Rosemary Royston on “Rumex acetosella”
“Rumex acetosella” is a poem that comes from a larger collection of work where several poems are titled with by the scientific Latinate name for what is being described. The impetus for this idea was an earlier poem I wrote, “On the Discovery of Aspirin,” where I pondered who ate the leaves from a willow tree (and why), which in turn led to the discovery of acetylsalicylic acid. Think of all those who lost their lives (or their lunch) eating plants, herbs, fungi, flowers in order to find either basic nourishment or relief from an ailment. Not only did this thought lead me to look more closely at my own surroundings (southern Appalachia) and its use of herbal remedies, but I also reflected on what I, as a young person, put into my mouth that did not come from the garden that my family planted each summer at whichever parsonage we happened to be living. And I remember, distinctly, the briny taste of sourgrass that my elementary school friend and I regularly pulled from the pasture on her dad’s dairy farm. We sucked on this salty perennial as we played outdoors, never thinking twice about whether it was poisonous or not. Luckily, we were fine.
I value accessibility in poems, and while Latinate names are not “user friendly,” I like to title some of my poems with the name that we are not accustomed to (at least not the layperson). This naming scheme asks the reader to engage in the poem in order to determine what, exactly, is being described. Having spent the majority of my life in rural places, there is no escaping nature. Nor is there a way to escape that things have more than one name. Whether it’s called sourgrassor Rumex acetosella, it’s still a weed that kids playing outdoors put in their mouths, it’s a weed that some folks put in their salad, and it’s also a nutrient for the American Copper butterfly.