Alchemilla leaf with water droplets
Home » Plant names, alchemy and Alchemilla

Plant names, alchemy and Alchemilla

Alchemilla leaf with water droplets
Alchemilla leaf with water droplets 

Plant names often have an interesting history behind them: I came across Alchemilla while looking up a plant I photographed at the weekend. Thinking about the names often helps with remembering them, and also gives insight into the history of the species. Earlier in the year, we discussed the naming of a species after Professor Clive Stace.

More remarkable is the origin of the name of the Alchemilla genus/species. Like many botanist-photographers of Alchemilla leaves, looking from the window I was taken by the lens-like water droplets on the leaf surface – incidentally a plant leaf surface property that is the subject of several papers and another AoBBlog post. Wikipedia mentions  the interesting properties of the leaves that lead to the water balling up on the surface, but goes on to add: “These beads of water were considered by alchemists to be the purest form of water. They utilised this water in their quest to turn base metal into gold. Hence the name Alchemilla.”

As a molecular biologist, I have spent many days struggling with less-than-pure water, and much money obtaining pure water. I expect the ancient alchemists were completely correct in their view that the water on the leaf surface, from rain or dew, was as pure as they were likely to be able to find.

Meanwhile, I am using the leaf image as the wallpaper for my computer screen at the moment: the full-resolution image (upper) and lower image are available by clicking on the links or pictures and are downloadable as a jpg file. Right-click and select option to set as wallpaper on a PC or click-wait on Android (for fast loading, may need to be saved after downsizing).

Water droplets on Achemilla leaves as lenses
Water droplets on Alchemilla leaves as lenses

Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison

Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.


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