Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Blues: Medicago sativa – lucerne (alfalfa)

Time to play ‘guess the odd one out’ of the above photos, taken along the same 10 metres of roadside verge……(clue: you can move the cursor over the images). The answer? They’re all from the family Leguminosae with the characteristic upright standard petal at the back, and a ‘keel’ projecting forward, like garden peas and beans.  But the odd one out is the first one, Psoralea bituminosa, a plant which looks like clover or lucerne but isn’t. The other two are the same species, Medicago sativa or lucerne (often called alfalfa in the UK), though the yellow flower is a subspecies (falcata).  I had to do some close looking and reading to be sure  – more disambiguation!  I’ll explain.

Psoralea bituminosa has a leaf divided into three, like the others, but the leaflets are elongated, and the flower stalks much longer than for the Medicago. It is supposed to smell of tar, due to glands on the leaf which appear as bright points against the light – I couldn’t see these or smell the tar, hence my hesitation in identifying it.  Maybe we have a different variety here, maybe the smell develops later.

The lucerne was easier to identify in the end, because we’ve seen whole fields of it lately, and the plants I saw were escapees from an earlier planting, now naturalised. The flowers are very variable in colour, from deep purple through to light blue, and often have the yellow plants mixed in since the seeds sown for lucerne crops are themselves mixed, and the two varieties interbreed.  In fact the yellow is probably nearer to the parent stock, first cultivated in the near East (Iran and Turkey) over 2000 years ago, but  grown in Europe since the 4th century CE.

A plant with three names: Medicago and sometimes Medick in English because early Roman writers attributed the plant to the nation of the Medes, in present-day Iran.   Alfalfa because the Spanish took the plant and its name alfalfez (from the Arabic al -fisfisa) to South America, and North American settlers took the seeds and name from there, especially from Chile. And  to me the most interesting name of all is lucerne:  not, as I thought, related to a Swiss town, but coming from the Provencal or Occitan word la lusèrna, meaning meaning a little light, or glow-worm.  In fact I think the latter is more likely because the seeds are not only shiny but coiled like a worm.

Lucerne is an amazing plant. Its roots can be up to 15 metres long, and go up to 2 metres deep, giving it great drought-resistance.  It flowers in July when other flowers are fading and so is very important for bees.  It fixes atmospheric nitrogen like many legumes, so does well on poor soils.  It can be cut up to 12 times a year and regrows from its extensive roots – that’s why it does so well on roadside verges which are cut back.  It is the most widely grown forage crop in the world.  It produces an autotoxin – a chemical which inhibits the germination of rival plants.  I could go on, but you have Google and wikipedia just like I do, and it’s time for music.

This is Dinah Washington’s version of the Bessie Smith classic, Back Water Blues. A more rootsy blues for a rootsy blue flower.

 

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Abram Wilson – Jazz Warrior

I didn’t expect to do this post, and I would rather not have to do it in this way.  I turned on a radio podcast this morning, and heard the presenter annouce the death earlier this month of Abram Wilson, the jazz trumpeter and singer, at the age of just 38.

Now if you’re a jazz fan, you should get used to losing your idols, but this has affected me more than most.

I saw him play in Swansea in about 2005, coming on as a special guest to support his friend Soweto Kinch.  I already had Abram Wilson’s UK debut album Jazz Warrior and loved it, so this was a real thrill for me. He played beautifully, with a rich, slightly brassy, joyful tone – surely a heritage of the city of his birth, New Orleans, where, as he told us, ‘every trumpet player can sing’.  Which he then did, showing that he could have made it as a soulful jazz singer too.

He helped a wave of new talent on the UK scene in the last decade, breaking new ground by introducing jazz into many musical contexts, and was a tireless campaigner, educator, and supporter of humanitarian causes – a true jazz warrior.

There’s more about him on his website, and in many obituaries – here’s one from the Guardian.

I’ll give a few video links – I gather these don’t always work n the US, but I hope some will. Try them.  Buy his records. Remember one of the good guys.

Here he is talking about his life, New Orleans, and playing blues and ballads at a college inTruro:

Here he’s playing Jazz Warrior at a festival in Lithuania in 2005:

Here he’s playing J’espere,  the tune he wrote to support those devastated by the earthquake in Haiti:

And here’s a bluesy album track,  After the storm:

My sympathies to his family, his many friends, and his very many fans.

 

 

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Bassics of botany: Verbascum sinuatum and rotundifolium – Mullein

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.

 

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The Blues: Centaurea cyanus – Cornflower, and jachère fleurie

Thanks to herbicides, the cornflower has disappeared from the corn – together with other plants which were probably more toxic. Disappeared along with the word ‘corn’ – until the 18th  century, all grain was called ‘corn’, and after that the term was gradually applied exclusively to Indian corn or maize (Zea mays). But thanks to the European Union policy of ‘set aside’, where farmers can be paid to leave fields fallow (jachère in French) rather than grow crops for which there is already a surplus, the idea of  sowing with an annual flower mix which won’t persist into the next year (jachère fleurie)  and which almost always includes cornflowers,  has taken off.  I’ve seen it a lot in central France, and local authorities are encouraged to sow flower mix on any empty ground they own, but this is not widespread in the Midi, where vines are predominant –  if they are grubbed up, winter wheat or maize are often sown.

So I was very pleased and intrigued when a neighbour sowed this lovely jachère fleurie in his small field on the way up to our garden. When I asked him about it, he said he just wanted to use the land for something, and that he’d got the seed mix from the chasseurs – the village hunting association.  He explained that they sow this mix, and also pea plants, in wild spots where they want to attract game. You can get ‘tall mix’ (1m), ‘short’ (0.5m), and ‘new wave’ – this is a mix of sizes which provides good cover for game and increases the insects and other invertebrates on which partridges feed. I know this neighbour also keeps bees, and I asked him if the seed mix was a special honey-assisting one (mélange mellifère). He said no, though all flowers will help the bees.  He keeps bees partly I think because he also has a lot of peach and nectarine trees he wants to have pollinated.

Research has also shown that the flower mix increases the number of true wild flowers, since the fields are untreated with chemicals and undisturbed all year. It made me think how all the activities of a village are connected, so that hunting is tied in by many links to other crops and products, to biodiversity and sustainablility. In fact I found that the Departmental Federations of Hunters are the main bodies giving advice and distributing seed.

You don’t have to drive to France to see it – you can get screensavers of jachère fleurie here (Télécharger = download), and the photos give a good idea of the effect.

On the other hand of course, if you leave land fallow, it will soon be colonised by herbs, then perennials and shrubs, and finally by trees, and eventually the biodiversity will be even greater. Fifty species per square metre is possible for old hay meadows in northern Europe, which are cut every year and hence avoid the shrub/tree succession (as opposed to four or five species in jachère fleurie).  There remains only one per cent of  the meadows which existed in 1940 (more here).

However, this recolonisation takes many years, and may not be realistic for former agricultural land with a depleted seed bank, while the jachère fleurie is an instant, artificial solution, and presumably brings the partridges in that much quicker for the hunters.   All this reminds me to have a close look at the flora in some abandoned vineyards, and at  the succession of plants here which is not the same as in northern Europe.

Time for Etta James and Burn down the cornfield (originally by Randy Newman) – an incitement to passion, or a protest against monoculture? You decide. There’s some debate whether the slide guitar is by Lowell George or Ry Cooder – for anyone with ears, it’s definitely George.

Etta James died in January.  I can’t imagine her resting in peace now – burn on, Etta.

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Bassics of botany: Acanthus mollis – Brank-ursine

Welcome to the start of a new series featuring some figures from the earliest eras of natural history, accompanied by some of my favourite jazz bass players – the title is not a mis-spelling.  I’m researching and listening to things I like, with some plants along for the ride.  And by the way, this blog has just passed 1,000 views – thank you all for your support.

This flower I’m starting with is, however, no simple passenger – it’s as striking as an asphodel, and with an equally long and significant history. Although it’s originally a Mediterranean plant, it‘s also found in the milder west of France, and

The distribution of Acanthus mollis in France – green=present

it’s become well-known in gardens. It was introduced to Britain in the 16th century – the photo above is of a plant I’ve grown from a cutting I took from my mother’s garden near Eastbourne.  The English name means  ‘bear’s claw’, from the shape of the flower.

It’s also well-known because the distinctive deeply-lobed leaves feature on columns of the Greek Corinthian order of architecture. The story is told – started perhaps by the Roman architect Vitruvius – that the idea came from a Greek architect and sculptor named Callimachus (NB – see below) who saw a basket placed on a young girl’s grave, through which had grown an Acanthus, its leaves emerging through the basketwork:

From Claude Perrault’s Vitruvius, 1684 – courtesy of wikipedia, where else

The proportions of a Corinthian column are intended to represent the slender body of the young girl.   It’s an architectural detail which has spread even further than the plant – they’re on the Roman Pantheon, the Bank of England, and the US Capitol for example. If you want a bit of historical gravitas, mixed with its apparent opposites of grace and  style, go for those leaves.

NB Don’t confuse this Callimachus with the Greek poet who lived in Alexandria 200 years later, or with the drink calimocho (originally kalimotxo in Basque) which is another mixture of opposites, this time cheap red wine and cola.  But if you’re tempted, there are useful recipes (including ingenious use of a plastic bag) here.

The plant has also been important in herbal healing:  Culpepper says it is  ‘…an excellent plant under the dominion of the moon’. The cooked  leaves ‘mollify the belly’, the bruised leaves  ‘applied like a poultice, are very good to unite broken bones and strengthen joints that have been put out’ and  ‘there is scarce a better remedy’ for burns, ruptures, cramp, gout, or ‘hectic fevers’… (Kalimotxo could also be a remedy, of course, principally in cases of unwanted sobriety and hypoglycaemia).

I’d suggest that perhaps these two uses of the acanthus are linked:  the earliest Corinthian capitals found (c. 450 BCE) are not supporting a roof but inside temples on votive columns, and another early example from the 4th centuryBCE is at Epidaurus in the temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing whose staff and snake feature in so many pharmacies.

The association of plant and god may have come about from the healing uses of the plant – I imagine that the big fleshy leaves of the acanthus were already a folk remedy for aches and burns, similar to our use of dock leaves for nettle stings.  However, the concept of illness at an asklepion (as the temples were called) was as something supernatural such as a divine punishment, and most of the practice of the cult of Asclepius consisted in ritual baths and purification (one of his daughters was not called Hygeia for nothing), and votive offerings –  according to Plato, the last words of Socrates were  ‘Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget’ – a joke of Socrates about giving thanks for his ‘cure’ from the ills of life.  Cure-seekers also  slept overnight in the temple, after which the priests would interpret any dreams and use them to recommend what to do.  Another of the daughters of Ascelpius was Panacea, who must have been very busy (perhaps with the acanthus, which is so good for everything).   It was at an important  asklepion on the island of Cos that Hippocrates established his school – more about him in another post.

I like to imagine Asclepius appearing before a panel of doctors in the new, cash-strapped Greek health service to decide whether he is fit to practise healing:

Doc: Welcome, Asclepius.  We’ve had a very good letter of recommendation from the Mount Olympus Community Team, Mr. Apollo something…..Apollo what?

Asc: Just Apollo. My Dad.

Doc: Your parents are gods?

Asc: Only on Dad’s side. My mother, Coronis, was just an ordinary princess, daugther of the King of the Lapiths. But Dad had her burned to death when she married someone else, and he came and pulled me out of the flames just in time.

Doc.:I think we’ll move on from your family to your qualifications.  Where were you trained?

Asc: Well, I learned the basics from a centaur, Chiron. Apart from that, there are the acanthus leaves, and I get inspiration from Dad, and sort of improvise on that…

Doc: And we hear from your previous employer that you let snakes crawl around freely on the floor of your clinic.

Asc:Temple, not clinic. Not just any snakes, mind – sacred snakes. It’s really therapeutic.

Doc: Hmmm.How very….alternative. We’ll let you know. Who’s next?

Secretary: Hippocrates.

Doc: Well, it can’t do any harm to see him.

We saw this wonderfully preserved statue of Asclepius at Empúries in Catalunya – an astounding site with the remains of the Greek town called Emporion (founded in 575BCE) and of the later Roman Emporiae. I was struck that the statue came in two parts from different Greek marble quarries: the bust from the island of Paros, and the rest from  Pentelicus in Attica – international trade 2,500 years ago  His was the largest temple on the Greek site, evidence of the importance of this cult – after all, what’s more important than health?

No Corinthian columns with their acanthus leaves at  Empúries – but they do feature on one of the finest Roman buildings in France – in fact, the best preserved temple in all the former Roman empire, the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, where carved acanthus also adorns the frieze on the architrave.  This temple was built in 16BCE, and so impressed Thomas Jefferson when he was minister toFrance in 1785 that he had a stucco model made, and copied it for for the Virgnia State Capitol when he returned.

Well done for making it this far!

This post is dedicated to the memory of my mother, her garden, her humour, and her love of music.

It’s about time for some jazz – this is Miroslav Vitous, perhaps best known from his short stint with Weather Report but his best work is elsewhere, such as on Epilogue, a track from the fine album Mountain in the clouds (1972 – also available as Infinite search) which also features Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin and Joe Henderson.

Next: Back to blues, and set-aside, and honey, and Etta James.

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The Blues: Campanula rapunculus – Rampion bell-flower

I hope you like the new header, which I think better illustrates the blog title.

Campanula of course means a lttle bell, but the other part of the name is more interesting, because the Brothers Grimm may have taken the name Rapunzel from this plant, for their tale of a maiden locked in a tower. In French, it’s raiponce and in Occitan reponchon (it’s among five other plants which are often called this), both from the Latin rapa or rapum (turnip) which signifies any edible root.  Geoffrey Grigson says that ‘In the 16th century Rampion was commonly known as rapunculum, quasi parvum rapum,  ‘as if a little turnip’, and it was identified with the wild turnip of Dioscorides.’

The Campanulas generally were often cultivated in the potager in France for their roots, and the leaves were used in salads.  According to Richard Mabey, the wild Rampion, a biennial,  was used in the same way, which has now made the plant very rare in Britain, so it doesn’t seem to have been widely cultivated there. He says that the fleshy parsnip-like roots were chopped, boiled, and served with vinegar  (rather like15th century soggy chips, I suppose).  I’m just thinking that ‘Parsnip, Parsnip, let down your hair’ doesn’t sound so good.

I found this flower hard to identify because there are so many similar species which differ in the degree of branching of the stem (this is branched, C. rapunculoides  and persicifolia are not), the exact size and orientation of the flower and the size of the sepals. There are at least 500 species of Campanula. It is difficult to imagine how a botanist can see such variety and not think of how small variations can accumulate to result in new species – an illustration of Darwin’s gradualist model of evolution.  Nowadays we know that climate changes, catastophes such as meteor strikes and changes in other flora and fauna can produce rapid and striking evolutionary change with many entirely new species arising (known as radiation): this is Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, to which I’ll no doubt return.  But for now, the varieties of the Campanulas are a reminder to me of Darwin.

Now for a earful of blues. I thought it was about time I found something more obviously based on the blues chord changes, and this fits the bill.  It’s.the Thelonious Monk Quartet and Blue Monk, for no other real reason that I like it and a friend recently reminded me of it (what he really said was, ‘you know that Monk tune that goes Dah dee di dah, dah dee di dah?’).

Next, we interrupt this series to bring you another series: Any list will get boring if it goes on too long, so I’m going to mix it up with a few posts on early naturalists and jazz bass players: the bassics of botany.  I’m starting with Asclepius – OK he’s a god, and neither a botanist or a bassist, but anyway…..

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Botanist goes to a Theatre

Some days there are just too many coincidences. Over breakfast I heard on the radio that the last surviving founder member of 50s vocal group the Platters, Herb Reed (and what a suitable name for this blog), had died in Boston. I like their records, and their successes with smooth ballads paved the way for many other American black artists to break through to the mainstream.

Les Platters et Herb Reed (à gauche) resteront un groupe de légende.

The Platters – Herb Reed is on the extreme left.

But I had been reading and thinking about very different Platters: the half-brothers Felix (1536-1614) and Thomas Platter (1574-1628) who had both studied medicine in Montpellier and then practised in their home city of Basle in Switzerland.  Felix particularly, since he made some original contributions to botany in assembling an early herbarium – a collection of plants carefully identified and pressed and dried between paper.  This was one of the first in Europe outside Italy, and he may have laerned the technique from the Italian Luca Ghini, via Felix’s teacher Rondelet in Montpellier. Felix’s herbarium, containing 813 species from several countries, is still on display in the University of Bern.

Both of the 16th century Platter bothers wrote journals which were later published and are available in English: Felix produced Beloved son Felix, and Thomas Journal of a younger brother. If you search, I think both are available online but seem hard to find in print.

Then I was again reminded of them by an item in the Guardian here about the discovery in Shoreditch in east London of the Curtain theatre, which had been home to Shakespeare’s company from about 1597 to 1600, just before the Globe was opened on the South Bank.  I wondered if it was perhaps there that the Platter brothers had visited in 1599 as part of a sort of Grand Tour, or for Thomas perhaps a year off after finishing medical studies.  This is how he describes it :

On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.

 [Click on image to enlarge]

This is one of the main sources for dating Shakespeare’s play. More from the Journal here.

Now for some music – predictable I’m sure, but the Platters song which seemed most relevant to a Caesar: The Great Pretender.

Next:  Maybe some blues, maybe another colour, maybe something sparked by a news headline: exciting stuff, botany, eh?

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