The bonebreaker of Great Ayton Moor

It’s been a botanical sort of week.

Bog asphodel, I’ve always thought it a strange name. The bog bit is easy, but asphodel? Sounds very un-English to me.

Its use was first documented in the late 14th-century and derives from the Latin ‘asphodelus‘ and the Greek ‘asphodelos‘ meaning the king’s spear. It was “the peculiar plant of the dead; and in Greek mythology and English poetic use it overspreads the Elysian meadows”1Etymonline.com. (2021). asphodel | Origin and meaning of asphodel by Online Etymology Dictionary. [online] Available at: https://www.etymonline.com/word/asphodel#etymonline_v_17948 [Accessed 30 Jul. 2021]..

Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum)
Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum)

The king’s spears would be the flowering yellow spikes which brighten up a drab moorland still waiting for its annual burst of purple heather. (The ling seems slow coming this year.)

Bog asphodel is a moorland specialist of the Lily family. Some dialect names reflect its bright yellow flowers: ‘Mayden herre (Maiden’s hair) and  ‘Moor-golds2Press, Anne. “Four more from the bogs”. North York Moors Association “Voice of the Moors”. Issue 133. Autumn 2018.3“The English Dialect Dictionary, Being the Complete Vocabulary of All Dialect Words Still in Use, or Known to Have Been in Use during the Last Two Hundred Years; Founded on the Publications of the English Dialect Society and on a Large Amount of Material Never before Printed”. In six volumes edited by Joseph Wright, 1898. Volume IV. Internet Archive, 2014, https://archive.org/details/englishdialectdi04wriguoft. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.. In Devon, it is known as ‘Knavery’, whereas in the North, it is the ‘Lancashire asphodel4“The English Dialect Dictionary, Being the Complete Vocabulary of All Dialect Words Still in Use, or Known to Have Been in Use during the Last Two Hundred Years; Founded on the Publications of the English Dialect Society and on a Large Amount of Material Never before Printed”. In six volumes edited by Joseph Wright, 1898. Volume III. Internet Archive, 2014, https://archive.org/details/englishdialectdi03wriguoft. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021..

But perhaps its most telling name is its scientific one: ‘Narthecium ossifragum‘. ‘Ossium‘ is Latin for bones, ‘fragmenta‘ for fragments. An old belief was that grazing on this plant would produce leg fractures in livestock. But Bog asphodel only grows on wet acid flushes which are low in lime. Hence sheep and cattle would already be suffering from a calcium deficiency, hence bones are more brittle and susceptible to fractures5Press, Anne. “Four more from the bogs”. North York Moors Association “Voice of the Moors”. Issue 133. Autumn 2018..

Bog asphodel has been used as a substitute for saffron and as a yellow hair dye6Mabey, Richard. “Flora Britannica”. Page 400. Reed International Books Ltd. 1996. ISBN 1 85619 377 2..

  • 1
    Etymonline.com. (2021). asphodel | Origin and meaning of asphodel by Online Etymology Dictionary. [online] Available at: https://www.etymonline.com/word/asphodel#etymonline_v_17948 [Accessed 30 Jul. 2021].
  • 2
    Press, Anne. “Four more from the bogs”. North York Moors Association “Voice of the Moors”. Issue 133. Autumn 2018.
  • 3
    “The English Dialect Dictionary, Being the Complete Vocabulary of All Dialect Words Still in Use, or Known to Have Been in Use during the Last Two Hundred Years; Founded on the Publications of the English Dialect Society and on a Large Amount of Material Never before Printed”. In six volumes edited by Joseph Wright, 1898. Volume IV. Internet Archive, 2014, https://archive.org/details/englishdialectdi04wriguoft. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.
  • 4
    “The English Dialect Dictionary, Being the Complete Vocabulary of All Dialect Words Still in Use, or Known to Have Been in Use during the Last Two Hundred Years; Founded on the Publications of the English Dialect Society and on a Large Amount of Material Never before Printed”. In six volumes edited by Joseph Wright, 1898. Volume III. Internet Archive, 2014, https://archive.org/details/englishdialectdi03wriguoft. Accessed 10 Apr. 2021.
  • 5
    Press, Anne. “Four more from the bogs”. North York Moors Association “Voice of the Moors”. Issue 133. Autumn 2018.
  • 6
    Mabey, Richard. “Flora Britannica”. Page 400. Reed International Books Ltd. 1996. ISBN 1 85619 377 2.

One Reply to “The bonebreaker of Great Ayton Moor”

  1. Always thought of the Bog Asphodel as a plant of the southern moors (seen a fair bit on Fylingdales Moor alongside Bloody Beck) a bit like Bog Myrtle. Hadn’t realised it was ‘up north’ as well.

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