Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Blues: Anchusa azurea – Italian bugloss

If you’re going to start a series on blue, you have to start here.  This plant is all about colour.  The flowers are small but the most intense blue I’ve ever seen – if you pass a stunning flash of deep gorgeous blue, chances are it’s this plant.  Sometimes there are swathes of this colour in fields or at the edges – a wonderful sight, but one I’ve found it hard to capture on a small digital camera, whose sensor just can’t take the saturation (so the first two photos are courtesy of Chaiselongue).

It is also called Italian alkanet, and like alkanet the long Anchusa taproots can be used to give a red dye.  The word alkanet comes from the Spanish alcaneta, diminutive of alcana, in turn from the Arabic al-hanna: so meaning ‘little henna’.

This plant is found all over France, and indeed all round the Mediterranean.  Some areas treat it as a noxious weed: it’s covered with long hairs which can prick the skin so I wouldn’t advise picking it – apparently its hollow stems don’t make it a very successful cut flower anyway. It is said that in  Crete the young stems are cooked and eaten. Many varieties are grown in gardens for their colour and height.

I pondered long and hard over what blue tune should go with this, the first in the series of blue flowers and blue  music.  It’s the sort of task I very much enjoy. In the end I settled for this, for its liveliness which I thought suited the flower. Dianne Reeves gives it all she has in New Orleans on her version of the Cuban musician Mongo Santamaria’s  Afro blue.

Because it’s so good, try Santamaria’s  original 1959 recording, based on an African drum rhythm:

Next:  more blue.



Filed under Anchusa

Tragopogon porrifolius – Salsify

A botanical name to rejoice in. Doesn’t it sound like the name given to his eldest son by a classically-minded aristocrat? ‘Tragopogon – oh you must know Traggy.  His brother Xerxes was my fag at Eton’.

Back to the plant.  From the Greek tragon, billy-goat, and pogon, beard because of the hairy seed-head or pappus. Did you know that the hairy lobe of cartilage in front of men’s ears is also called a tragon?  I didn’t till this week.  Porrifolius because the leaves – unlike the dandelion which in other ways this resembles – are smooth and linear, like a leek (Latin porrus).  The flower is also called purple goat’s beard in English. The long spiky bracts, much longer than the petals, really give this flower a look.

People who don’t know the flower may know the roots which are cultivated as a vegetable – these were developed in Italy, arriving in the rest of Europe in the 17th century, and the name salsify comes from the Italian sassefrica – maybe there is some connection to salt or sauce in the name. It is a native of mostly southern Europe, as the tela botanica map shows:

A brief digression on the word ‘vegetable’. I was surprised that Geoffrey Grigson says this was not used in the sense of a garden plant for cooking until the late 17th century, and the earliest OED quotation is from 1768.  What did they call the stuff they ate with their meat before then?

The salsify roots are – or were – also called vegetable oyster,  because people thought they had a marine flavour (Richard Mabey says it tastes like baked salt fish). The French method of cooking them is to peel them then cook with lemon and butter. Jane Grigson recommends topping and tailing the roots, washing them well, then boiling for 30 minutes before plunging them in cold water and then peeling them.  They can then be put into salads, fried, or frittered – as you want. Don’t dig up wild plants by the root – these suggestions are for cultivated veg.

Not only are the flowers impressive, but so are the seedheads. Driving back home the other night the closed-up flowers looked like huge green candles in the headlights, and the dried head is like the biggest dandelion clock you’ll ever see.

Spiky, colourful, rootsy – the jazz has to be Charles Mingus and the album Blues and Roots (1960). A wonderful musician whose work I love very much, but in person, well, spiky: a friend of mine saw him at Ronnie Scott’s and went up to him to say ‘Great set, Mr Mingus’.  ’F… off’ replied the great man.  This is Moanin’ and from the first honks of the baritone sax (played by Pepper Adams) you know this is going to be fun.

Coming up soon:  this has given me an idea to do a series of blue flowers with some blues tunes.


Filed under Tragopogon

Gladiolus communis – common gladiolus

A smallish plant, usually up to 50cm tall – not to be confused with the showy garden flowers, emblem of Dame Edna Everage, which are species from South Africa. Also known as Cornflag.

The name is from the Latin gladius (sword), and means a small sword, from the shape of the leaf.  The same derivation lies behind the French glaïeul and Occitan glaujòl, but I was interested  that one Occitan name is la cotèla or  cotelassa (pronounced cootaylasso) – a big knife.  Adding -as (-assa for feminine words) to the end of a word is a common augmentative in Oc: enfantas means a big child, and more vulgarly you can call someone a plonker by using colha (testicle), or colhassa to call them a big plonker.  It’s not a French form – so I was excited to think that it may be a rare example of an Occitan word becoming an English one: cutlass. The OED gives an Italian word – coltellaccio –  as the source, but it must have passed through Oc.

Anyway, the flowers are all the more lovely for not being an everyday sight, and I’ve usually seen them in ones and twos, in contrast to the groups and drifts, or colonies, of other flowers.  Maybe they don’t propagate well by seed, and the corm at the base doesn’t often divide.  I’m sad that they’re not in the catalogue of the usually comprehensive supplier of Mediterranean plants for the garden – Pépinière Filippi near Mèze (see on my new Resources and Links page).

Now I confess that I identified these with our old copy of Flowers of the Mediterranean by Polunin and Huxley, and I see from my new and excellent Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean by Blamey and Grey-Wilson (also see Resources page for details)  that they may be G. italicus – but I wanted the communis for my link to a song appropriate to a red (communist) flower – the Internationale.

Thanks to my friend Pete for the link to this version, by the American singer Tony Babino, described on his own website as ‘one of today’s premier vocalists’. He’s best known for contributing this song to the credits of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: a love story (2009).

While you’re about it, why not have a look at Pete’s own blog here: he’s a writer and if you’re interested in popular music, psychoanalysis and street photography this is the blog you’ve been waiting for.

The French words to the Internationale were written in 1871 by a member of the Paris Commune, Eugène Pottier, and the tune by Pierre De Geyter (1848-1932), a woodcarver. It became the official anthem of the Second International, and of the Soviet Union until 1944. I still remember all the words to the first verse by heart from my youthful career as a left-wing agitator.  Stand and raise your clenched fist after you hit the youtube play button to recreate all the atmosphere of a Seventies socialist youth rally.

Coming up soon: roots and blues.


Filed under Gladiolus

Orchis purpurea – Lady orchid

This is a perennial, found all over France (except Brittany, maybe wrong soil), but rare in Britain.  It likes limestone  hillsides and woods – which is where I saw this one.

The Lady orchid was probably named after Our Lady, i.e. the Virgin Mary. Geoffrey Grigson comments that English plant names starting  ‘Lady’ often derived from German monastic herbals of the 16th century, and were unknown before these herbals were translated – similar English names before then tended to use the name Mary. It must be an Anglo-German connection: the French name is Orchis pourpre (purple orchid).

The Lady prefix tended to be used to honour particularly medicinal or attractive plants.  So Lady =  Pretty, and this plant is undeniably pretty.  But hang on, isn’t there a contradiction in the name? Yes, of course, orchid derives from the Greek orchis, meaning testicle, because of the shape of the underground tubers.

Something with balls becoming a lady? Here we’re in the realm of the latest Pedro Almodóvar film, La piel que habito (The skin I live in) – review here. Even more so if you consider the names of this flower in Occitan: l’òme penjat, l’embriaïga, lo soldat (the hanged man, the drunkard, and the soldier – a film title in itself). I think it’s the red face and lolling tongue – and maybe a phallic symbol too.  You can’t read much about orchids before realising that, as a village shop proprietress once warned me of the Sunday papers, ‘They’re just about sex, sex, sex’.

Firstly, the botanical side. The flowers of orchids have evolved such a huge range of strategems to achieve not only pollination, but cross-pollination (fertilisation with pollen from another plant of the same species) that they became fascinating to Charles Darwin as he developed evidence to support his recently-published Origin of species (see this photojournal which reminded me of an orchid anniversary).  The whole orchid flower is constructed to ensure that its own pollen does not reach its own stigma, and to this end is often adapted to a particular insect or other pollinator, which in turn adapts to the orchid – an example of coevolution.  The crucial thing about cross-pollination is that it increases the variety of the genetic make-up of the seeds, helping Darwin prove that sexual reproduction between unrelated strains was an evolutionary advantage.  He was well aware that he himself had flouted this rule in marrying his own first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and all his life he worried that this was the cause of his children’s illnesses and frailties.

Certainly this orchid habit of looking outward for pollinating partners has resulted in rapid evolution in the family, with more than 24,000 species identified worldwide – four times as many as all mammal species put together.

Now the social/psychological side.  Orchid collecting became astonishingly popular for well-off Victorian gentlemen soon after the first exotic species were brought to Britain by plant collectors, who often followed in the wake of British Navy expeditions. Entire forests were stripped of millions of orchids. An English botanist wrote in 1878: ‘Not satisfied with taking 300 or 500 specimens of a fine orchid, they must scour the whole country and leave nothing for miles. This is no longer collecting; this is wanton robbery.’  Like Darwin at Down House, the gentry built hothouses and eagerly sought rare specimens which they had to pollinate by hand in the absence of the necessary insect– the craze became known as orchidelirium. Yes, gentlemen – after all, a rather obsessional hobby involving dangerous foreign travel, semi-legal activities, a whiff of exotic sex and ostentatious display of wealth and prestige: what’s not to like for a rich chap?

These flowers and these themes – Mariolatry, hanged men, the search for sexual partners and obsession in hothouses – should all feature in a film, say  by a gifted director with a taste for melodrama – come on, Pedro!

So back to his latest film – here’s Concha Buika, who features in it with this song En mi piel:

and just because I love her stuff and would like her to do an album with this guitarist, Javier Limón,  here’s  Oro santo:

Coming up soon: Cutlasses and communism.


Filed under Orchis

Aristolochia clematitis – birthwort

I’ve passed by this plant many times before and I’ve just registered it as ‘a weed’. I should have looked, and seen it was something strange – a birthwort, cousin to A. rotunda I posted a while ago here, but with smaller flowers and stalked leaves. A plant with a long history: there is a fossil record of this family from the Cretaceous (135-65 million years ago – the dinosaur era). It’s not exclusively southern, but native to most of Europe.  I wonder if it’s what Ceridwen saw in Godstow.

It  likes to be near some water, and I saw it just opposite a stream by the side of a patch of ‘waste ground’ (is there such a thing?) near our vegetable garden in the village.  Some who have followed Chaiselongue’s blog Olives and Atichokes will know that this ground has been bought by our Mairie and sold to a developer: there will be a hundred (!) new houses, and this particular patch will be ‘une espace verte’.  They’ve done well so far in creating a green space – by bulldozing the area, eliminating orchids, wild fennel, broom, valerian, and wild sweet peas, and installing gravel and street lights.  I expect the treated wood planters (with non-native species which will be neglected and die, to be replaced with Coke cans and beer bottles) to arrive next. Will the birthwort at the edge of the area survive?  Why do local councils, developers and politicians hate wild green spaces – that is, Nature, – so much?  Can we stop using the words weed and waste?

PS – I’ve just found some more of these growing through cracks in the concrete by the same stream – a more hopeful image of nature overcoming ‘development’ (photo by Chaiselongue).  Aristolochia is also called pipewort, so I’m glad it grows where we put our hosepipe to siphon water down to the garden! I’m going to write a short piece in Occitan about them for the new twice-yearly Occitan news-sheet.  That should give the developers pause for thought.

PPS – I should remind you all that this plant is poisonous: see the full account here.

So this is a song for plants – and people – not recognised and not properly appreciated:  the old Ray Charles song You don’t know me , played by Patricia Barber.

Coming up next: Almodóvar and botany? What?


Filed under Aristolochia

Asphodelus aestivus – common asphodel

How do plants come to have such meaning for us? I am still under the influence of these flowers which I saw some weeks ago (and were photographed by Chaiselongue), and I’m still stirred and moved.  Is this where the French Presidential election excitement comes in?  No, that connection will be later on.  It is just that these flowers have such . . . presence. They are members of the Liliaceae family, and therefore among the ‘lilies of the field’ which exceeded Solomon’s glory.

Perhaps  the late spring here after a bitterly cold February has meant that plants grow or geminate late and have benefitted from more daylight and warmth than usual.  Certainly the flower displays seem more stunning and numerous this year, and none more spectacular than the asphodels which appeared in wide drifts on the hillsides rather than small groups.  It’s a plant of high, dry ground, often where it is grazed or trampled, because it’s not eaten by beasts and its basal rosette of tough leaves resists feet and even tyres. They are sustained by underground tuberous roots, which can be eaten, though they have also been used to make glue, so my taste buds are not thrilling at the thought. On a trip south to Pyrenées-Orientales we saw only the shorter A. fistulosus, which we rarely see here – I don’t know why.

But back to the majesty of these metre-tall flower spikes, which seem to say ‘We were here before you. We observe you. We will be here when you have gone’.  They have always seemed to me like white ghosts.  They bring you up short.  They make you think.

So it was no surprise that Geoffrey Grigson* should write that they are ‘the flower of the Elysian Fields, the “asphodel meadow” inhabited by the souls of the dead, according to Homer’.  More prosaically he tells us that Tudor botanists used the name ‘affodil’ – from which the more common daffodil gets its name.

Here we go back more than 3, 000 years, because the idea of Elysium, an ‘Island of the Blessed’ for dead heroes in the afterlife, is a relic of Minoan, pre-Greek civilsation.  The Isles were located in the far west – i.e. beyond the then known world, but were gradually assimilated into the idea of the Underworld (Hades )– a drearier place for ordinary folk who were waiting for reincarnation.  Homer is supposed to have written the Odyssey in the 8th centuryBCE, and describes Elysium like this:

Men lead there an easier life than any where else in the world, for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow, but Oceanus breathes ever with a West wind that sings softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men….”

(Homer, Odyssey, bookIII)

How do the asphodels grow without rain?  Anyway, in the Odyssey, Odysseus is sent by Circe to the far west, to Oceanus  (the Atlantic beyond Gibraltar?) to bring back a prophecy.  Landing on the island, he digs a hole a cubit square, and surrounds it with a libation of honey, sweet wine, water and barley-meal before sacrificing sheep into the pit.  Sitting beside this portal to the Underworld he is beset by many hungry souls of the dead.  Among them is ‘swift-footed’ Achilles,  his comrade from the Trojan campaign, recently killed by Paris.  After a conversation, Achilles departs ‘with long strides across the field of asphodel’,  his heel evidently much recovered.**

Virgil’s Aeneid also uses the setting of the Elysian fields, now relocated patriotically to Italy and set in Hades rather like a bit of parkland is set in the centre of a  city.  He says of the ‘happy souls’:  ‘In groves we live, and lie on mossy beds’.

In Book VI  Aeneas descends to the Underworld and meets his dead father, Anchises, who shows him visions of a glorious Roman future by calling up souls of great people-to-be.  These days, if you look for the Elysian Fields, say on a French search engine, you’ll get this vision, which I’d call infernal.

So, we’re now in Paris and today François Hollande moves into the Elysée Palace, formal home of the President of France, backing on to the Champs Elysées (Elysian Fields), but before time has yet established whether he is going to be a hero or not. The palace, incidentally,  was  given its name by a pre-revolutionary aristocrat, the Duchess of Bourbon, who bought it in 1787 for 1,300,000 livres.  She didn’t have long to enjoy it.

I don’t envy this new Elysian  either– I’d rather have a patch of garrigue any day.

What music can be a reminder of Greece  (a big issue for Hollande), of its long history, of the illustrious dead? The Charles Lloyd Quartet,  their Athens Concert with Maria Farantouri in 2010, and the song ‘Requiem’, by Agathi Dimitrouka, a song as dignified as the flowers.

Shadows longing

to be loved

to bloom and be resurrected

in light and love.

And to finish with the austerity pact too, I should imagine.

* Geoffrey Grigson, A dictionary of English plant names

**Homer, The Odyssey book XI, The land of the dead


Filed under Asphodelus, Uncategorized

Urospermum dalechampii

This looks like a big dandelion, but it is a lovely lemon-yellow, often with a black centre, and I like it because it brightens up the roadside verges – and because of its historical connections. It’s a member of the Compositae family, which means that the flower head is made up of many ray-florets, tiny flowers with a long strap-like ray at one side. The centre is often black, and the outer florets often reddish-brown on their underneath edges.

A Mediterranean perennial plant, not found to the north of the Ardèche.

The young leaves can be used raw in salads: like dandelion they are quite bitter but a few will jazz up a bland lettuce, or you could follow Jane Grigson’s advice for dandelion leaves and add diced bacon, croutons, and chopped boiled egg.

So, to the history. It’s in the name: Urospermum is from the shape of the seed, but dalechampii is because it was described by the botanist and doctor Jacques Dalechamps (1513-1588) in his Historia generalis plantarum in 1586,

Jacques Dalechamps

which described 2,731 plants, the greatest number of any book then available.  Dalechamps was then practising medicine in Lyon, but had studied at the University ofMontpellier, just 16 years after Nostradamus (Michel de Notredame, 1503-1566) was expelled from there for having been an apothecary, by the very man who was later to become Dalechamps’s teacher: Guillaume Rondelet.  By that time Montpellier had already been a centre for herbal and then medical training for about 500 years: the school became a University in 1289, only  32 years after the Sorbonne.  I’ll be coming back to this topic because of the large number of plants first described byMontpellier graduates.


For the music link, back to the colour – it’s the Neville Brothers’ Yellow moon from the 1989 album of the same name. For K, and I hope this brings back some memories of New Orleans.


Filed under Urospermum

Echium vulgare – Viper’s Bugloss

French name: Viperine. Biennial or perennial, found all over France, and indeed most of Europe.

What a great English name! It dates all the way back to the Greek naturalist Dioscorides (40-90 CE) and his book De materia medica, which remained continuously in circulation and use till about 1600 – it wasn’t one of those books like earlier Greek natural philosophy which went out of sight until translated in twelfth-century Moorish Spain.

This plant is thought to be the one Dioscorides called ekhion and recommended for both prevention and cure of snakebite. This seems to have arisen from the shape of the seeds, which resemble snakes’ heads.

Sixteenth-century botanists thought it similar to bugloss (Lycopsis/Anchusa arvensis), and indeed both belong to the same family: Boraginaceae. Bugloss comes from the Greek bouglossos, meaning ox-tongued – most plants in this family have thick, rough, tongue-shaped leaves. A particular feature of this plant and many others in the same family is that the flowers start out pink and change to bright blue – you can see both colours in the picture. It must be a change in pH in the petal, which responds like litmus paper – if you put a blue flower in vinegar it changes back to pink (I’ve just tried).

Coming up soon: Ray Florets – who’s he and what’s he got to do with New Orleans?

And on 15th May a Presidential transfer special with two trips to Hades and one to Athens – none to Holland, strangely.

Now to another herb: if you’re a fan of the jazz of 30’s Harlem, you may know that ‘viper’ was a slang term for a marijuana-smoker, and featured in several cheeky drug-related songs by Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Stuff Smith, among others.  I’m featuring the violinist Stuff Smith and his You’re a Viper (1938).  ‘Mighty Mezz’ in the song is a reference to the strong Mexican dope sold by the musician Mezz Mezzrow. It was the innocent days before heroin arrived and pretty well every musician smoked a lot of reefers.  Of course, it’s all different now.

Dreamed about a reefer five feet long. Mighty Mezz, but not too strong. You’ll get high, but not for long. Cuz’ you’se a viper.

I’m the king of everything. I’ve got to be high to have that swing. Light a tea and let it be. You’se a viper.

When your throat get dry you know you’re high. Everything is dandy.

Truck on down to the candy store. Bust your konk on a peppermint candy.

Then you know your body’s spent. You don’t care if you don’t pay rent. Sky is high, you high. If you’se a viper.


Filed under Echium

Aristolochia rotunda – round-leafed birthwort

A bizarre-looking plant with a brownish-purple flap over the flower, which makes it both hard to photograph and slightly sinister. As soon as she saw it in the ditch where I found it, Chaiselongue said ‘That looks poisonous’.  Maybe it’s the colour – that yellowy purple-brown.

It’s  my plant of the week – because I’ve never seen one before.  Not even in those days when I had to take my turn with the school vasculum and collect plants over the weekend, ready for dissection and identification in the double-Botany slot on Monday afternoons.  Not surprising: there are related species in Britain, but this one is Mediterranean, as this map (courtesy of the French site Tela Botanica) shows.

Distribution of Aristolochia rotunda in France

So, to the names.  Why birthwort?  Aristolochia comes from the Greek aristos (best – I know, I don’t agree either) and locheia (childbirth), because the herb was apparently used to assist childbirth by speeding contractions, probably by analogy with the flower (a calyx, i.e. sepals, the plant has no petals) which has a long tube with a seed at the end. Rotunda for the shape of the leaves.  Now of the three plants I’ve featured so far the first (viola) symbolised love, the second (garlic) health and sex, and now birth: clearly we’ve turned to plants to help us with the major experiences of life.  All three are associated with signs of the Zodiac (Aries, Taurus and Libra, respectively) – a reminder of the outlook which saw the shapes  of the natural world, the heavenly bodies and human wellbeing all as part of the same fabric. I am finding that investigating plants and their names is an express route back to the middle ages and the classical world.

Aristolochia is well known in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, which suggests that the genus came from Asia originally, though it was also known to the Greek Theophrastus.  It was introduced to North America by Europeans. However, plants of this genus seem pretty unhealthy and have been linked to renal cancers (see here).

It is apparently pollinated by small midges which, attracted by the colour and scent, enter the tube and can’t get out because there are downward-facing hairs inside which only relax after pollination.  It’s a feisty plant.

I was more interested to read that it is the only host plant (food source) for the caterpillars of Zerynthia polyxena, which is a stunning butterfly.  I suppose that’s the caterpillar you can see in this picture.  Eating the leaves makes them poisonous to birds.

So to sum up: avoid eating it, even if your Chinese herbalist recommends it – unless you’re being attacked by  birds.

Coming up in a post soon – a book that was in print for 1500 years and two meanings of a snake’s name.

Jazz seems relatively poor in songs about childbirth – I’m sure you can think of reasons as well as I can.  So to r&b, with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and their ‘Annie had a baby’ from 1954.


Filed under Aristolochia

Michel Portal – Citrus juice, from ‘Bailador’ (and take it from me, the cover’s pink – couldn’t get image of it with video)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized