Take on Nature: Herb Robert's here – or is it woodland elves?

Stephen Colton

OUR roadside verges and banks are currently full of disorder. Encouraged by the warm sunshine of recent weeks, unruly flowers and grasses are all competing for space to show off their wares.

Such places are wonderful refuge corridors for many of our small mammals and invertebrates. On a local walk last week, under layers of birdsong, I noticed, pushing through the white splashes of cow parsley and vetch, the wild geranium, Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) with its ruddy, finely cut fern like leaves and pretty, pink flowers.

Nineteenth century English poet Roden Noel wrote of "the little pink geranium" and its "Frail flowers which arrive with the Cuckoo". Along with other flowers of this time he describes them as "Sweet maids of honour, woodland elves!"

Herb Robert is a common plant throughout Ireland, which frequents hedgerows, woodlands, verges and old stone walls. During May, the small pink flowers with a white centre which radiates out into each of the five rounded petals, begin to emerge and will persist well into the autumn.

A member of the Cranesbill family, its scientific name Geranium comes from the Greek ‘geranus’ which means crane, an obvious reference to the plant’s seed pods, which are shaped like a crane’s bill. When ripe these seed pods will burst open and eject their seed.

Regarded as an attractive plant, Herb Robert inspired poet William Wordsworth to write "Poor Robin is yet flowerless, but how gay with his red stalks on this sunny day". The plant’s foliage, however, gives off a strong musky odour when crushed, earning it the name ‘Stinky (or stinking) Bob’ in various places.

The name Herb Robert, may have come from the Latin ruber meaning red but alternative explanations also exist. Most suggest the name originates from Robin, a diminutive form of Robert and a reference to Robin Goodfellow the mischievous hobgoblin from English folklore also known as Puck, made famous by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Knecht Ruprecht, a dark form of Saint Nicholas, is his German counterpart. Geoffrey Grigson, in his classic compendium of British plant lore The Englishman’s Flora (1955), speculates that the red colour and unpleasant smell of Herb Robert are linked to these two sinister characters, with Goodfellow described as "red and hairy and who carries a candlestick" that may have been identified with the “beak” of the cranesbill.

Whatever sinister associations the plant has acquired in European folklore, Herb Robert has been valued as a medicinal plant since the Middle Ages. In a chapter of Physica, from the 1100s, the German nun and herbalist Hildegard of Bingen comments on the healing power of Herb Robert and recommends its use in powdered form, eaten on bread, to help heal pain in the heart.

Here too in Ireland, Herb Robert has been linked with folk medicine and folklore. It has numerous names: dog’s toe, stinking crane’s-bill, wildfire and bloodweed. One of its Irish names, crobh dearg – the red clawed foot or paw – points to the red stems and sharply shaped seed pods. Probably due to its fiery red foliage, especially in autumn, it was widely used to treat blood disorders and to staunch bleeding.

Peter Wyse Jackson’s book Ireland’s Generous Nature (2014), catalogues the herb’s many uses through the centuries in cures around the country. It was used as the standard treatment for ‘red-water’ (blood in the urine) a disease of cattle and also to treat worms in horses as well as sore throats and rheumatism in people.

"Little Herb Robert, bright and small," (Song of the Herb Robert Fairy) is a special plant indeed.


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