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Sweet William by the side of the road

A field of Sweet William was spied along the banks of Knapps Creek. L.D. Bennett photo

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

As you drive the roads of our county this time of year, you are sure to notice a lot of tall lavender and white flowers clinging to the sides of rocky, steep banks and scattered out by the edges of the fields.

These early summer beauties are what we’ve always called “Sweet William.”

They are actually one of many varieties of the phlox family – this one being Wild Sweet William or Blue Phlox.

The generic name, Phlox, is Greek for “fire” or “flame,” because its twisted flower bud resembles a flame. 

The specific epithet, divaricata, is Latin for “branched,” “divergent,” or “wide spreading,” either because of their spreading habit or because of the branching flowering stems. 

Phlox is Greek for blazing, and while the blue (or really soft lavender), pink or white shades of the wild phlox we have here in West Virginia aren’t “blazing” with color, they certainly do stand out as one of our prettiest springtime wild flowers.

The domesticated, smaller varieties of phlox would be more appropriately termed blazing, as their colors range from bright red to bright pink and all colors in between.

Sweet William has numerous colors of cultivars and hybrids ranging from white, pink, red and purple to variegated patterns.

Wild Blue Phlox and their cousins in the phlox family were some of the first North American native flowers to be collected by Europeans and exported to England and Europe. 

The 60-some species of phloxes which were native to North America were quickly recognized as valuable garden plants by early European plant collectors.

They transplanted well in the Old World and became a very popular wild flower there.

While wild Sweet William never attained the status of the summer-flowering and brighter-colored garden phlox, its popularity in the gardens of Europe has always been greater there than here in its American home.

In Victorian England, young women frequently carried bouquets of Wild Blue Phlox.

It symbolized gallantry, a proposal of love or a wish for pleasant dreams. 

The tradition of using it in lovers’ bouquets continues to this day.

When Britain’s Prince William married Catherine Middleton in April 2011, Catherine included Sweet William in her wedding bouquet, as a special tribute to her bridegroom, her own Sweet William.

Our wild, woodland blue phlox has a very long history.

Somehow, it survived the hot, dry period between the recession of the icy glaciers hundreds of thousands of years ago.
After the glaciers receded, two separate colonies of the wildflowers remained – those with notched petals which spread westward from the Appalachians, and those which spread north and south in the east that are our present-day wild phlox.
There is much debate over which William Sweet William was named for. 

Some say it was William the Conqueror and some say it was Saint William of York.

Others will tell you that Sweet William was named by England’s King George II for his brother, Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, after William’s famous victory over the Scots at Culloden in 1746.

But since wild Sweet William had made its way over the water to the Old Country with the Spaniards, the English and other European botanists in the 16th and 17th centuries, it seems perhaps it already had its name before the notorious battle of Culloden.

I suppose the Scots aren’t liable to forget or forgive the outcome of that terrible battle, as Sweet William is, even to this day in Scotland, known as “Stinking Willie” or “Sour Billy.

Wild Blue Phlox had a few medicinal uses. 

A tea made from the entire plant was used for treating stomach and intestinal disorders. 

A dried leaf tea was used as a blood purifier and for treating boils and eczema.

The roots were steeped and were used as eyewash. 

A poultice made from its petals was used on sores, bruises, burns and as an eye wash. 

Its blossoms are edible and have a pleasant, mild flavor.

They can be used as a garnish for vegetable and fruit salads, as an edible decoration on cake icing, on desserts or in cold drinks, such as iced tea.

Petals of Sweet William will add a colorful flourish to ice cream, sorbets, or on a main course of seafood or fish.

Sweet William is a popular ornamental plant used in flower gardens, planted in pots, or in shady rock gardens.

In the right spot, it will reseed itself and spread, but it may also be reproduced from rooted cuttings.

Older clumps may be divided in the fall, or seedlings lifted and relocated around the garden. 

Give Sweet William a shady spot in your yard or by the edge of your woods and let it be another welcome blossom of springtime as it returns every year.

The blossoms produces a tantalizing nectar which will attract birds, bees and butterflies.

Wild Sweet William grows best in partial to heavy shade, but will grow in the sun as long as it gets an occasional bit of water.

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