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Botanical plant names can tell you all kinds of things about a plant. Often, they are descriptive as in Saxifraga oppositifolia – literally, the opposite leaved rock breaker. Sometimes, they tell of the habitat in which the plant is found or its particular use as in Salvia pratensis – the cure from the meadows.  

Personally, I prefer the descriptive names; the ones that guide me to where to find the plant or how to identify it. Colloquial names for plants, and those in other languages, can be equally descriptive, and tell of the things that people thought they should be used for, and why they were significant enough to warrant a name. 

There are a few here in Wales that I love. Cronnell (Globeflower) just for the way it sounds, Merywen (Juniper) – because it’s so different from any of the common English names and Derig (Mountain Avens). 

Derig, Welsh for Mountain Avens

In our house ‘Our Derig’ has become a pet name for a plant that we visit each year. The etymology – the study of the origins of words – is wrapped up in something more than that though and in this case it comes down to its leaves rather than its flowers.  

It seems surprising to me that the resemblance of its leaves to miniscule oak leaves was picked up on by the people of Wales as well as Carl Linnaeus who gave it its binomial name in his ‘Systema Naturae’ published in 1735. The name Linnaeus chose to give to Mountain Avens was Dryas octopetala. 

In his book ‘Flora Lapponica’ (1737) Linnaeus wrote “I have called this plant Dryas after the dryads, the nymphs that live in oaks, since the leaf has a certain likeness to the oak leaf…. We found it, a gorgeous white flower with eight petals that quivered in the cool breeze”. The Dryads were demigods, and their lives were tied to the life of the oak tree they inhabited. In Greek mythology a tree could not be cut without first making peace with the dryad that inhabited it. 

The Welsh name for the plant takes the same likeness to oak into account with the name coming from ‘dâr’ and ‘ig’; ‘Dâr’ means oak (Derwen means Oaktree) and ‘ig’ is a reduction of the Welsh ‘fachigol’ which means diminutive.  

A fascinating history of Derig in Wales

The Welsh name Derig was first published in J.E. Smith’s Flora Britannica between 1800 and 1804, and was published again by Hugh Davies in his Welsh Botanology (1813). This early publication of this name leads to the idea that it was in general use before that point and the plant was known from Wales by the local people.  

In 1798 the botanist Reverend John Evans made a tour of North Wales but never managed to climb Yr Wyddfa. Despite this Evans wrote of the routes the Snowdon guides took up the mountain and the plants that could be found there. It is interesting that he lists Mountain Avens amongst these plants despite there being no evidence of it ever having been found on that mountain.

It wasn’t until 1857 that the plant collector William Williams with discovering Mountain Avens in the mountains of Eryri, high above Cwm Idwal. Later, Williams was accused of having planted the species at this site, as it wassuspected that he planted rare species to further establish his notoriety as a botanical guide. It wasn’t until 1946 that a second site for Derig was discovered by Evan Roberts in the Carneddau.  

Mountain Avens in Wales today

Derig is still only found at just two sites in Wales yet there are a few other sites, including on Yr Wyddfa, where the plant community with which it shares its two known homes exists.  

So, what is in a name? In this case it’s a tantalising glimpse of local knowledge surrounding plants, particularly a ‘diminutive oak’ whose first discoverers may not have been eminent botanists of the time. In this case it seems likely that the people who lived and worked alongside it knew it well, certainly well enough to recognise it and give it a name of its own. 

Thanks to Lizzie Wilberforce, Dewi Jones and Elinor Gwynn for helping with the research for this blog. 

Picture credit – Derig in Welsh Botanology, Hugh Davies, 1813, Page 182 pt. 1-2 – Welsh botanology … – Biodiversity Heritage Library (biodiversitylibrary.org) 

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