Miroir de Vénus et les Mourons - Venus' Looking Glass and the Pimpernels

These three weeds were growing side by side in a farmer's field. Their names, both in French and English, are strange The large purple flowers are the Venus' looking glass. The scarlet flower is the scarlet pimpernel and the tiny blue ones the blue pimpernel. In French the pimpernels are sometimes called 'mouron' but I also read of 'morgeline'. Quite a few plant names must be inventions of educated herbalists of the 15th to 17th centuries. You can hardly imagine a farm peasant saying 'Hey - look at this Venus looking glass!' Yet Gerard, the herbalist, writing in 1597, called it that. Linnaeus (the originator of the system of Latin names) in 1753 called it 'speculum-veneris' which means the same. The plant is beautiful but hardly resembles a mirror. But wait for the seed capsules to open when numerous glittering seeds fall out. These might be likened to shattered fragments of glass. Seeing these, the originator of the name, with his classical education, would recall the story of Cupid who found the mirror that his mother Venus had lost, in the hands of some shepherd, and to avert some magical tragedy, shattered it into a thousand glittering fragments. The imagery is recalled in the famous 'Rokeby Venus' where Cupid holds a mirror to reflect his mother's beauty. Whatever the history, this spectacularly glorious species grows throughout France and the Mediterranean. In Britain there exists only an inferior related species with far less beauty.

Now the mourons; this name is much more likely to be of peasant origin. It is known from about 1100. It means 'that which changes'. What change? Is it noting that their petals fold up when dull weather comes? From this comes the other name of 'poor man's weather glass'. The flowers open about 8.00 a.m.(Greenwich time) and close by mid afternoon - 2 p.m. (16.00 hours French time)-, so it also helps to tell of the passing hours. The other name 'morgeline' is as ancient and seems to mean 'morsure de galline' or 'chicken-bite', It is also used for other species which in England are called 'chickweeds'. Botanically the blue and scarlet pimpernels are closely related and some books say they are just varieties of each other. Since the hybrid is sterile, this cannot be so. But the name 'pimpernel' has its own strange history. It probably began also as a herbalists' term for plants with pinnate leaves (divided like a feather). The word became vulgarised and used among ordinary folk for a variety of weeds. Its apogee came as the nom de guerre of Sir Peter Blakeney 'The Scarlet Pimpernel', that incarnation of English upper-class superiority over French revolutionaries invented by Baroness d'Orczy. My suspicion is that the French farm worker of today just calls them all 'mauvaises herbes', and gets out the weedkiller.

natural history index | home page