Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Bird’s-foot trefoil, a plant with over 130 names

Bird’s-foot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, a common and widespread plant throughout Britain and Ireland, has attracted little folklore, but has been given almost 140 local names.  Alphabetically these range from bellies-and-bums-fingers-and-thumbs in Essex to yellow snapper in Bedfordshire.

The standard English name, bird’s-foot trefoil, refers to the plant’s seedpods which are arranged to resemble a bird’s foot.

Other names which seem to refer to the seedpods include bird’s claws in Devon, craa’s [crow’s] foot and crae-taes in Northumberland, devil’s claws in Bristol, five fingers in East Anglia, and grandmother’s (or granny’s) toenails in Devon.

Occasionally the arrangement of the seedpods have been compared to cat’s claws.  Thus the  Scottish name catcluke or catluke, which Geoffrey Grigson in his Englishman’s Flora explains as being ‘from some fanciful resemblance it has to a cat (cat’s) or bird’s foot; Danish = Katte-cloe, a cat’s claw or clutch, Swedish Katt-klor, cat’s claws’.  Other ‘cat’ names include cat-in-clover in southern Scotland, cat’s claws in Buckinghamshire, and cat’s clover in Berwickshire.

As the flowers of bird’s-foot trefoil age their petals change colour from yellow to orange, a feature that has given rise to such names as butter-and-eggs in Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Warwickshire,   buttered eggs in Cumberland, the widespread eggs-and-bacon, and eggs-and-collop (i.e. eggs and rasher of bacon) in Yorkshire.

17 names include the word ‘lady’, possibly suggesting ‘fine’, including:  Lady Margaret’s slipper in south London, lady’s cushion in Dorset, lady’s glove in Northamptonshire, and lady’s shoes-and-stockings in Buckinghamshire and Kent.

A widespread name is tom-thumbs, with the variations Tom Thumb’s fingers-and-thumbs in Dorset and Tom Thumb’s honeysuckle in Wiltshire.

Inexplicable names which seem to suggest that the plant was a childhood favourite include bunny-rabbits in Somerset, hen-and-chickens in Yorkshire.

Main and lower  inset, Hythe, Kent; upper inset St Nicholas’ churchyard, Tooting, London, all June 2023.