Germander Speedwell

(Veronica chamaedrys) Whoever could picture this little plant as a dwarf oak? But that is what the specific name means; we are told that it is the shape of the leaves that gives the name, but this remains unconvincing. Chamaedrys comes through medieval Latin from the Greek chamaedrua, which is a corruption of chamai, on the ground, and drus, oak (Grigson. 1955). Germander means the same, for it is simply an englishing of some stage of the development that produced chamaedrys. One suspects that shamrock, at least in this one case, is chamaedrys in another guise; this plant is one of the many to which the name has been given.

In Irish legend, this is one of seven herbs that nothing natural or supernatural could injure; the others are St John's Wort, vervain, eyebright, mallow, yarrow and self-heal (Wilde. 1902). So Irish people used it to keep evil spirits at bay, and it was sewn on clothes to keep the wearer from accidents (Grigson. 1955). Like pimpernel, Germander Speedwell is a weather forecaster, for it closes its petals before rain, and opens up again when it has stopped (Inwards). People from Cambridgeshire have a saying to the effect that if the flowers close in the morning, it will rain before evening (Porter. 1969).

The leaves were at one time recommended for use as a beverage tea (Curtis), hence Poor Man's Tea, from Cumbria (Grigson. 1955), but the common usage was medicinal. It used to be said that Germander Speedwell was especially good for gout; the Emperor Charles V is supposed to have got benefit from it (Dyer. 1881). It was so sought after for gout in the 18th century that it was, so they said, "made scarce to find through picking for many miles outside London" (Jones-Baker. 1974). Gerard was quite enthusiastic about it, but one of his prescriptions was pure doctrine of signatures. That little white patch in the centre of the flower that produced the varied "eye" names must also be responsible for "the leaves stamped with hony and strained, and a drop at sundry times put into the eies, taketh away ... dimnesse of sight.". Compare this with a Kentish village remedy for cataract; pick the flowers with as little green as possible, boil in rain water that falls in the month of May, pour on to the flowers, stir well, bottle, strain, and drink a cold glassful night and morning. Then wash the eyes with it three times a day (Maple. 1962). The flowers were used in Norfolk to make an eyebath for sore eyes (it actually bears the name Sore Eyes there) (V G Hatfield. 1994). There is, too, a Somerset remedy for tired eyes, which is to make a decoction of our flower with eyebright, and then dab the eyes with it (Tongue. 1965). Bird's Eye is a widespread and common name for Germander Speedwell, obviously descriptive, but there was a belief in some areas that birds would come and peck your eyes out if you picked it, a belief that made Roy Vickery include it in the list of unlucky plants (Vickery. 1985). It is true that there is a sinister side to this little plant. Names like Tear-your-mother's-eyes-out (Macmillan), or Mother-die, etc., owe their being to beliefs like that from Yorkshire, where it is said that if a child gathers the flower, its mother will die during the year

(Dyer. 1889), or there is the Lincolnshire superstition that if anyone picks the flower, his eyes will be eaten (Gutch & Peacock). The name Blind-flower is found in County Durham (Britten & Holland), with the belief that if you look steadily at the flower for an hour, you will become blind. Another result of picking the flowers is a thunderstorm, hence the Cheshire name Thunderbolt (Hole. 1937).

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