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  • Writer's pictureCalyx

The Lament of the Lamiums

Updated: May 2, 2021

A Brief Etymological History of Lamiaceae

Lamium purpureum (Purple Deadnettle)

The Mint family was originally established and named Labiatae by the French botanist Antoine de Jussieu in 1789. Labia is the latin word meaning “lips”, and refers to the distinctive two-lipped look of the flowers in the mint family. In 1830 the English botanist John Lindley proposed the name “Lamiaceae,” which was later accepted by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature as an alternative name. Though either name is accepted, Labiatae is rarely used, and nearly all modern botanists use Lamiaceae. The name was changed all the way back to the Order- from Labiales to Lamialeas. The family name changed from Labitae to Lamiaceae, and the Deadnettle genus from Labia to Lamium.

So why the change? At first glance, one might consider that this change was an act of prudence; perhaps men of science of the early 19th century preferred for their nomenclature not to be compared to female anatomy. That is what I suspected, that is, until I learned what Lamia means. Lamia is the latin term for monster, specifically a man-eating female monster. It was a term used to describe witches, sorceresses, mermaids (which until recently, were considered evil or mischievous creatures in folklore), and other dangerous or malicious female characters.

The name change gives you a peek into history and what kind of things were occurring in the worlds of medicine, science, and herbalism at that time. In most communities in nineteenth-century Europe and United States it was herbalists, often women in the home, who performed many of the tasks later assumed by professionally trained doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. Medical training was becoming more science-based and regular physicians more prevalent. Women have been the constant undervalued backbone of medicine for centuries, often silenced and considered inferior beside their more regulated and esteemed male counterparts. The Wise Woman Tradition has existed for as long as humans have walked the earth.

As the witch-trial era transitioned into the era of modern medicine, the wisdom passed down within families and communities was becoming lost. More than ever, traditional healing practices were being dismissed as irrational, superstitious, and potentially dangerous. Folk practices that had been safely and successfully performed for thousands of years were being dismissed on the grounds of literate elitism; those who were illiterate were disregarded, and there was a movement to maintain classist separation between commoners and the literate elite. In the early 19th century, the botanist Samuel Thomson became a catalyst for literacy among commoners in the United States and was an advocate for egalitarianism and domestic medicine. It was a dark time in medical history, and practices among "regular physicians," as they referred to themselves, often included the use of extreme medical procedures such as bloodletting, the use of mercury and other poisons, and so forth. There was a big push back from the male dominated physicians, and the Royal Colleges who accredited them, to disregard female healers in an effort to supplant them. They mostly succeeded and folk medicine fell into disrepute.

Mints are among the most important and commonly used medicinal plants used in folk medicine. Other families that have classically ranked in this order include Boriginaceae and Verbenaceae families, both medicinally significant families. These plants represent The People's Medicine. To change their name from something that aptly describes their physical features, to one that denotes them as having an association with “monstrous” female characters is demonstrative of the politics of the time, and how those politics shaped the modern western worldview.

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Wonderful collection of delightful information!

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