— Karen Beck
Every spring I look forward to seeing the whitish patches that start creeping across open grassy areas. No, it’s not the last of the snow, but a tiny, very light blue flower known by a variety of names.
Despite the flowers’ individual small size, the fact that it spreads into large patches can make it highly visible from a distance.
Its botanical name can be found as either Houstonia caerulea or Hedyotis caerulea. It isn’t the botanical name that I find interesting, though, but the various common names. It has been known as Quaker bonnets, Quaker ladies, bluets, and Innocence, supposedly based upon either the hats or the dress color worn by Quaker ladies in years past.
But my favorite common name for this plant is a Rhode Island colloquialism: piss-a-bed. As a botanist, I know that when I use a botanical name, any other botanist will know exactly which plant that I mean.
When you use a common name, you are taking your chances that the other person will be able to identify just which plant you are talking about. For instance, in Newfoundland a “pissabed” is a dandelion, which may make sense because dandelions can be used as a diuretic. According to the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants, Native Americans used to make a leaf tea from bluets to cure bed-wetting, too. However, due to my experience as a mom of a toddler, I think they are called “pissabed” because they spread like…what?