The forget-me-not is one of those plants which are ‘only a …’. But like so many apparently over-familiar pieces of nature, it repays closer examination. It must be one of the most widespread (and toughest) plants in the northern hemisphere, grows in the least promising conditions, can reproduce two or three times a year, and can over-winter except in the harshest of conditions – but it is precisely this resilience and profligacy that cause it to be regarded almost as a weed.
Myosotis (‘mouse’s ear’ referring to the leaves rather than the flowers) was named thus by Linnaeus in 1753. Sir John Hill, who had read his Linnaeus, in his 1755 The British Herbal: An History of Plants and Trees, Natives of Britain, Cultivated for Use, or Raised for Beauty (where on the title page can be seen ‘Aesculapius and Flora gathering from the Lap of Nature, Health and Pleasure’), refers to four species of Myosotis, to which he gives the common name ‘scorpion-grass’.
(Incidentally, the book is dedicated to Hugh Percy (formerly Smithson), first duke of Northumberland, patron of Canaletto and commissioner for the building of Westminster Bridge.)
Mrs Delany used Hill as a reference in her plant-collecting rambles in Ireland, ‘but he is not half so intelligible as old Gerard’. (She made a collage of forget-me-not in 1775, probably collecting the plant at the home of her sister Anne at Wellesbourne in Warwickshire.)
In volume VII of his The Vegetable System of 1764 Hill refers to the ‘Short-Leaved Mouse-Ear’ as Myosotis arvensis, the Linnaean name, describing it thus: ‘The Seeds are smooth; the Leaves are short, plain, hairy, and sharp-pointed. This is an annual; a pretty Plant, native of our dry banks, flowering in April. The Stalk is brownish, and not six inches high; the Leaves are of a yellowish green; the Flowers are small, of a dead blue, with a yellow eye; and sometimes all yellow.’
John Hill (1714–75) deserves, as they say, to be better known (though the polymath Professor George Rousseau has published a biography which helps to set this right). I failed to locate Hill at first in the ODNB, because he is described as ‘physician and actor’, both of which (among much else) he in fact was. He knew everyone, and unfortunately quarrelled with most of them, with the result that he ended up derided and rejected in a remarkable variety of fields. The fourth son of a clergyman/physician, he began his career as an apothecary in London, and as a plant collector came under the patronage of the duke of Richmond, spending time at Goodwood House, where he met the actors who played at the duke’s private theatre (among them the young Garrick); fell in love (like Garrick) with the famous Peg Woffington; and wrote an opera.
Back in London by 1743, Hill acted with Garrick, at the same time developing his botanical interests and improving his acquaintance with the likes of Sir Hans Sloane and William Watson, though his efforts to become an F.R.S. were never successful. He wrote prolifically on everything from true crime (which led to a quarrel with Henry Fielding) to translations from the classics, fossils, textbooks of astronomy, plays and farces, herbal remedies, Cautions Against the Immoderate Use of Snuff and Plain and Useful Directions for those Who Are Afflicted with Cancers.
His ‘knighthood’ was the Order of Vasa, awarded to him by Gustavus III of Sweden in 1774 for the 26 volumes and 1,600 engravings of his magnum opus, The Vegetable System. This project had left him in difficult financial circumstances when his patron, Lord Bute, lost interest in the project after he (briefly) became prime minister in 1762; after Hill’s death, his widow attempted to sue Bute for money lost, and later tried a ‘shaming’ pamphlet campaign to get the peer to do the honourable thing. And, sadly, Garrick’s epigram, ‘For Physick and Farces, his Equal there scarce is, His Farces are Physick, and his Physick a Farce is’, and Hogarth’s inclusion of his two skits on the Royal Society as one of the books in the basket in ‘Beer Street’, are the aspects of this multi-talented man which his contemporaries chose to remember.
But back to the forget-me-not. It got the popular name ‘scorpion-grass’, as Hill explains, because the curve of the flower stalk as it unfurls allegedly looks like a scorpion’s tail. The now common name appears to have been borrowed/translated from the German Vergissmeinnicht. Accrued legends include one about two lovers walking along the Danube: the man picked the [water forget-me-not] flowers for the woman, but he was swept away by the river and told her not to forget him as he floated down with the current.
A less mournful story is that when God was creating the plants, the (colourless) Myosotis whispered to Him ‘Forget me not’, and God obliged with a scrap of blue, the only colour He had left.
Freemasons may have used it as a symbol (though this seems to be controversial), and it was adopted in 2015 as the symbolic flower of the Armenian Genocide (of which the anniversary is remembered today, 24 April). One rather odd claim is that the first reference in English to ‘forget-me-not’ is from 1398, when the future usurper Henry IV adopted it as his symbol upon his exile from England. This story appears all over the place, but the OED disagrees, dating the first English reference to 1532, and attributing the Henry IV link to none other than Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland, in 1840.
‘This royal adventurer, the banished Lancaster, appears to have been the person who gave to the Myosotis arvensis, or, “forget-me-not”, its emblematic and poetic meaning, by uniting it, at the period of his exile, on his collar of SS, with the initial letter of his mot, or watchword, “Souveigne-vous de moy”; thus rendering it the symbol of remembrance.’ The industrious Stricklands quote two sources: Thomas Willement’s 1821 Regal Heraldry, and Willement’s own source, John Anstis’s 1724 Register of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, which says that, in the 15th regnal year of Richard II, the then Bolingbroke paid for ‘a gold collar made with Esses and the Flowers of Souveigne-vous de moy’. It hardly needs pointing put that the name is still French, and that in the regnal year 1392–3 Bolingbroke had not been exiled … but what a pity the collar seems not to have survived.
I realise I haven’t paid much attention in all this to the plant and its flowers. Look at them under a lens – every shade of blue you can imagine, slight iridescence, amazing symmetry. And on the macro scale, rivers of easy-to-grow, flowing blue ground cover – another overlooked, everyday wonder!