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It is an annual or biennial growing to 90 cm (35 in) tall by 30 cm (12 in) broad, with large, coarse, pointed oval leaves with marked serrations. The leaves are hairy, the lower ones long-stalked, the upper ones stalkless. In spring and summer it bears terminal racemes of white or violet flowers, followed by showy, green through light brown, translucent, disc-shapedsilicles (not true botanical seedpods). When a silicle is ripe and dry, a valve on each of its sides readily falls off, and its seeds fall off a central membrane which has a silvery sheen, 3–8 cm (1–3 in) in diameter; the membrane can persist on a plant throughout a winter depending on the weather. These silicles are much used in dry floral arrangements.
The Latin name lunaria means "moon-shaped" and refers to the shape and appearance of this species' silicles. The common name "honesty" arose in the 16th century, and may also relate to the translucence of its silicle membranes. In South East Asia, it is called the "money plant" and in the United States it is commonly known as "silver dollars", "Chinese money", or "Chinese coins" because its silicle membranes have the appearance of silvery coins. For the same reason, in French it is known as monnaie du pape ("Pope's money"). In Denmark it is known as judaspenge and in Dutch-speaking countries as judaspenning (both meaning "coins of Judas"), an allusion to the story of Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver he was paid for betraying Christ.
In the language of flowers, the plant represents honesty, money, and sincerity. In witchcraft, the honesty plant is considered protective, being thought to keep away monsters. The plant is also used in spells for prosperity, the flat pods (when ripe and silvery) resembling coins and therefore being seen as symbolising promises of wealth. In the earliest surviving recipe for a flying ointment (recorded by Bavarian physician Johannes Hartlieb circa 1440), Lunaria is included as the herbal ingredient corresponding astrologically to the moon and therefore to be picked on the lunar day of Monday.