“… so share your heart though you are bold or coy
and pluck from Elysium her magic flower
hailing long life for Robin and Melusine
guarding peace in Avalon for our Fairy Queen”.
The second in my series on wild flowers is Herb Robert. This tiny flower is a particular favourite of mine and as it is commonly found in woodland, I come across it often on my trampings. It has some other colourful names too: Red Robin, Death Come Quickly, Stinking Robert, Cuckoo’s Eye, Bloodwort and Robert Geranium.
The last of these is closest to its botanical name. Herb Robert is Geranium Robertianum. Geranium comes from the Greek Geranus, meaning crane, because the seed resembles a crane’s bill. Cranesbill is the name for many native geraniums. Herb Robert is a common species of cranesbill, found in Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa.
It’s a shade-loving plant, found commonly in hedgerows and woods. Its tiny pink flower has 5 petals and its stems are red. Its leaves are parsley-like and after the growing season (spring to autumn) these turn red too. The plant is covered in silvery hairs and it can vary in height, depending on its situation, from 10 to 50 cms.
Its name is more than a hint that it has medicinal properties. Herb Robert is said to have antiseptic and styptic qualities and be useful in the following ways:
as a remedy for toothache and nosebleeds
as a diuretic and tonic (in an infusion prepared from the whole plant excepting the root)
as a remedy for dysentery
to help wounds heal and prevent scarring
The plant’s active ingredients are tannins, bitters and essential oils.
Herb Robert as ‘Stinking Robert’ may result from the fact that its leaves when crushed are said to smell like burning tyres. It is also said to smell like foxes. I can’t agree with the latter as I have smelled a fox close up. Believe me, it’s enough to make you gag! I’m talking about the one in the picture, which was chased into our house by hunters with their pack of dogs. It took refuge behind the washing machine. Once the hunt had gone, we coaxed it out – using a large piece of cardboard as a shield – first into our kitchen sink, where it is in the photo, then to freedom through the kitchen window.
I’ll never forget the look of abject terror in its eyes when we discovered its hiding place. It hesitated too before making its escape, looking from us to the open window and back again several times, fearing a trap. The score was 1-0 to Les Végétariens that day, a win we celebrated with several glasses of wine!
Getting back to Herb Robert, according to the Revd Hilderic Friend, in Flowers and Flower Lore, a book dating back to 1885, the plant’s various names have a number of possible origins. One is that it is named after St Robert, whose saint day is usually on 29 April.
According to the Online Catholic Encyclopedia St Robert’s feast day is 24 April and tells the story of how St Robert (Robert de Turlande) came to found the Benedictine Abbey of Chaise-Dieu (casa dei in Latin for House of God) in the Auvergne – in the French Massif Central. The saint was born in the town of Aurilac, Auvergne, in about 1000 CE. He is said to have had the gift of miracles. His body was preserved in the abbey, but taken and burned by Huguenots during the religious wars and the abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution, though the vast church, cloister and a tower still stand today.
Herb Robert is believed to have been used by St Robert to cure a disease known in Germany as Robert’s Plague, thus both the disease and the plant came to bear his name.
Another theory in the Revd Friend’s book is that Robert is a corruption of Robin, in memory and honour of Robin Hood. He writes that the plant is called Robin Hood and Poor Robin, in the West of England. Herb Robert in France is Robin des Bois (Robin of the Woods). Robin des Bois is also the French name for Robin Hood.
Hilderic Friend also writes that a Mr King claimed the plant had a connection with elves and wood-spirits. In its German name of Ruprechts-kraut, Ruprecht is Knecht Ruprecht, which translates exactly to Robin Goodfellow our household goblin who is sometimes mischevious and sometimes kindly. We also know him as Puck. Herb Robert is said to belong to Robin Goodfellow and appears to mimic the goblin in its tendency to fix itself on old walls, ruins and the roofs of solitary farmhouses.
Herb Robert is also known as Sancti Ruperti Herba – the herb of Saint Rupert. Only the date of his death is known for certain – 718 CE – which makes him a contemporary of King Childebert III, who was King of Cologne, and of an assortment of kings in an ‘England’ that was still divided into separate kingdoms, such as the Kingdom of Northumbria. Rupert became the first Bishop of Salzburg and is reputed to have inaugurated salt mining in Salzburg. In art, the saint is often depicted with salt in his hand. His feast day is 24 September.
Two other explanations for the origins of Herb Robert’s name are that Robert is from Ruberta, a red-coloured herb; or that it is named after a celebrated curator and
naturalist once connected with the Oxford Botanic Garden.
Herb of the Day for May 20th is Borage (witchesofthecraft.wordpress.com)