Good for nothing or something…

What a confusing louse! Eating this plant will fill you with lice. Looks like sideways slippers. Has hair and tiny teeth. Pinwheels are seen when looking at it from above. And it t takes food from others.

Swamp Lousewort copyright 2013 Pamela Breitberg
Swamp Lousewort copyright 2013 Pamela Breitberg

Meet the Swamp  Lousewort (Pedicularis Canadensis) aka Wood Betony. The Greek word, pedlilon, means slipper or sandal, and these slippers grow sideways on the stem. Indeed when looking down on the stalk the flowers form a distinctive pinwheel. The leaves are hairy with tiny teeth around the edges. Livestock that ate Lousewort were believed bug-ridden with lice. To confuse the nature of this plant the Native Americans used it for medicinal purposes (see below).

Wood Betony pinwheel copyright 2013 Pamela Breitberg
Wood Betony pinwheel copyright 2013 Pamela Breitberg

If all that isn’t interesting enough, the Swamp Lousewort is considered a hemiparasite.  It does use photosynthesis to make its own food (energy source); but it also take food from other plants via connections in their roots.  These particular images were made on a nearby prairie which was more wet than usual this spring.  I had never seen this plant before and this weekend the field was full of Swamp Lousewort.

It was routine for European settlers to name newly “discovered” plants with names they were reminded of from their homeland. This is the reason so many plants are called “false …..”; they look like a plant they know, but it a different species.

In regards to the name, Wood Betony, the Sierra Club’s Potomac Region Outings says, “It has the same name as one of the most well-known herbs of Europe, Stachys officinalis, the other, Old World wood betony, a perennial grass that has a purple spiked flower at the top (Stachys means ‘ear of grain’ in Greek) that is common in open grasslands and wooded areas in Eurasia and North Africa.”

Lousewort leaf  with dew, copyright 2013 Pamela Breitberg
Lousewort leaf with dew, copyright 2013 Pamela Breitberg
  • They continue by telling of the uses for Wood Betony by the Native American Indians:
    • The New World wood betony P. canadensis was not nearly as well established as the old. This is due in no small part to the marginal acculturation of the Native Americans that extended only to an oral history for the conveyance of historical practices. According to D. Moorman in North American Medicinal Plants, betony was widely used by a number of tribal groupings not only to treat maladies, but also for aphrodisiacal and veterinary purposes, some of which are likely whimsical. The Cherokee used it as an antidiarrheal, especially for “bloody discharge from bowels,” in addition to the more common uses as a cough medicine, a dermatological and a gastrointestinal aid. The Iroquois, on the other hand, used it as a heart medicine and as orthopedic steam bath for sore legs. The Meskwaki and the Ojibwa used it as a love potion – a sylvan cantharis of sorts. According to an oral account of a member of the latter tribe “the root was added to some dish that was cooking without the knowledge of people who were to eat it, and, if they had quarreled some, then they would become lovers again.” However, the interviewee reported that it was frequently misused. From the veterinary perspective, the Cherokee used it in dog beds to rid the puppies of lice and the Menominee added chopped up root to make their ponies fat and to be “vicious to all but the owner.” What is clear from this accounting is that the North American wood betony was used extensively by numerous tribes for a wide range of purposes.
    • When the New World was settled by the colonists from the Old World, P. canadensis became conflated with S. officinalis so that the properties of the latter were conveyed to the former. The Pennsylvania apothecary and printer Christopher Sauer wrote of the efficacy of S. officinalis in The Compendious Herbal published serially between 1762 and 1778. In a recent revival of the book William Weaver notes that “there are several native betonies, and those with the leaves and flowers most similar to the European plant were evidently used as substitutes.” The uses of native wood betony by the colonists must have been based in part on what they learned from the Native Americans about P. canadensis and in part about what they remembered from their previous deep-seated appreciation of S. officinalis. There is one anomaly with this association that warrants special mention, as it is the most noted of the etiology of betony. This concerns the origin of the common name lousewort and the reference to lice in the genus name Pedicularis (little louse in Latin). The National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers provides the detail that both the common and genus names “refer to the misconception once held by farmers that cattle and sheep became infested with lice when grazing on the plants.” This attribute applies only to the New World wood betony and must therefore somehow derive from the practices of the Native Americans. However, the only known citation is for the use of the plant to prevent the infestation of lice in dogs and not the attraction of lice to other animals. This bit of folklore will necessarily remain unsettled, and the alternative name of lousewort will unabashedly persist.”   From:

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