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The Fumitories, of which Corydalis and Fumaria are the only two fully British genera, are distinguished in the Order of Fumariaceae by having one of the petals swollen or spurred at the base, and a oneseeded capsule which does not open. The name is said to be derived either from the fact that its whitish, blue-green colour gives it the appearance of smoke rising from the ground, or, according to Pliny, because the juice of the plant brings on such a flow of tears that the sight becomes dim as with smoke, and hence its reputed use in affections of the eye. According to the ancient exorcists, when the plant is burned, its smoke has the power of expelling evil spirits, it having been used for this purpose in the famous geometrical gardens of St. Gall. There is a legend that the plant was produced, not from seed, but from vapours arising out of the earth.
Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis L.) is a member of Fumariaceae, a family of annual and perennial herbs, whose best-known genera, in addition to Fumaria, are Corydalis and Dicentra (bleeding heart and Dutchman's breeches). Fumariaceae is mainly a temperate family that embraces 16 genera and 400 species. Economically, its use is limited to garden ornamentals (Heywood 1993). , Brummitt (1992) and Hyam and Pankhurst (1995) place fumitory in Papaveraceae, but most authorities, including Mabberley (1989), put it in Fumariaceae.
In 1753, Linnaeus established the genus Fumaria in his Species Plantarum. He derived the name from the Latin fumus terrae, "smoke of the earth," alluding to the smoke-like smell of some species or to smoke rising from the ground (Britton and Brown 1897; De Bray 1978; Le Strange 1977). Hyam and Pankhurst (1995) believe that Fumaria is so-called because of the diffuse foliage of certain species, which may resemble smoke. This explains one of its early English names, earth smoke, derived from an early legend that fumitory was created by vapor rising from the earth (De Bray 1978; Le Strange 1977). Other common names for fumitory include beggary, fume-of-the-earth, fumiterre, fumusterre (directly from fumus terrae), God's fingers and thumbs, snapdragon, and wax dolls. And despite fumitory's delicate appearance, it is quite capable of strangling whole crop fields, as the name "beggary" implies (De Bray 1978).
The first written record of the word "fumeterre" (also fumiterre) is found in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote in 1386, "Of lauriol, centaure, and fumeterre." The pronunciation and spelling changed over the centuries and finally became established as "fumitory" when John Ray referred to Fumaria officinalis as climbing fumitory in 1670 (Simpson and Weiner 1989). The specific epithet officinalis is from the Latin and means "of shops," "sold in shops," or "official medicine" (Gledhill 1985). From the time of the Anglo-Saxons onwards, some species of Fumaria, particularly fumitory, became much associated with witchcraft and superstition. The leaves were burned for their smoke, which was firmly believed to possess the power to expel and protect against evil spirits and spells (Allan 1978; Le Strange 1977).
About 55 species of Fumaria are known, the majority of which are rather floppy, delicate, hairless annuals with finely divided leaves and small, tubular, red to pink or whitish flowers. It is native mainly to Europe, including the British Isles, Central Asia, and the Himalayas; however, one species is tropical, native to the East African highlands (Hyam and Pankhurst 1995; Le Strange 1977). Fumitory is ephemeral, disappearing from the fields at a comparatively early date. However, it quite frequently dominates. Fumaria includes a number of species which are not particularly weedy, and some of these are more ephemeral than others (Brenchley 1910).