There are a couple of abundant weeds that you can really get on first name terms with: Herb Bennet and Herb Robert. Though they are not related, they are sometimes confused, as their human names start with the letter “B” and is prefixed with the word “herb”. (It is simpler to think of Herb Bennet by its common alternative name, Wood Avens.) The similarities don’t end there – both are hairy, have five petalled flowers, and are frequent on anthropogenic land. But they are quite different individuals.
Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum) belongs to the Rose family. The name derives from the medieval Latin herba benedicta meaning ‘blessed herb’. This blessedness came from a belief that it had the power to ward off venomous beasts and evil spirits. The Ortus Sanitatis (1491) claims “where the root is in the house, Satan can do nothing and flies from it, wherefore it is blessed before all other herbs, and if a man carries the root about him no venomous beast can harm him.” Various other names have been used for this plant, including City Avens, Way Bennet, Goldy Star, and Clive Root.
In contrast to Herb Robert, Benny is a perennial, and overwinters as a rosette of leaves. Its flowers are radially symmetrical – each is a mirror of itself in all directions. They resemble strawberry flowers, though coloured a buttercup yellow rather than white. The RHS website lists it as “perfect for pollinators”. The leaves are compound, dividing into sections which are cleft to the midrib. In A Modern Herbal written in the early 1900s, Mrs M. Grieves describes the leaves as “interruptedly pinnate”; a good description.
The fruits are globose and of the ‘hitch-a-ride’ type. They are burred with red hooks and cling to my gardening gloves when a-weeding I do (grudgingly!) go. Professional forager Robin Harford says the seed head “looks like viruses”! Dig up the plant and the roots smell of clove. In Tudor times, bunches of roots were hung up to scent clothes and banish moths from the wardrobe. Harfod uses this plant as a way of “incorporating interesting, sublime flavours into food… that haven’t been tasted on our palates for hundreds of years.” It is part of the “hidden spice chest of the hedgerow.”
That Herb Robert belongs to the Geranium family is evident in the shape of its beaked fruit, supposedly resembling a crane’s-bill. One explanation for its name suggests a link with an 11th century saint, Abbot Robert of Molesme, who was a skilled herbalist. The plant still has validity in modern herbal medicine, being used as a wound healer. Its name may also derive from an association with the house goblin of legend, Robin Goodfellow, perhaps owing to the reek of the plant when it is crushed or damaged. The smell is often described as mousey, but the authors of The Handmade Apothecary: Healing Herbal Remedies have likened it more accurately (in my opinion) to burnt rubber. For this whiffy reason, it is also called Stinky Bob.
Bob is an annual plant with stems and foliage that are often suffused with red. The leaves are highly dissected and ferny looking, and in common with Herb Bennet, the flowers are radially symmetrical. They brighten up a shady spot with a cheerful pink (and it’s not often I describe pink as cheerful!) with white streaks on each petal leading to towards the centre of the bloom. Rare, naturally occuring white forms are also found. I have only ever seen white Stinky Bob once. As these were in a garden, they may have been a cultivated form such as ‘Alba’ or ‘Celtic White’. Herb Robert is also “perfect for pollinators”, but it is interesting to note that, regardless of their attractiveness to insects, seed production appears to be the result of self-pollination. The pointed fruit is a schizocarp – a dried fruit that is divided into at least two single-seeded sections at maturity – ready to peck at the hand that weeds.
Benny and Bob are often found in company, but it’s only familiarity that has fixed which plant belongs with which name. I’ve yet to find a trick to aid the memory to remember which is Herb Robert and which is Herb Bennet. Reminds me of the poem about the witch with the itch and the witch with twitch, but that may just be my tangential mind.