Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Welsh plant-names

Thanks to Duncan Brown for this opinion piece on Welsh plant-names.
Plant-lore Archive does not discourage the appreciation of names in languages other than English, but as its compiler lacks knowledge of other languages it is thought that the inclusion of such names would, inevitably, lead to an unacceptable number of errors.

How can we reflect truly local names in the context of the British Isles, the only context which surely applies to plant-lore. The now much clichéd entry in Encyclopaedia  Britannica ‘For Wales see England’ may seem quaint today, but the outlook has very much not gone away and it still rankles where I live in Waunfawr, Gwynedd. However uncomfortable it might be for those who forget that Britain has at least five native languages, not just one – all of them regionally located – for plant-lore not to celebrate those five can surely only be seen as an omission.

A group of us from Cymdeithus Edward Llywd (the Edward Llywd Society) have been engaged in a project called Llên Natur (nature lore) for some years. While the scope of the project is necessarily wider than equivalent English language projects (because of its much smaller audience and different cultural emphases) one of the main aspects has been an initiative called Y Bywiadur (dictionary of life) which seeks to collect all regional Welsh names for all species, whether such names are extant or archaic.

The initiative primarily seeks to standardise names for use in such non-regional applications as the national media, cross-regional exchanges and more formal ecological and legal documents, respecting as far as possible both linguistic tradition and taxonomy. While the standardising aspect has been taken a lot further involving much sensitive coining, local variations have so far been collected for both birds and plants.

Rather differently from the English tradition, in Welsh-speaking Wales regional forms have a much greater popular tenacity than standard forms where they exist. But English names have inevitably undermined even those and our naming initiative has always faced this tendency head on. I find the reasons for this contrast between the two traditions, with stronger standard forms in English, very revealing of our respective histories and social mix. I imagine there will be the same contrast with the other ‘minority’ language traditions. (I use inverted commas here to the term because it depends on which end of the telescope you’re looking through. Welsh is 100% in our house!).

The plant having one of the largest ranges of regional and historic names is the foxglove, Digitalis purpurea. Here’s the entry in our Bywiadur collated from names collected originally by the botanist schoolteacher and founder of Cymdeithus Edward Llywd Dafydd Dafis, and Arthur Jones, his postman friend:

bysedd y cŵn Bysedd Cochion. Bysedd Ellyllon. Clatsh y Cŵn. Cleci Coch. Gwniadur Mair. Dail Ffionffrwth. Dail Llwynog. Dail Bysedd Cochion. Dail Crach. Ffiol y Ffridd. Ffion y Ffridd, Ffuon Cochaf. Llwyn y Tewlaeth. Maneg y Forwyn. Menyg. Digitalis purpurea. foxglove.

To translate some of the more picturesque of these: gobins’ fingers, dog’s slap, Mary’s thimble, fox leaves, cream bush (??), and maiden’s glove (probably an allusion to female genitalia). Ffion seems to be the longest established of these, dating back to the tradition of the 14th century Physicians of Myddfai, and has no obvious metaphorical equivalents and is now more familiar as a girl’s name.

Even the supposed north-south divide isn’t as simple as it seems and the complexity can be particularly apparent in plant-names. The two words for ivy, Hedera helix, of equal strength in modern spoken Welsh, ostensibly eiddew in the north, iorwg in the south, actually have outliers, with the iorwg variant iwrwg(l) in the Conwy valley and a rather strange southern historical variant combining both, namely eiddiorwg, attested in the Physcians of Myddfai from the Twyi valley. These contradictory outliers make it difficult to avoid explanations that do not involve the external economic and political forces that have shaped transport and connectivity dividing north and south Wales over recent centuries and which has only recently been relieved by strengthened national media and governance.

Thanks to the 18th century Methodist Sunday School movement of Griffith Jones, Llanddowror (one of the earliest native pan-Welsh institutions) Wales has been blessed with an exceptional degree of Welsh language literacy in the general population, the products of which are still not appreciated by high-brow Welsh academia.

These products exist in large part as simple diaries of semi-literate tyddynwyr (crofters) at best (until we came along!) gathering dust in attics and the backs of dresser drawers where life’s serendipity has not yet secured a place for them in county archives. At worst they vanish into skips. In most cases they have little literary interest but immense social and ecological interest recording, as they do, the weather and everyday life which inevitably reveals relationships with plants and animals which appear to be largely, or even totally, forgotten. The Llên Natur project has made it its business to collect, transcribe and present these, with many other sources in various languages, in the form of a ‘weather diary’ of, currently, 114,000 dated and located entries, in which plant and animal names incidentally occur.

Relevant in this context is a Victorian diary by Thomas Jones of Newborough, Anglesey, whose community has changed less than most since his time, giving us word-of-mouth access from descendants of many traditions to which such diaries refer, or hint at. One such tradition is the relatively well documented ‘sea-grass’ (marram, Ammophila arenaria, or moresg weaving) industry in Newborough. However, the diaries of Thomas Jones and others record in few words clues to other recent but vanished ways of life.

For example, Thomas Jones tells us that on 27 June 1871 he fetched sea salt and bladder wrack, Fucus vesiculosus (‘Nol heli mor a gwman [gwymon] Codog’) if that was in fact what he meant. So many questions arise from these six words. Where, how and why would he collect sea salt in Newborough? Seaweed for fertilising a potato, Solanum tuberosum, patch is understandable (but in June?), but the word gwymon (or his ‘gwman’) would have sufficed perfectly well for such a task. But no, he fetched and specified seaweed with bladders. Why?

Then there is the mysterious heli môr. On a nature walk in Newborough Forest and dunes not many years ago, during the banter in one of the dune slacks, one of the Newborough-bred participants, on the subject of creeping willow, Salix repens, referred to heli cŵn. Exchange ‘s’ for ‘h’ by the way, and we easily see the Indo-European commonalities between the languages in the words salt and halen (heli is a derivative meaning brine or sea-water) and sallow and helyg. But I digress. Cŵm means dog (as in dog violet, Viola canina, perhaps) and one cannot help but suppose that Thomas Jones on that day in June, whatever he was doing with his seaweed, was possibly harvesting what he might more ‘correctly’ have written and pronounced helyg (y) cŵn – ‘dog willow’ – perhaps for basket making. Well, that’s my story – and I’m sticking to it! – at least until such folk as Thomas Jones are given their just and proper voice in the Diary of Mankind.

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Image:  foxgloves, Southwest Coast Path, west of Hartland Quay, north Devon, June 2016.