Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.
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One day while on weed patrol, one of the Yampa River Botanic Park staffers asked, “What is with all these worts: soapwort, lungwort, mugwort, dropwort, sneezewort. What does wort mean?”
Park Supervisor Gayle Noonan began a search into that very question, finding that wort is an old Middle English word for any kind of plant. Further research found some interesting facts about many of the worts found in the Botanic Park. Many were used medicinally or spiritually in earlier centuries. Here are a few of the fun facts Gayle and I found about worts at the Botanic Park.
There are eight species of worts residing within the Yampa River Botanic Park: dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris “plena”); lungwort (Pulmonaria officianalis); mugwort (Artemisia stellariana, “Boughton Silver”); sandwort (Arenaria montana); soapwort (Saponairia acymoides); sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica); spiderwort (Tradescantia accidentalis); and woundwort (Prunella vulgaris).
Lungwort is located in the Hidden Garden. The Romans thought the shape of the Pulmonaria leaves was similar to the lung, and it was found to be mildly helpful for pulmonary problems.
Mugwort is located north of the Annual Garden. Originating from Germanic heritage, the herb has been used to repel bugs and was thought to guard against the devil if a sprig was hung by the door.
Conventional wisdom from the 1900s found soapwort useful for stopping an itch by applying a salve of dried roots and leaves. Ingesting this plant can numb your mouth, or worse, so avoid these old herbal remedies unless supervised by your doctor.
Sneezewort does not have a scent, despite its name. Its spiritual properties were thought to “fumigate” the environment, cleansing out all the “rotten” energy.
Cow Slobber is another nickname for Spiderwort, a beautiful blue flower that grows knee-high. The flowers of this plant have a very short life — only a single morning. If you break off a tip of the spiderwort leaf and wait for a drop of sap to appear, you’ll notice its gooey quality that can be stretched a long way, hence its familiar nickname, Cow Slobber.
Woundwort is a common name for a couple of kinds of plants at the Botanic Park. Prunella vulgaris also is known as self-heal, a blue-flowered perennial thought to possess healing properties. The common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) also is called woundwort. The leaves were used in ointment form or applied directly to wounds to stop bleeding.
The park used to have St. John’s Wort located behind the bench at the north end of the Green, but unfortunately, it didn’t make it through one of our tough winters. In Colorado, it is considered a noxious weed that is non-native and spreads rapidly so is not recommended for gardens, anyway. During medieval times, it was one of the herbs burned on St. John’s Eve to purify the air of evil spirits.
We share a long heritage with many of the plants that reside within the Botanic Park. Stop by and talk with the staff, volunteers and master gardeners on hand about the wide variety of flora that can be grown successfully in our high mountain environment.
Gayle Noonan is the park supervisor at the Yampa River Botanic Park. Deb Babcock is master gardener through the Routt County Extension Office. Questions? Call 879-0825.