Balms, Banes, and Worts: Plant Name Curiosities

Balms, Banes, and Worts: Plant Name Curiosities  

By Steve Roark

As a wildflower enthusiast and more recently a student of medicinal plants, I keep running across plants with recurring name components.  The terms balm, bane, and wort come up often,  so I decided to see why.  Prepare to delve into the world of ethnobotany, the study of plants used by humans.


All three terms were added to useful plants back in the day to indicate what they were good for. The term “balm” is probably familiar, and refers to something applied as a medicinal ointment, such as a salve. Locally I’ve ran across three plants with this name.  Beebalm is a fragrant mint with large handsome flowers.  It has antiseptic and antibacterial properties and was applied as a compress or made into an ointment to relieve pain and promote healing of minor wounds and insect bites/stings. Lemon Balm is also a mint that was believed to the same healing properties.  Balm of Gilead is a tree not native to our area but was brought in and planted for its resinous winter buds, which contain a resin used to make a healing salve.

A “bane” is defined as something causing great distress or harm.  Its origin is the old English word “bana”, meaning destroyer or something causing death.  In botany it’s an archaic term referring to plants that are toxic or poisonous. It also was used to name some plants thought to have prophylactic (disease preventing) qualities.  Locally we have several plant banes: Daisy Fleabane is an aster-like white flowering plant that is a common yard weed. It is thought to have insect repelling properties, and back in the day when mattresses were homemade of straw, Fleabane was added to repel fleas. Wolfbane, also known as Monkshood, is a purple wildflower that is highly toxic.  It was used to make poison tipped arrows to better assure a kill, one target being dangerous rivals like wolves. Henbane is poisonous but not to chickens.  The word “hen” may be a derivation of the word “bhelena”, which means “crazy plant”.  Misused, henbane can cause hallucinations and death.

By far the most common term in plant names that refer to their use is “wort”. It is derived from the old English “wryt”, which means root, and a there are many local plants with this name.  Wort is used to indicate plants or herbs that have a medicinal use, with the first part of the name denoting the complaint the plant can be used for. For instance, Toothwort is a white flowering plant that was used to treat a toothache. Lungwort, an earlier name for Virginia Bluebell, was used to treat lung ailments like tuberculosis and whooping cough.  Another name for Red Trillium is birthwort, which was used to induce labor or ease labor pain.  Spleenwort is a small fern that was used to treat disorders of the spleen. Spiderwort is a purple blooming flower that was used to treat insect bites.  A very popular   herbal medicine found in most drug stores is St. John’s Wort, a yellow flowering plant that traditionally blooms on St. John’s Day (June 24), a day celebrated by the Freemasons in honor of John the Baptist. It is reported to have calming qualities.

The list of local plants that were traditionally used for medicinal purposes is long.  So much so that a long ago wild plant collector from east Tennessee once said: “The good Lord has put these yarbs here for man to make hisself well with.  They is a yarb, could we but find it, to cure every illness.”

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Why We Love the Mountains

Why We Love the Mountains  

By Steve Roark

Mountains seem to be a universal attraction to people no matter where they come from.  To we who were born and raised in them, they are especially endearing because they were the constant backdrop of our lives: their beauty, their challenges, and their molding of the culture of our ancestors that was passed on to us. Mountains are special, but what is it about them that everybody falls in love with?  This will sound over-simplistic, but the answer is their 3-dimensional terrain. Let me explain.

We love to see mountains, either looking up at them from below, or looking out over them from their peaks. This is only possible because they have the 3rd dimension of height and so can be seen miles away. They are also sculpted with ridges, valleys, streams, and cliffs that add to their beauty. Because they are steep and rugged, they weren’t cleared for farming, and so have skin made of forests that annually change the look of the mountains four times during the seasons. The bright colors of spring and fall, the multi-shades of green of summer, and the gray-brown bareness of winter (occasionally brightened with snow) all have their own beauty.


We love the mountains because of their diversity of life. Ours have over a thousand herbaceous plant species and over 130 woody plants that in turn provide food and shelter for a plethora of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, bugs, and fish.  Why all the diversity? Again, it’s the 3-D terrain. The bumpiness of the mountains creates a patchwork micro-climates that each supports different plant cover types. Ridges are dry, drains are moist.  East and north facing slopes have moist soils, south and west slopes are dry. Cliffs, rocky places, shallow soil sites, all have their own version of plant and animal populations.   The variety of life in the mountains is truly astonishing, and second only to the tropics

We love the mountains for it’s culture.  Mountain living was challenging to the native American and European settlers who moved into them.  Families were isolated. Medical care was almost non-existent, and illness was treated at home using mountain herbs. Self-sufficiency was a necessary trait, and yet neighbors knew each other and helped when help was needed. Contact with the world outside of the mountains was rare, and so change came slowly, and old traditions stayed intact.  This includes our way of speaking, which still has remnants from the old country.

So we love the mountains because they engulf us with scenery and with life, and  made us who we are as a people. Next time you step outside and look at the horizon, give thanks for what you see.

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It’s Dogwood Season

It’s Dogwood Season       Dogwood flower photo.jpg

By Steve Roark

One of Spring’s pleasures after a winter of subdued color is the flowering of the dogwoods, which are universally enjoyed and mega-popular as yard trees. We are blessed to have them growing wild in our forests and are very common.   Virginia is particularly big on dogwood, as it’s their state tree.

Our native Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida) is an understory tree content to grow underneath larger trees, being tolerant of shade.  It is classified as a small tree, only growing to around 15 to 25 feet tall.  The leaves are oval shaped with a smooth edge and turn a bright purple in the fall.  Bright red berries also appear in the fall, adding to the tree’s beauty.  The bark is reddish brown with a small blocky pattern.  The flowers are the crown jewels of the dogwood, providing a crown full of beautiful large white flower with 4 petals tinged with red at their end.  The actual flower is the green nugget in the middle of the petals, which aren’t true petals, but specialized leaves called bracts.  But hey, let’s not let a little plant physiology spoil the beauty of the thing.

Here’s a cool Easter legend about the tree: the dogwood was once as tall and mighty as the oak, and because of the strength of its wood, was chosen to make the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.  The dogwood was so ashamed at this that it begged Jesus for forgiveness.  In His compassion for all living things, Jesus took pity on the dogwood and decreed that from then on the tree would be short and twisted so it could never again be used as a cross.  As a reminder, the dogwood would also bear blossoms in the shape of a cross.  The center of the flower would look like a crown of thorns, and each petal would have nail prints stained with red at its outer edge.

Besides providing a lovely landscape, the native dogwood was used by the Native Americans to time the planting of crops (by their bloom time) and as a medicinal.  The bark was boiled and made into an extract to soothe sore muscles. Twigs were used as “chewing sticks”, the forerunner of the toothbrush.  When chewed a while the tough fibers at the end of the twig will separate into a soft brush and can be used to clean teeth.  During the Civil War a tea made from root bark was used as a substitute for quinine to treat malaria in the Deep South. Dogwood berries are a very important wildlife food, and the twigs are browsed by deer.

The origin of the name “dogwood” is uncertain, but it may have come from a reference to a European species of dogwood that was used to make skewers, also called daggers.  It was referred to a dag or dagge in old English.

Because of its flowers and small size at maturity, dogwood can fit into even small landscapes, and is relatively easy to grow.  It prefers partial shade if it can get it but can grow in full sun.  There are many cultivars out there, including pink and red flowering varieties.  There is an unfortunate disease called dogwood anthracnose that has reduced native populations over the past few decades.



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Backpacking 101

Backpacking 101

By: Steve Roark

If you’ve ever had the urge to “get away from it all, a literal way to pull that off is to try backpacking. Think of it as extended hiking where you stay overnight or several days and carry in what you need.  Being out in the wild for a few days clears the mind and it’s good for the soul to rough it and be away from the clamor of modern life.  The trick to backpacking is to carry only what you really need to be reasonably comfortable and safe. Carry too much and you become a pack mule, which is not fun.  What follows is a list of equipment and items usually used on a backpacking venture.  Buying all of this can be costly, so try to bum some gear and try backpacking one weekend to see if you like it enough to invest in your own gear, which is best acquired over time.

Backpacking photo.jpg

Backpack:  Most backpacks are made of rip-stop nylon and have an internal or external metal frame.  Get one with lots of compartments and zippered pockets to hold stuff.  There are all types, so try on several.  Get one that has heavily padded shoulder straps and a padded hip belt to allow some of the weight to be carried on your hips rather than all on your shoulders.

Sleeping Bag: The main thing to shop for is one that will keep you warm in whatever weather you’re camping in, is reasonably light weight, and crushes down small for easy transport.  Another item nice to have is a sleeping pad, which keeps you off the rocks and insulates you from the cold ground.

Boots:  You don’t have to wear boots on short trips. But your feet take a lot of abuse on a trail, and with a load on your back, foot support is critical.  Buy some good leather ones and make sure they are broken in before venturing too deep in the woods.  Blisters are instant trip bummers, so the shoes must fit well.

Clothing:  In the summer you can get by with shorts and T-shirts.  In the winter you need good wool or synthetic clothing that will keep you warm even when wet. Layers is the name of the game.  Rain gear is good to have year-round.

Cooking Gear: You don’t have to cook when backpacking, but warm food is tasty and very satisfying. There are small, lightweight stoves available, and there are also all kinds of cooking kits to do your cooking and eating in.

Food:  You eat plenty when walking a lot of miles with a load on your back.  You can buy the lightweight freeze-dried stuff from hiking catalogs and outdoor stores, but there are plenty of lightweight foods at the grocery store you can use with some imagination.

There are lots of books and web sites that provide introductory backpacking information.  If you can find someone that’s and old hand at it, talk to them.  Maybe they can even take you for a test hike.


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The Spring Green Light

The Spring Green Light

By Steve Roark

For all you warm weather people out there, your time has come.  The vernal (spring) equinox is upon us, which is the official beginning of Spring, arriving this year on March 20. The event is not only a promise of warmer weather, it also plays a key role in determining what date Easter occurs, which can move around quite a bit year to year.

sun face 2.jpg

First let’s do the science stuff. As you know, days are longer in summer and shorter in winter because the Earth pivots on its axis as it orbits, leaning our hemisphere (the northern one) either towards the sun (summer) or away from the sun (winter). That change in the angle at which sun rays strikes the Earth determines how well it heats it up. Leaning towards the sun makes it appear higher in the sky, and the rays are more direct and warm more.  Leaning away from the sun in winter makes it appear lower in the southern sky, and the warming rays strike the Earth at an angle and so don’t heat as efficiently.  Twice a year though the Earth reaches a mid-way point in it pivot where the hours of daylight and darkness are the same, and these are called the equinox, which in Latin means “equality of night and day”.  As you know the other equinox is in September and is called the autumnal equinox.

The end of winter was a big deal long ago when growing local food was critical to survival, and so the beginning of the growing season was celebrated all over the world.  The spring equinox was a symbol of renewal and rebirth, and in Italy it was celebrated by planting garden and flower seeds, which is still a custom around Sicily.  The Hindu consider the equinox as a victory of good over evil, and they celebrate it with the “festival of colors”, where participants toss bright colored powders over each other while dancing about. In Japan the spring equinox is called Shunbun no hi and is a more somber celebration, where families get together and visit ancestral graves.  Lighting bonfires was a common way to celebrate the equinox in many parts of the world.

Recognizing the spring equinox goes way back. The famous rocks at Stonehenge in England are over 4000 years old and were constructed so that the sun would rise precisely between two stones on the equinox.  An ancient pyramid in Mexico was designed so that on the equinox the sun would light up one edge of the pyramid that looked like a serpent, which represented the Mayan god Kukulcan.

The date to celebrate Easter is determined by the equinox. The Bible describes Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection as occurring around the time of the Jewish Passover, which was celebrated on the first full moon following the spring equinox. But there were some differing interpretations of when to celebrate Easter, with some churches celebrating it on the day of the Passover, while others celebrated it on the following Sunday. So, to clear up the confusion, Emperor Constantine I formed a council in 325 AD, who determined that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox.


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Aliens in Your Neighborhood

Aliens in Your Neighborhood

By Steve Roark, Forester

If you know what to look for, you will discover aliens nearby, brutal ones bent on world domination. Some walk around, some fly, but the really dangerous ones blend into the landscape and slowly increase in numbers undetected until it’s too late and they take over.  This isn’t science fiction, but a nasty reality show called exotic invasive pests, and many are out to get our forests.

An exotic invasive species is a plant, animal or disease that is not native, but was brought in from another country and can spread rapidly because the forest has no built-in predators or disease resistance to them.  Some invasives were brought in on purpose to do some intended good, such as providing food for wildlife, or because they are pretty for landscaping. Some were brought in accidentally, from eggs laid on shipping pallets or in the soil of potted plants.  Some recent examples include the Emerald Ash Borer, which is killing native ash like a plague right now, and Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, that is doing a number on hemlock trees. Historically the worst invasive to hit our forests was the Chestnut Blight, a disease that all but wiped out a tree that once dominated our forests and was highly valued for its lumber and nut production.

Invasive plants are of most concern to me because they blend into native vegetation. An exception is Kudzu, which is highly visible because it can take a native forest with hundreds of species of plants and animals and turn it into a green desert with only itself for company.  I hate that stuff, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg, with dozens of invasive plants that aren’t obvious until their sheer numbers make them stand out and the forest is then in true jeopardy.

Invasive grass cartoon.jpg

The worst invasive plants are the ones that produce edible seeds spread by birds.  One mother plant can have her babies spread for miles around. Below is a listing of invasive plants that I have observed to be spreading rapidly and of greatest concern.  It is by no means complete, as the list of invasive plants in our area is depressingly long. If you own land, even just a house lot with an overgrown fence row, there’s a good chance you have an invasive.  You would help us all and the forest if you would learn how to identify them and kill them with extreme prejudice. They are most often found along woodland or fence edges, out of reach of the mower but still able to get sunlight. There is plenty of information on the internet, so just type in the name and stand back.

Privet was brought in as a landscape hedge that can tolerate heavy pruning.  It produces a small purple berry that is spread by birds. Autumn Olive was brought in as a food plant for mostly birds. It produces heavy crops of small speckled red berries that birds eat, but then fly off and poop the seeds out everywhere. It can spread rapidly.  Bush Honeysuckle was brought in as an ornamental and has small flowers like the vine honeysuckle you are more familiar with.  It produces a small red berry spread by birds. Multiflora Rose was brought in as root stock for ornamental rose grafts, for wildlife food, and for creating a living livestock fence.  It produces a large multi-stem shrub with nasty thorns and heavy crops of bird dispersed seeds. Bradford Pear wasn’t supposed to be able to produce viable seed, but it figured out how to anyway.  In early spring the white blooms can be seen everywhere. Birds spread the seeds, which grow into trees with genetics from earlier breeding stock that can include nasty thorns.

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Tree Wisdom

Tree Wisdom

By Steve RoarkTree tall.jpg

With area Arbor Days at hand I thought it appropriate to reflect on how intertwined our lives are with trees.  We not only use forest products multiple times every day, but their constant presence is inspiring enough to be used in literature, poetry, and music. A centuries old form of writing to teach wisdom is the proverb, a brief statement that expresses a general truth.  The Bible is full of them, and they are used by about every culture on the planet.  A way to juice up a proverb is to use figurative language, like: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water…”.  It makes for imaginative reading that will be remembered.  What follows is a listing of wise sayings where trees are expressively used.

  • Judge a tree from its fruits, not from its leaves. EURIPEDES
  • Love is flower like; Friendship is like a sheltering tree.  SAMUEL COLERIDGE
  • Stand still.  The tree ahead and the bush beside you are not lost.  EINSTEIN
  • If you climb up a tree, you must climb down the same tree. AFRICAN PROVERB
  • An ungrateful man is like a hog under a tree eating acorns, but never looking up to see where they come from.  TIMOTHY DEXTER
  • There is not a tree in heaven higher than the tree of patience.  IRISH SAYING
  • From a fallen tree make kindling. SPANISH PROVERB
  • When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.  VIETNAMESE PROVERB
  • The tree of silence bears the fruit of peace.  ARABIAN PROVERB
  • The tree of revenge does not carry fruit.  DUTCH PROVERB
  • Evil enters like a needle and spreads like an oak tree.  ETHIOPIAN PROVERB
  • The ripest peach is highest on the tree.  JAMES RILEY
  • A wholesome tongue is a tree of life; but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.  PROVERBS 15:4
  • A good word is like a good tree whose root is firmly fixed and whose top is in the sky.  QURAN
  • It is not the last blow of the axe that fells the tree.
  • Even the highest tree has an axe waiting at its foot. TURKISH PROVERB
  • Tall trees catch much wind.
  • He that would have the fruit must climb the tree.
  • The stronger the breeze the stronger the trees.
  • A chameleon does not leave one tree until he is sure of another.  ARABIAN PROVERB
  • It is only the tree loaded with fruit that the people throw stones at.  FRENCH PROVERB
  • You should go to a pear tree for pears, not to an elm.  PUBLILIUS SYRUS


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