Word of the Week: Wort

wort [ wawrt ] noun: a plant, particularly an herbaceous plant; a medicinal plant

 

While the word wort has another meaning in the world of beverage brewing, in botany it survives mostly in the names of herbivorous plants—and a wide variety of them—that historically had traditional medicinal uses, such as St. John’s wort, lungwort , liverwort, lousewort, pilewort, or woundwort. Because it comes from Middle English, ultimately derived from Old English wyrt, meaning branch or root, it is attached to many plants that are not native to the United States. Nevertheless as botanists explored America, they found some plants that are native and yet are of the same species as non-native plants whose common name includes the word wort. And in the early days of our country’s exploration and settlement, traditional medicine was often the only option for treating illness or injury.

Eupatorium hyssopifolium (hyssop-leaf thoroughwort) was traditionally believed to have antivenomous qualities, neutralizing insect bites and stings, hence hyssopifolia, meaning medicinal leaves.

Hypericum spp. (St. John’s wort) has its common name because it blooms near the time of the feast day of St. John the Baptist. Like many plants, the hypericums are toxic to both humans and animals, and gardeners should not be tempted to use them ethnobotanically without consulting a physician. Two of the chemicals in Hypericum perforatum, hypericin and hyperforin, affect serotonin and other neurotransmitters and are used in some antidepressants to treat mild depression (not severe). Hypericum kalmianum (Kalm St. John’s wort) is a variety native to the Great Lakes region of North America, where it was discovered by Peter Kalm, a Finnish botanist, in the mid-1700s.

Pulmonaria officinalis (common lungwort) was used in former times to treat lung disease because according to the medieval Doctrine of Signatures, its fuzzy spotted leaves resembled that organ when diseased. Today the plant is used to beautify shade gardens with its graceful stems of pink flowers that change to blue-violet as they mature. Another “signature” plant, Uvularia grandiflora (large-flowered bellwort) is a native to the woodland edges of eastern North America and is useful in shady borders. Its name comes from the obvious resemblance between its hanging form and the uvula, or soft palate, at the back of the human oral cavity, and its roots were used to make a brew to treat coughs and sore mouths and throats. Back in the 15th Century, the Scrophulariaceae (figwort family) were deemed to have nodes or knobs on their rhizomes that resembled scrophula (today spelled scrofula), tubercular enlargement of the lymph nodes and was used to treat the like. Scrophularia lanceolata (American figwort) and Scrophularia marilandica (Eastern figwort) are two native varieties. Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot, bloodwort) is native to northeastern and central North America, and Native Americans used it as a dye. Its roots are caustic and poisonous if ingested and traditional medicinal uses have caused serious adverse effects including disfigurement when applied topically. When cut, all parts of the plant bleed a bright red-orange sap, giving the plant its common name and “signature.”


While many of the plants with wort in their names were once considered to have medicinal uses, many are toxic in part or in whole or now known not to be effective. Hence, note that:

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Plants in the wild should not be eaten without consulting an expert or authoritative field guides for information on identification and food preparation. It is easy to confuse plants in the wild, so you should be 100% sure they are edible before consuming them. Remember:

  • Just because a plant is not identified as toxic does not mean that it is safe to eat.
  • Sometimes only certain parts of a plant are edible and other parts of the same plant are toxic.
  • Sometimes parts are only edible at a certain time in their life cycle or when prepared in a certain way.

References

About Herbs, Botanicals & Other Products. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute. (Accessed September 9, 2021).

Bennett BC. 2008. Doctrine of Signatures through Two Millenia. HerbalGram. 78: 34–45.

Health Encyclopedia. University of Rochester Medical Center. (https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=19&contentid=StJohnsWort accessed September 6, 2021.)

Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder.
(http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx accessed September 6, 2021).

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