Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Red valerian, kissing-kind, Ventnor pride …

Red valerian (Centranthus ruber, known in older wildflower books as spur valerian), native to the Mediterranean region has been grown in British gardens for its flamboyant red, white or pink, flowers since late in the sixteenth century and first recorded in the wild in 1763.  It is now widely naturalised on sea-cliffs, consolidated shingle, walls and quarries, and is apparently adapting to other, less well-drained, habitats.

It is possible that as the species spread more rapidly than knowledge of its name,  it was necessary to create new names.

Some people compared it with the better-known lilac (Syringa vulgaris), but recognised its exotic origin.  Thus Devon people created the name American lilac, and Lincolnshire people knew it as German laylock.   Other ‘lilac’ names included wall lilac in Somerset and ground lilac in Lincolnshire.

Sometimes the plant was associated with drunkenness, leading to such names as drunkard’s nose in Somerset, drunkards –  ‘the flower heads sway about in the wind’ – in Devon and Somerset, drunken sailors in Devon, and drunken willy in Devon and Somerset.

Another group of names, which is difficult to explain, are ‘neighbour’ names:  good neighbours in west Somerset, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, and quiet neighbours in Wiltshire.

Other names refer to places where red valerian was particularly abundant and showy: Bovisand soldier, due to it being ‘very abundant’ in Bovisand near Plymouth; pride-of-Fowey, or maids-of-Fowey, in Cornwall, and Ventnor pride on the Isle of Wight.

On Portland, Dorset, where red valerian was associated with the local prison, it was known as convict-grass.

Another Portland name was kissing-kind, one of seven ‘kiss’ names, including kiss-behind-the-pantry-door in Somerset, and kiss-me-quick-mother’s-coming in Devon.

No doubt there are other names which have not yet been recorded; if you know of any, please contact

Addendum: Notes on herbarium specimens: 1. Pride of Ventnor is given on the label of a specimen collected from ‘cliffs at Ventnor, Isle of Wight’, by H.W. Puglsey on 5 October 1912, now in the Natural History Museum, London. 2.  According to the label of a specimen collected in Rhymney Valley, Glamorgan, by Marjorie Janet Brown on 1 September 1959, now in the Aberystwyth University Herbarium: ‘smells faintly of lilac’.

Images:  Sheffield, South Yorkshire, July 2015; inset, Rochester, Kent, May 2017.

Updated 2 June 2024.