November 08 2021

There’s a plant in my garden with an ancient lineage, a history of healing and a belief that it could protect people from ghosts and angry spirits. It’s amazing where it will lead you when you simply try to find out where a plant name comes from. Wading through history is where.

The name for this lovely flower-Betony-comes from Roman times almost 1,000 years ago. It was named after the Vettone tribe in the Iberian peninsula (currently Spain and Portugal) by the Roman writer and historian Pliny. A few corruptions of the name and we have Betony. It was also called Woundwort because it was used to treat wounds by the Anglo-Saxons. Then the Victorians came along and decided it was symbolic of surprise-perhaps because it blooms in late summer. Every culture puts its stamp on just about everything.

Betony surprised and delighted me when I first started growing it about five years ago. Every year the plant got a little bigger and had more of those brightly colored spikes of flowers. Apparently they are arranged in verticallastors, or false whorls. It would never have occurred to me to look for this if I hadn’t read that. Betony is a Stachys (from Greek ‘stacys’ meaning ear of corn-keep in mind that corn meant grain at that time, corn as maize didn’t exist in ancient Greece), the same as Lamb’s Ear, but looks nothing like it, though next summer I will take a closer look at the flowers of each to see if they’re similar. I am so impressed that there are botanists in the world who know all about these minute details.

Renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf made Betony popular after it was brought into the garden world by a German grower named Ernst Pagels in the 1990’s. Oudolf’s gardens are at Hummelo, The Netherlands, thus we have ‘Hummelo’ Betony, the one in my garden. Hummel means bumblebee in German and indeed the bees like this flower.

I had no idea how much I’d like this plant when I first bought it. I’d never seen it before, even though it was the Perennial Plant Association 2019 Plant of the Year. This is why I am a patient wanderer through greenhouses, never know what surprise lies in store for you. The upshot of all this is that now I’m ordering Piet Oudolf’s book “Planting the Natural Garden”. Because winter is coming to Montana, and I will fill my head with new ideas and dreams of color and light while I wait impatiently for the first signs of life returning to my gardens.

Betony, Stachys officinalis, also listed as Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo’