The only conspicuously blooming flower at the nature center was golden groundsel. My middle son was curious about the word’s etymology. The root is Old English and dates from the early eighth century. Its history is complicated and uncertain. Among its possible meaning are “pus-absorber” (the flower is commonly used in poltices for reducing abscesses) and “ground-swallower.” The word morphs delightfully across the centuries – gundaesuelgiae, grunswel, groundie-swallow, grundy-swallow, groundis walle, and so on. The OED’s most recent citation is 1893. In “July” (“the month of Summer’s prime”) from “The Shepherd’s Calendar” sequence, John Clare writes of the seeming lethargy of mid-summer:
“Hawkweed and groundsel’s fanning downs
Unruffled keep their seedy crowns;
And in the oven-heated air,
Not one light thing is floating there,
Save that to the earnest eye,
The restless heat seems twittering by.”
Richard Mabey finds much to admire in groundsel. In Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants (2011), he writes: “Groundsel can go through an entire life cycle from seed to flower to seed in just six weeks.