The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Jasmine
– John Milton, Lycidas, ln 143
The genus Corvus deserves respect; of all the birds, the crows will thrive with us. They are fascinating creatures, but their toes (while useful and even industrious) do not remind me of flowers. Why did the word-makers of old name flowers after the crow’s foot? Someone (a peasant, a king, the local shaman) took a look at a flower and said to themselves, their neighbors and the whole tribe: You know what? That flower looks like a crow’s toes. We typically use metaphors and similes to explain an unfamiliar object by referring to a more familiar object. Thus, for the community in which these word-makers made their way, a crow’s toes were a common reference point and visually more familiar than the flower they described. By the time that Milton listed the crow-toe as a flower fit for the imagined funeral of his (lost-at-sea) classmate, people had forgotten the original, bony toes of the crow and imagined the flower instead. Tossing actual crow toes at a casket does have a certain Gothic appeal, but it would likely offend the living (if not the dead) and put one at the mercy of local corvid murders. But what did Milton have in mind? What were the crow-toes blooming in Milton’s literary garden?
Most sources (including the OED) identify Hyacinthoides non-scripta (also known as Scilla nutans), commonly called the English Bluebell. In fact, this line from Lycidas is a common reference, used by the OED and suffusing as the definition of crow-toe in the 1828 edition of Websters. To be fair, the OED, also notes that “crow-toe” additionally refers to Orchis mascula, Lotus corniculatus, and a number of Buttercups (crow-toes in a cup a butter–yum), but I find each of those unlikely in this case. With the possible exception of a some unnamed variety of Buttercup, these were either not common enough or simply not attractive … not worthy of funeral biers. Homer B. Sprague’s notes in an 1891 edition of Paradise Lost make the best case for the Bluebell; Sprague finds one of Milton’s early drafts which does not use “crow-toe”, but does allude to the Hyacinth. However, how exactly does an English Bluebell look like a crow’s toes? True, the leaf blades are narrow and pointy and the sky blue petals curl back on themselves (like a bird’s foot on a perch?), but what makes them “tufted”? To some, Hyacinth foliage in a field or lawn may appear tuft-like, but I’ve never thought so.
Hyacinths are reliable bulbs and Bluebells spread quickly under trees. They bloom (as do Primroses) in the Spring (maybe a bit later), so it’s feasible to have both Primroses and Bluebells at a special occasion in 17th Century England. The word-makers, however, failed us and failed Milton too. We have lost the crow-toe, while the flower may be alive and well, the word is little more than a ghost of a metaphor.