Man’s best friends: Bupleurum fruticosum (shrubby hare’s ear)


This is flowering everywhere at the moment. Well, everywhere in the garrigue – sorry, I’m getting a bit Midi-centric. Its great banks of yellow flower-heads stand out as much as the deep green of its glossy leaves when all around is dry, papery and straw-like. Bupleurum is quite a big genus but this is the only species I’ve identified so far, perhaps because it’s so  bushily obvious – it’s the only shrub species.


I’m using it as an introduction to wondering about the use of animals in plant names, and this one is a bit of a puzzle. ‘Bupleurum’ means ox flank (remember the ‘bu’ of bugloss, meaning ox tongue? Post of 11th May).  Why should this be applied to this plant? No-one seems to know. My guess is that the great bushes might seem as big as the bodies of oxen.  The leaves do look like hare’s ears – well, a bit.

This plant name belongs to a group which uses animal names in a descriptive way, often with a touch of affectionate whimsy: think of harebells and foxgloves. This seems most common with wild animals – when we get to Man’s best friends, the domesticated animals, the picture seems to change.  A hierarchy emerges in which some animals appear much more equal than others. Near the top of the dung-heap, poultry gets off quite lightly: fat hen is a good salad, chickweed is a small flower which is pecked by chickens, henbane (see post for 4th August ) is a warning of poison.

Introducing a note of distaste, Geoffrey Grigson points out that in English the use of ‘horse ’in plant names ‘frequently indicates some  coarse differentiating quality’ e.g. horse-mint, horseradish, which could be seen as admiration of the size and power of the horse. Horsetail is purely descriptive.


Rosa canina – dog rose

Then if you want to show that a plant is definitely second-rate, pick your closest cottage companion: a dog-rose is unworthy of the cottage garden, even in Latin (Rosa canina).  Dog-violet and dog’s mercury both also take their names from the Latin versions (Viola  and Mercurialis canina) because the violet was not scented and the mercury was thought not as medicinal as M.annua. The pretty blue Muscari  comosum is called  ail des chiens (dog garlic) in French, presumably because you just can’t make a good sauce with it. Wild asparagus is espargue de chin (dog asparagus) in Occitan, because judged second to the cultivated variety (though I like the wild spears better).


Muscari comosum – tassel hyacinth

But it could be worse – further down the pecking order from the pecking and the barking comes the grunting. Pig, sow or hog in a name usually mean fit only for swine: hogweed, sow thistle, pignut. I mentioned the other day(21st August) that ‘purslane’ may have come originally from a pork-related derogatory word. At first I thought this apparent disrespect  for the animals on which peasant farmers depend was rather ungrateful, but I realise that there was a hierarchy in the subsistence economy of the rural household: what humans could eat, they ate.  What was left went to the dogs and chickens.  What could be foraged for free in the hills could go to the pigs. Nothing was wasted.

And the donkey – because yes, you can get lower than a hog .  Perhaps because it’s a poor version of a horse, perhaps because they will eat anything, and especially in Occitan, the donkey gets the rawest deal.  The thistles in the Cirsium genus are lo cardon d’ase in Occitan, and the Eryngium campestre  (29th August)is pan blanc d’ase.   Oddly, in Oc an aubergine is not something you’d find in an auberge, but a viet d’ase – a donkey’s penis.  Ok, perhaps you’d find that at an auberge too – but maybe outside.

For all you need to know about the different styles of expressivity in Paris and in my village, I’ll give in full my favourite entry in the lexicon Las plantas , which gives plant names in French and Occitan:

algue microscopique: flottant à la surface des eaux stagnantes, genre diatomée. La mèrda de grapaud.

In plain English – toad shit.

Some animal music for you: first, Rufus Thomas and a remake of the original record (which I couldn’t find on video):

Now the poultry:

and the canines:

If anyone can think of a song about donkeys which is acceptable family viewing, let me know.



Filed under Bupleurum

10 responses to “Man’s best friends: Bupleurum fruticosum (shrubby hare’s ear)

  1. a brace of donkeys – both wordless, though . . .
    Artie Shaw’s Donkey Serenade
    Donkey Calypso by E.T. Mensah And The Tempos (my copy is from a French compilation Pas Si Bêtes – which also includes the equally wonderful The Stolen Chicken by Ebezener Calendar – no home should be without a copy – he’s from Sierra Leone)
    i can’t, though, work out how to embed them here
    so . . . if you do want to hear them, you can get them via my dropbox – send me an email address

    • I could have predicted you’d find a couple. Looking up Donkey Calypso I realised I had been looking in the wrong corner of the world – Trinidad is full of them. Pas si betes is a great title – would have used it for the post if I’d known of it.

  2. Another great post. I enby you your access to so many wildflowers. I was just speaking with my Zia yesterday and we talked about how that area has changed. When my family first started going there, 40+ years ago, many of the fields were thick with underbrush but wildflowers were still in abundance. Now, though the population hasn’t really grown appreciably, those fields have been mowed and few wildflowers remain. It is supposed to look better now but by whose estimation?
    Thanks for the music selections, although I enjoyed Big Mama Thornton performance the most. She was fantastic!

    • That’s “envy” you your access … Sheesh!

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, mowing – especially at the wrong time – is a threat to wild plants. Summer and winter, after seeding, is OK and it does keep down the shrubs which would otherwise take over and smother everything. But here the biggest diversity is on steep banks or little-used roads which aren’t mown, or in the hilly garrigue which is too poor and too rough even for vines or olives or trail bikes.
      Glad you liked the Big mama video – she was some singer, and harmonica player. And what a parade of mouth-harp talent all one one stage – and some Chicagoans amongst them!

  3. Ceridwen

    Goat willow, catnip, crab apple, cow parsley, horse chestnut, monkey flower, wolf’s bane, mouse ear, adder’s tongue, cuckoo pint – but you’re right, there aren’t a lot of donkeys in the herbarium.

    • Someone somewhere has probably written a sociological/psychoanalytic paper analysing the distribution of animal names for plants – am trying to decide whether it would take more effort to search for it (Google, libraries) or write my own. But then someone has probably written a blog post like mine already too. Too many monkeys, too many typewriters…

  4. Lovely post! thank you, I really enjoyed reading it. Btw there are lots of “green” bears and wolves and hares out there in the wild, too. and lambs ears and monkey puzzle trees… a whole zoo

    • Thank you for your comment. You’re right about the zoo and I’ll mention them when they crop up – here I was particularly interested in whether the folk names said anything about attitudes and culture. Given your blog name, I wonder if you’ve seen my latest post on roses – even if they’re not your favourite kind. I forgot to mention other roses in English: the sprinkler of a watering can, and the radiating patterns of a compass – there are lots.

  5. Pingback: Veronica and the enamelled parterre | an entangled bank

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