Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Redshank, red joints and lady’s thumb

Almost 40 local names have been recorded for redshank (Persicaria maculosa).

Some of these, like the standard English name refer to the plant’s red stem:  red joints in Dorset, red legs in Cheshire and Lancashire, and red weed also in Cheshire.

The maculosa, meaning spotted or mottled, in the Latin name refers to the brownish spots which occur on the leaves, particularly when the plant grows in sunny places.  Several local names refer to this feature.  Some suggest that the markings were made when the leaf was pinched, such names include: devil’s pinches in Dorset, pinchweed in Northumberland and Oxfordshire, and Virgin Mary’s pinch – ‘from the tradition that the Blessed Virgin once pressed it with her thumb’ – in Berkshire, and lady’s thumb in North America.

A legend recorded in Oxfordshire in the 1880s explains why the Virgin Mary pinched the leaves.  She was searching for the plant to make an ointment, but couldn’t find any.  Later, when the need had passed, she found it, and in her annoyance pinched its leaves, giving it the rank of an ‘ordinary weed’, so redshank is reputed to be ‘the only weed that is not useful for something.’  Presumably the name useless, recorded in Scotland, refers to a similar story.

A Guernsey name, herbe traitesse, explains how a woman who had committed a murder wiped her blood-stained fingers on redshank leaves, leading to the detection of her crime, and to the leaves being stained ever since.

An East Anglian name, devil’s arse-wipe, suggests another way in which the leaves got their markings.

Two names recorded from Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland can be translated as ‘the blood spot’ and ‘herb of the tree of crucifixion’, it being said that redshank grew at the base of Christ’s cross and became stained by his blood.  This legend, without any associated names, has been recorded from Cornwall and Co. Cork, and is shared with other plants which have reddish markings on their leaves.

However, some of the local names seem difficult to explain:  lavender in Somerset, lover’s pride in Sussex, and saucy alice in Norfolk.

Yellowin girse, a Shetland name, suggests that redshank was used to produce a yellow dye, but the name redshank was also given to alpine meadow-rue (Thalictrum alpinum), which is also used as a dye-plant in Shetland, so perhaps there is some confusion.

Some of redshank’s local names are shared with other species.  Pincushion, a name which is difficult to explain when given to redshank, is shared with 10 other species, including cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and thrift (Armeria maritima).  And the name redshank is shared with seven other plants, including herb robert (Geranium robertianum) and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

Adapted from article originally published in The SLBI Gazette, ser. 2, 23: 10-11, 2016; for references and further information see the Local Names page on this website.

Image:  Tooting, London Borough of Wandsworth; August 2016.