Little Herb Robert,
Bright and small,
Peeps from the bank
Or the old stone wall.
Little Herb Robert,
His leaf turns red;
He’s wild geranium,
So it is said.
Cicely Mary Barker (Flower Fairies Of The Summer)
Herb Robert is one of my favourite “weeds”. Chances are you’ve probably walked past it many times without giving it a moments thought, I know I did.
Despite it’s prolific nature, it’s often overlooked and underappreciated, having little to offer in a culinary sense, but it boasts an impressive medicinal history!
A Name Of Many Claims
The first question you might ask, is how did it get it’s name? But the answer, it seems, is not so simple. In fact, there seem to be many conflicting theories.
The first part Geranium is straightforward enough and stems from the Greek word geranos meaning crane (the bird), relating to the long pointed beak-like shape of the seed pods.
Robertianum or Robert, on the other hand, seems to be shrouded in mystery.
Once known as St. Robert or St. Roberts Wort, it is said by some to be named after 11th century French saint Abbot Robert of Molerne. Founder of the Cistercian Order (whatever that is!)
Some sources claim it was because he was born in April when the pretty pink flowers begin to appear. A more compelling reason is given that he cured many diseases with the herb, including Ruprecht’s Plague.
Interestingly, one source claimed the name of this disease was attributed to Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy and suggests that Herb Robert was named after him, having been used to treat him in Germany.
I cant find any confirmation of this, however plenty of sources do mention the duke, son of William the Conqueror, as a possible namesake.
His name is often mentioned in relation to the medical treatise, Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum, written in the form of a poem. There doesn’t seem to be any mention of the herb in the translations of the text but given that he was allegedly being treated for battle wounds at the time, Herb Robert would have been a likely treatment.
Mystery And Myth
Among the many common names is Red Robin, and as folklore has it Robin Goodfellow or Puck, the impish sprite characterised in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, is said to be the protector of Herb Robert.
Interestingly Germany’s version of the mythical house goblin bears the familiar name Knecht Ruprecht.
According to the book Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants* By Charles M. Skinner, another attribute to the name is given to Robin Hood as a commemoration of the highwayman’s “concealed virtues”.
And after all that is the somewhat mundane suggestion that it simply relates to the Latin rubor, meaning red!
This plant contains a variety of beneficial compounds including germanium which helps to make oxygen available to cells. High oxygen levels are believed to help prevent and reduce cancerous cells in the human body. Although modern science remains sceptical, it’s worth noting that in traditional medicine plants were used as a whole, whereas today studies tend to isolate compounds in order to measure the effects.