A Verbascum flower close up – but which one?
I’ve noticed tall plants with yellow flowers and started taking pictures of them, quickly realising that I might be seeing more than one similar species. This happens often, and thumbing through the flower guides, I’m reminded of the process wikipedia calls ‘disambiguation’: looking for the crucial features which tell you if you’ve got two examples of plant A, or one of A and one of B. The guide I use (see Resources and Links) helpfully puts this sort of feature in italics.
Left: V. rotundifolium.
Below: V. sinuatum (as is photo used at start)
So these are the results so far for Verbascum: both plants have a rosette of large leaves at the base, from which rises a tall (60-70cm) flower stem, bearing many yellow flowers which have purple hairy stamens. I’m pretty sure I’ve got V. sinuatum whose key distinguishing features are a branched flower-bearing stem or inflorescence, stamens of equal length, and basal leaves with wavy edges. I’m slightly less confident that another plant is V. rotundifolia, whose key differences are that the inflorescence is a single spike, that two stamens are longer than the other three, and the basal leaves are rounder. Another possible here is V. blattaria: the disambiguation isn’t yet complete. Below: flower of V. rotundifolium showing unequal stamens.
Mullein comes from the French molène, from mou/molle meaning soft, describing the soft, flabby leaves (Latin mollis – hence to mollify). Verbascum is a large genus of about 250 species, well- known in gardens because they’re tall, long-lasting, and tolerate dry soil (they tend to have long tap roots). They are mostly biennial – in the first year they grow a flat rosette of leaves, often very large, and the second year a tall flower-spike. I have read that the stems are an indication of any contamination of the soil, which if present makes them crooked.
I’m featuring this flower because, like all the flowers in this ‘Bassics of botany’ series, it was well known in ancient Greece – apparently the tall stems were set alight and carried in funeral processions. Maybe this habit, or just the appearance, is recalled in the Occitan names la candela de St Joan, and lo candelièr.
Some mulleins were, and are still, widely used in herbal remedies, especially for asthma, sore throats and lung problems – but paradoxically also in herbal cigarettes. One site insists: ‘Mullein is a fine medicinal for the lungs, even when you smoke it.’ I wonder if the fleshy lung-shaped leaves make this an example of the Doctrine of Signatures – the idea that plants are divinely marked in shape to show humans their uses?
Anyway, this serves as a link to Hippocrates of Cos (c. 469-399 BCE), the ‘father of medicine’ who established a school on the islandof Cos at the shrine of Asclepius ( see this an entangled bank entry). Hippocrates taught all over Greece, but left no text of his own – we have the writings of those he taught. He proposed the idea that illness originates in physical causes acting on the body, rather than in supernatural intervention. He advocated passive treatment – bed, rest, care, diet – very like any physician up till about 1800, and his concentration on the physical opened the door for systematic herbalism. His followers codified the famous Hippocratic Oath, sworn by English physicians till the last century, and their texts, known as the Corpus Hippocraticum, contains descriptions of between 300 and 400 medicinal plants as used by Hippocrates, including rosemary, thyme, mint, fennel, caraway, rose, cinnamon, clove, anise, frankincense, myrrh, coriander, garlic, opium, belladonna, and mandrake.
I found a mention of using boiled mullein to reduce swelling in a tract on ulcers, attributed to Hippocrates but presumably part of this Corpus. If you’re interested, this tract, which you can find here, is worth reading as an example of the level of detailed observation which went into Hippocratic practice.
That’s enough on him for a botany blog, rather than a Classics lecture.
Music: the bassist Avishai Cohen, former sideman of Chick Corea, and who now leads his own trio. From the album Continuo (2006), this is the track Nu Nu, featuring also the oud player Amos Hoffman.
Next: Woke up this mornin’ and my pressed flower was gone – back to the blues, and more plant A/plant B angst.