Friday, June 17, 2011

Saint or sprite?

Geranium robertianum

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), called ruprechtskraut in German, is sometimes said to derive its name from the seventh-century Saint Rupert or Robert of Salzburg, but the plant is also associated with the German hobgoblin Knecht Ruprecht and his English counterpart, Robin Goodfellow.

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1


The delicacy of herb Robert’s spreading stems, ferny foliage, and dainty pink flowers belies the aggressive and adaptable nature of this Eurasian plant, known as herbe á robert in French, ruprechtskraut in German, and geranio robertino or erba roberta in Italian. Geranium robertianum flourishes in moist and shady situations as well as in walls and stony waste ground in many parts of the world, and is well established in North America (see the U.S.D.A. Plants Database).

Geranium robertianum (detail)

Geoffrey Grigson, in his classic compendium of British plant lore, The Englishman’s Flora, notes the ancient familiarity of this common dooryard weed, and the uncommon degree of attention it seems to have commanded over the centuries, as evidenced by the more than one hundred local names attested for England alone. Many names include the name Robert or its diminutive, Robin; some link the plant to the robin redbreast, a dangerous bird in European folklore who could bring illness, death, or bad luck into the house. Still other names allude to snakes, death, or sexuality. (For comparison with the cuckoo plants which share similar names and connotations, see “Those Cuckoos . . .,” May 28, 2010.)

Although Grigson traces the English name “herbe Robert” back to the thirteenth century, from the medieval Latin Herba Sancti Ruperti, he speculates that the red color and unpleasant smell of herb Robert linked the plant not to a saint but to the sinister hobgoblin of Germanic folklore, Knecht Ruprecht, and his mischievous English counterpart, the household sprite Robin Goodfellow, who is often described in sixteenth-century sources as red and hairy and who carries a candlestick that may have been identified with the “beak” of the cranesbill. However, Robin Goodfellow does not figure in English sources before the Renaissance, and I haven’t found any medieval evidence connecting the sprite with the plant.

Whatever sinister associations it may have acquired in European folklore, herb Robert was a valued medicinal plant in the Middle Ages. In chapter CXLIV of the Physica, Hildegard of Bingen remarks on the very hot nature of “cranschnabel,” whose power she compares to that of exotic spices. Hildegard recommends a powder made of herb Robert mixed with a little powdered feverfew or nutmeg sprinkled and eaten on bread, or licked from the hand, for pain in the heart. (For more information on Hildegard of Bingen and the Physica, see “Mutter Natur,” October 10, 2010. For more about Tanacetum parthenium in medieval medicine, see “Feverfew,” November 12, 2010.)

According to Hildegard, this same powder could be snuffed up the nose for congestion, or baked into cakes and eaten for cough or constriction of the lungs. Dissolved and drunk in warm wine, the powder alleviated chest pain, sore throat, and loss of voice.

The fifteenth-century herbal Ein Gart der Gesundheit recommends herb Robert as diuretic and a breaker of kidney stones, as well as a cordial that both strengthens the heart and makes it merry (Chapter 214).  (Hildegard attributes these virtues not to the plant she calls cranschnabel but to a related geranium species she calls storkschnabel.) In his discussion of the many kinds of cranesbill known to him, the sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard identifies “herbe Robert” with one of the varieties of sideritis described by Dioscorides in Book IV.35 of the De Materia Medica, and follows Dioscorides in stressing its value for bleeding wounds. I’m not certain that the herb Robert of Gerard and the cranschnabel of Hildegard are the same species of cranesbill. Gerard says that herb Robert is somewhat cold in nature, while Hildegard deems cranschnabel to be very hot, and considers storkschnabel to be cold.

Gerard also remarks on “the loathsome stinking smell” of the plant, which still draws comment from modern gardeners and naturalists. Known in locales on both sides of the Atlantic as “stinking bob,” herb Robert’s scent is sometimes described as “foxy” or “mousey,” and is said to be perceptible at a distance. (See the discussion appended to the entry for Geranium robertianum on the Plants for A Future database.) We have crushed both the foliage and the root of our herb Robert without releasing more than a moderately pungent and not exceptionally unpleasant scent.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Bedevian, Armenag K. Illustrated Polyglottic Dictionary of Plant Names in Latin, Arabic, Armenian, English, French, German, Italian and Turkish Languages. Cairo: Argus & Papazian Presses, 1936.

Gerard, John. The Herbal, or General History of Plants. 1633 edition, revised and enlarged by Thomas Johnson. New York: Dover Press, 1975.

Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.

Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.

Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.

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Comments (2)

  1. Nancy Heraud Says:

    There is so much I don’t know about plants! Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Deirdre!

  2. Christine Colasurdo Says:

    This is fascinating information. Thank you. Please note that Herb Robert (Geranium Robertianum) is listed as a noxious weed by the state governments of Oregon and Washington. It is considered highly invasive and a threat to native plants, especially in shady forest areas.

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