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.
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.