers punctured a hole in my finger causing a sharp pain, resembling a nerve pain. Guess what! The etymology of the word Stachys in the greek dictionary is “sharp, acute, pinching a hole”.

Stachys molissima

 

Photo: Stachys mollissima. Photo credit: Maria Nikolouzou. The photo is taken with permission from the facebook page «Άγρια λουλούδια και μανιτάρια της Κέρκυρας» (Wild flowers and mushrooms of Corfu).

Isn’t it a great doctrine of signature for a plant that has been used for centuries as a first aid herb for wounds made in the battlefield by sharp pointed weapons?

Like the detective, I tried to research every bit of information about the name and the aforementioned realization revealed the next piece of the “name puzzle” which was that the word Betony comes from the word Vettonica, mentioned by Plinius as the common name of the plant which refers to Vettones, a people of Spain. They lived in the Iberian peninsula in the pre-Roman era and they probably were of Celtic ethnicity. The story of all Iberian tribes is rich in battles and wars before and during the years that followed the rise of the Roman Empire. Many Iberian tribes served as warriors in the Roman legions and participated to the greatest wars in human history which could be connected with the high esteem that Stachys holds in Spain. Furthermore, the most information available about Stachys comes from Antonius Musa (Αντώνιος Μούσας), physician to the emperor Augustus who wrote a whole book about the many virtues of Stachys.

And what about the common name “Bishopwort”? Mrs.Grieve in her book “A Modern Herbal” writes that Wood Betony “has sometimes, also, been called Bishops-wort, the reason of which is not evident”. You see, there was no possibility for Ms. Grieve to “google” the words Stachys and Bishop and immediately come up with the fact that Stachys was the 2nd Bishop in Byzantium, one of the 70 pupils of Jesus and a person very close and dear to Apostle Paul. There is probably a misconception here that has been going throughout history as I don’t think that the Bishop’s name comes from our herb. It probably comes from the word “Stachy” referring to the wheat plant which is highly esteemed by the eastern orthodox religious tradition and is often depicted in the byzantine sculptures and icons.

The same goes for Stachys, the star known also as Spica in the Virgo constellation which depicts Mother Mary holding an ear of wheat. Is this misconception a coincidence or there is something more in it?

There are still many things I hope to find out concerning the name of my favorite plant but I am amazed of how much better I can understand this herb by researching its name. I am eager to find out why Cephalonia is being mentioned as a place that Stachys was known with a slightly different name than the rest of Greece. Is it just because of the Italian touch to the name’s pronunciation or because Stachys was once a popular common herb that its use as medicine is now forgotten? I am also looking forward to infuse Stachys in olive oil and start using it as a wound plant or Woundwort, as it is one of its common names.

Every day I get more and more competent and experienced in using this plant and yes, it all started by a name!

 

 

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