Monthly Archives: August 2012

Appearances can be deceptive: Eryngium campestre (field eryngo)


So this is another thistle in the garrigue, right? Wrong. It’s not a member of the thistle family at all – they’re with daisies, cornflowers and chicory in the family Asteraceae (used to be called Compositae), and Eryngium is, like fennel,  in the family Apiaceae (used to be Umbelliferae).  One clue is in the repeated branching of the stem into umbels (stalks or rays branching off from one point), and  another is in the stamens, which are not fused together as in thistles, if you look closely.


One name for this in French is the ‘herbe aux cent têtes’, due to the umbels, another is  chardon roulant, rolling thistle, and the similar l’èrba rotla means the same in Occitan.  Why? Because although the plant is a perennial, the stem can break off when it dries and blow in the wind to scatter seeds elsewhere.  But normally, the hooked seeds are dispersed by furry animals – it relies on mammals to spread.  Another characteristic is its long root system of up to 5 metres, which, like its leathery and spiny leaves ,is an adaptation to dry conditions. The root is also often  parasitised by a fungus, Pleurotus eryngii, which produces edible mushrooms, or by the parasitic flower Orobanche.   So it’s not just a solitary thistle in the wilderness, but a whole ecosystem.


Pleurotus eryngii

It’s that kind of shift in view which characterises the work of one of my favourite writers on natural history, Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). A New Yorker who became Professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard, he is best known for his long series of monthly essays which appeared under the heading ‘This view of life’ in Natural  History magazine, and which he collected in many books. He wrote little on botany but his overall approach to the history of life on earth offers much to those seeking to understand plants, and to those who appreciate good  prose style.  At their best his essays are at the same time intricate and clear, profound and entertaining, personal and research-based.  In his collection Bully for Brontosaurus he distinguishes two sorts of nature writing: the Franciscan (after the saint) which produces a kind of nature poetry, and the Galilean which takes a ‘delight in nature’s intellectual problems’. He put himself firmly in the latter group.


Stephen Jay Gould

His relevance to botany? His consistent desire to understand how evolution works, rather than being satisfied with the formula ‘If it exists, it must be adaptive’. With the biologist  Richard Lewontin, he coined the term ‘spandrel’ in evolutionary theory, after the triangular gaps between arches he noticed in St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice: a feature which might have no function or evolutionary advantage, but might arise as a consequence of other structures (arches and a dome, in the case of St Mark’s).  Male nipples might be one example, existing only as a developmental relic of the necessary female equivalent, as he explained in his essay ‘Male nipples and clitoral ripples’. A botanical parallel might be some colours in flowers which are not visible to the insects the flowers attract (insects detect more ultraviolet than we do).

He appreciated just how plain weird many living things are, often resulting more from contingency or ‘happenstance’ than adaptation or design. Why else does the fern Ophioglossum reticulatum need 630 pairs of chromosomes (that’s right, 1,260 per cell)? As he explained in the essay ‘The ant and the plant’, some polyploidy or doubling of chromosomes can encourage variation, but in this fern the mechanism has gone beserk.


Ophioglossum reticulatum – Adder’s tongue fern

He realised that evolution was not a gradual process of accumulating small variations as Darwin had proposed, but sometimes ran very fast,  producing radical changes, while at other times there were long periods of stasis: the theory known as ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (proposed by Gould and Niles Eldredge in 1972). This remains a major explanatory hypothesis for animal evolution, though it may play a smaller, if still significant, part in the evolution of plants.  To illustrate his style, when objectors called his theory ‘evolution by jerks’, he replied that gradualism was ‘evolution by creeps’.

I also admire Gould for the breadth of his interests and for his awareness of the social context of science. He understood how religious beliefs had hindered the interpretation of fossils, for example, and this is a major theme of his fascinating book Wonderful Life. He was a committed campaigner against creationism and its attempted inroads into American education. He knew that science cannot be ‘value-free’ and his book The Mismeasure of Man is a passionate but also scientific explanation of why the concept of IQ testing is flawed and inherently racist. Does this apply to plants? Of course. Just as the word ‘intelligent’ can be a useful adjective, but can also parade as an objective phenomenon to be studied and measured scientifically, so too a plant can seem a biological organism to be described and understood as an individual, though it never exists on its own. To the farmer, Eryngium campestre is an invasive weed, to the mushroom hunter it’s just the food source for what he wants to collect, to an animal it’s an annoying burr, to the botanist a good example of a xerophyte adapted to dry conditions.  And plant, fungus, animal, climate and soil (maybe even botanist) are all developing together in an evolving ecosystem. In another example of putting genetics in context, Gould’s colleague Lewontin campaigned against genetically modified crops, seeing them as an advantage to agribusiness rather than to the farmer or consumer.

Gould and Lewontin were both members of what was known as the ‘radical science movement’, together with the American psychologist Leon Kamin and the British biologist Steven Rose.  There’ll be more of their radicalism to come in future posts, including reference to their 1984 manifesto Not in our genes, and Rose’s stimulating book Lifelines.

On to some music, and the radical poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron with one of his earliest and most influential songs, The revolution will not be televised, from his first album, Small talk at 125th and Lenox. Yes, radicals, revolution and rolling thistle – you were there before me.  But there’s another parallel. The song gets its power from the two ways of looking: our familiar and comfortable trappings of life suddenly seem ridiculous when the streets erupt.




Filed under Uncategorized

Born to be spiny: Silybum marianum (milk thistle) and Dipsacus fullonum (teazel)

This picture of the flowering heads of Silybum marianum was taken  on 25th May , but I’ve been saving it for this post about spiky plants. It’s so over-the-top pointy that I can’t see it without thinking of the imagery of hard rock bands, and the Steppenwolf song:

Get your motor running

Head out on the highway

Looking for adventure

and whatever comes our way….

I like smoke and lightning

Heavy metal thunder (Born to be wild, 1968)

The  song describes almost perfectly my trips out to photograph plants: few people know that the title is completely botanical and that the original version of the lyrics had ‘wild flowers’ in place of ‘adventure’, and the thunder referred to the rattle of the vasculum in the car boot…..*


I quote this because it is supposed to be the first use of the phrase ‘heavy metal’ in a song (William Burroughs had already created the character the Heavy Metal Kid in The naked lunch) .  Also because the spines in both the plants in  today’s post look quite aggressive, though in fact I think they are both purely defensive.

Both plants in today’s post are biennials,  growing  a basal rosette of leaves in their first year, then shooting up a spiky stem topped off by these flowers with attitude, which seem to snarl ‘what are you looking at?’  It seems to me that these are all superb adaptations to life in the time of grasses: as the Earth’s climate became cooler and drier in the last 50 million years, grasses evolved and spread rapidly in the expanding deserts and steppes which were hostile to trees and tropical plants. As grasses spread, so mammals evolved which adopted grazing as a habit, including the ungulates. Grasses are well adapted to this because they regrow after grazing (like a mown lawn), and other plants developed ways of avoiding being eaten: ground-level leaf rosettes, and spiky shoots which deter hungry deer and goats – animals which incidentally help both these sorts of plants by eating all the competition instead.

The marianum bit of the name is associated with the milk in milk thistle, coming from the white veins in the leaves: the  legend was that these came  from splashes of milk from Mary’s breast as she fed the infant Jesus*.  Hence the plant was held to increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers.  It was also thought to be useful medically, especially for liver problems, and these perhaps explain why the plant spread from its origin in the middle east (Iran), as it was systematically cultivated in monastery gardens. While the  benefits are not clinically proven, extracts are used in the energy drink Rockstar69.  Ironically this drink is not advised for pregnant women or nursing mothers.

The teazel (Dipsacus fullonum) will be very familiar to more northern born-to-be-wild ones too – I’m featuring it today because this weekend would have seen my mother’s 99th birthday, and I remember her hanging bunches of teazels in the garage to use in her wonderful dried flower arrangements.  The flowers are unique in that they start flowering in the middle, and a wave of bloom spreads from the equator to both poles. There are amazing high-magnification photos here.

The leaves clasp the stems and collect water in their axils (the Dips- bit of the name means ‘thirst’: cf. dipsomaniac).  This feature deters bugs from climbing, and bugs drowned in these watery traps seem to aid setting of seed, so the teazel may be partly carnivorous.

In West Wales we were used to the history of teazels having  been collected from the many stream-sides for use in the woollen mills: the many soft spines of the flower heads were perfect for raising the nap on woollen fabrics, so making them ‘woollier’.   I’ve seen them packed in a frame on the machine called a ‘teazel raising gig’ at the wonderful  National Wool Museum at Drefach Felindre (meaning’ little mill town’ – and it is).

*If you believe this, you’ll believe anything.

In music I’m exploring the idea that the leather-and-spikes posture of heavy rock is just that: a posture.  In fact though jazz and metal have seemed mutually exclusive categories there are plenty of meeting points. Flirtings maybe, not like the 80s heyday of jazz-rock fusion, but as fun as most flirting can be.  Names to conjure with could be Billy Cobham, Tony Williams and Lifetime, and of course Hendrix himself, who jammed with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin. I’m going to suggest a listen to guitarist  Vernon Reid (formerly with Living Colour) playing a Thelonious Monk tune, Brilliant corners. First Monk’s original:

Now Vernon Reid with Masque:

And finally to wind down here are the two Mexican ex-metal guitarists Rodrigo and Gabriela with Alex Skolnick (guitarist with rock band Testament and dabbler in jazz with his trio) live at the Trianon, Paris.  Can’t genre-bending be fun?


Filed under Dipsacus, Silybum

The wet zone: Portulaca oleracea (purslane) and Lysimachia vulgaris (yellow loosestrife)

We’re having a really hot spell at the moment with temperatures in the mid to upper 30s, so we’ve postponed trips to the beach (too much hot car) and hide indoors in the afternoons with the shutters shut.  You can’t get enough cool water at times like this, so here are two water-lovers.


I saw this bank of yellow flowers by the stream which comes from the lower end of our nearby bathing lake, the Barrage des Olivettes. I thought they were some sort of buttercup, but no.

They fit the picture in my French flora* for Lysimachia vulgaris, though not always the web sources – I think there are a lot of varieties.  According to Grigson, the English botanist William Turner (1548) said it ‘groweth by the Temes syde beside Shene’ but I hadn’t seen it before.

The second flower, purslane (Portulaca oleracea),  is also yellow but more intriguing. It’s growing in our garden in the watering trenches for the pepper plants, as it does every year, without invitation.  Why the intrigue? Firstly,because it is also known as  ‘edible landscaping’ or even the ‘gourmet weed’. It is astoundingly rich in vitamins and omega-3 oils – in fact the richest plant source for the latter. In the Middle East particularly it is used a lot in salads, or it can be cooked – in fact used a bit like spinach. I have tried it, and wasn’t wowed, but after researching it perhaps I should give it another go.


Secondly, though it looks like a water-wasting nuisance, it is said to shelter the roots of vegetables, and the action of its taproot brings deeper water to the surface, so helping its companions   I have to say I’m not sure , but the peppers are doing really well despite the heat and drought.

Thirdly, there’s the question of the name. Grigson says the name Pliny gave it in Latin, porcilacca, became assimilated to the Italian porcellana, cowrie, and then French porcelaine for both plant and shell and English purcelan, then purslane. The ceramic meaning I suppose comes from the nature of the shell being like fine porcelaine – but Grigson concludes ‘from Latin porcella, little sow, with the meaning little cunt. It’s a useful word:  what else conveys a nutritious weed, an animal, a shell, fine china, and can give offence into the bargain?  I turn, as I usually do where swearing is concerned, to my copy of Filthy English, by my friend Peter Silverton, a book he managed to make a great read and hugely informative at the same time.  With the aid of an Italian acquaintance he explains that in Italian ‘The word porco is really, really strong, much stronger than the English “pig”’. A man is described as un porco only if you want to express absolute disgust. So I wonder why this plant, not only inoffensive but useful, got the porc bit of porcilacca in the first place? Not from Pliny, who thought its healing properties were so strong it should be worn as an amulet against evil.

La nature méditerranéenne en France, by Philippe Martin et Les Écologistes de l’Euzière, publishers Delachaux et Niestlé.

Anyway, with the cowrie shell in mind, I’m going to do what every self-respecting liberal blogger is doing and link to a Pussy Riot video – even though I suppose the publicity in the West will just strengthen Putin’s claim that that’s where the punks get their funding and direction from. Punks? Funding? Direction?

Follow this link to a Guardian webpage ,where the video should start automatically.

Coming up soon: a lot of dry, spiky plants and musical genre-bending


Filed under Lysimachia, Portulaca

Aristotle, ladders, and plates: Echinops ritro – globe thistle


This lovely thistle is nearing the end of its flowering period now, but still looks perfectly adapted to a hot dry summer: strong stems, leaves reduced in area by divisions and spines, and a waxy surface and hairs to reduce evaporation.  It likes grassy, stony habitats, such as this iris-covered bank. My guide says it is absent from the islands apart from Sicily – other thistles are only on islands, and this should make us think about evolution.

It would have been known to Aristotle (384-322 BCE) when he conducted his studies of nature in Athens – but perhaps not when he studied animals on the island of Lesbos.  He wrote much more about animals than about plants, and it was his pupil Theophrastus who really deserves the title ‘Father of botany’ if such appelations have any meaning.  So what were his contributions? In my view, two positive ones and some hindrances which still persist today.



Firstly, Aristotle made one step toward science when he insisted on observation (including dissection of animals) as the basis of knowledge. Secondly he began to classify the natural world, to distinguish similarities and differences and give species both family and individual names.

But Aristotle made some errors: for example believing that some animals and plants could arise spontaneously from decaying matter.  This idea lasted well into the 19th century, when epidemics were often attributed to ‘germs’ arising in warm and damp conditions.

His other, greater, but equally misleading idea has also proved persistent: that of a progression in which all living things were arranged in order in an ascending series from minerals, through plants, then animals and finally human beings.  Aristotle used his classifying principles to explain this: plants could grow and reproduce unlike minerals, but could not move or sense like animals. Trees were seen as ‘higher’ than herbaceous plants. Sedentary animals such as clams and oysters could touch and taste but not move, see or hear. Man, the ‘rational animal’ was at the top.

This idea fitted naturally into Christian theology, and became known as the scala naturae  –  ‘ladder of nature’- or the ‘Great Chain of Being’, with Man on a special rung between animals and angels, with the gift of a soul.  Even today, I would bet that a majority of Westerners would subscribe to a version of it.  Why is it wrong? Because, as Darwin showed, species are not fixed on their rungs but have arisen from other species, many of which are now extinct. OK, it might be argued, lots of us have ladders in the shed with missing or repaired rungs. But it’s the idea of climbing, progress that’s an error: how should we estimate ‘success’ or ‘higher evolution’? Grasses are more recently evolved than oak trees, and orchids more recent still: should they be highest? In terms of numbers of individuals, algae and plankton outnumber other plants: are they the most successful?

It is becoming clear as we know more about the changes in climate, geology and the history of the Earth including meteorite collisions and glaciations (‘ice ages’) which have made for mass extinctions of species, that what exists today is the result of many accidents.  The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould says repeatedly that if we re-ran the history of the world like a rewound tape, the outcome would be different, and that it would be extremely unlikely that human beings would feature at all.  So this leads me to the history of the Mediterranean, involving a timescale and set of concepts such as plate tectonics which were unknown to Darwin, let alone to Aristotle.

The continents 70 million years ago

50 million years ago, just as herbaceous seed plants were getting going, the Mediterranean did not exist. The gap between the European/Asian tectonic plate and the African/Arabian plate was filled by the ocean Tethys until the northward movement of the African plate sealed off the eastern end.  Species could now move out of Africa into Europe.

About 35 million years ago the Italian land  mass was crunched into the European plate, raising the Alps, and the same movement eventually sank the land to the west (the present day Gulf of Lion) so that the sea reached the foot of the Larzac plateau some 100km inland from the present coastline. Throughout this Tertiary era, partly as a result of the mountain-building, the climate became cooler and drier.  Around 5 million years ago the moving African plate closed the western end of the Mediterranean, and since loss by evaporation exceeds inflow from rivers, the sea dried up, leaving salt lakes in eastern and western halves of the basin. After several hundred thousand years, the Atlantic broke back in, but not before elephants had crossed to Cyprus and Crete. In the Pleistocene, starting about 1.8 million years ago, a succession of ice ages produced thick ice sheets in northern Europe, locking up the Earth’s water and lowering the sea level by around 100 metres, so that the Gulf of Lion and Gulf of Sirte (north of Libya) became dry.  Within the last million years continued plate movement has raised volcanic peaks around the Mediterranean basin – my own village has three, and others include the Mont St Clair at Sète and Mont St Loup at Agde.  Black volcanic basalt is a common building material in the area.

It was only 10,000 years ago that the melting ice raised sea levels again to about their present position, and washed in the sediments in which coastal plants now grow.  What does all this mean for the evolution of plants? Firstly, they have had to adapt to cooler, drier conditions, and hence the rise of the grasses and of the typical Mediterranean ‘sclerophyllous’ vegetation: plants with spiny leaves such as Echinops, or thick or waxy leaves, all to reduce water loss. Secondly, the land connnections meant that plants could more easily arrive from Africa – these could include the spurges and palms. Thirdly the isolation of pockets of plants by the ice meant that plant communities could evolve separately and diversely – maybe one reason for the Mediterranean richness of flora.

So during the ice ages the Mediterranean vegetation was more like Siberia , dominated by grasses and with few trees, unrecognizable to Aristotle ( a steppe-ladder of nature?).  Even now the plants round my village are completely different from the range that was here before the Romans, which must have consisted mainly of oaks and whatever could survive beneath them and in clearings.  No vines, no olives, no fruit trees. The current Mediterranean landscape, which reminds us so much of age-old civilisations, is just a still from a moment in a movie.

Or a video. And since this is a ‘bassics of botany’ post, here’s a clip from the outstanding young bassist Esperanza Spalding playing live in San Sebastian (Donostia).  It’s from a Spanish TV broadcast, and all the parts are worth watching. This show may seem to start a bit slowly and the star saunters on stage with a cup of coffee about two minutes in, but then the excitement just builds…



Filed under Echinops

Torch plant: Foeniculum vulgare – fennel


This plant is now at its most abundant in the Midi, filling the roadsides and fallow fields with clouds of yellow umbels at my head height, and filling the air with its aroma. The name in English, French (fenouil) and Occitan (fenolh) comes from the Latin faeniculum, or little hay (faena), perhaps from the shape of the leaves.  I assumed that Le Fenouillèdes,  the region of the Pyrenees just inland from Perpignan, was named for this pant which is abundant there in the hilly garrigue, but the website of the Roussillon area insists it comes from the Latin name pagus fenolletensis, meaning ‘haymaking area’.

All parts of the plant have a strong, sharp tang of aniseed and all can be eaten. I love using the leaves and seeds to stuff fish such as sea bass or bream, or to flavour mussel or potato dishes. I use the seeds a lot with pork dishes too.  The swollen white bulb used as a vegetable comes from a cultivated variety of the same species, F.vulgare var. azoricum or var. dulce (Florence fennel) – some favourite recipes of mine are fennel risotto (I decorated a recent one with the flowers) and fennel fritters.


It is a plant with which mankind has kept close company for a very long time. In the first reference of this post to the Olympics, Greek athletes tried to keep slim and allay hunger by eating fennel shoots and seeds – its Greek name, máratho, comes from maraínome, to grow thinner.  Looking at the slender stems, you can see why.  It was associated with longevity, courage, strength and clear sight.

Fennel is also associated with some of the oldest elements in Greek myth and religion. The worship of Dionysus or Bacchus came originally as a fertility cult from Thrace at the dawn of Greek recorded history, but rapidly became associated with the vine and winemaking. I quote a fascinating little book called Herbs, trees and traditions of Cephalonia by Anna-Maria Simpson:

During the Dionysian festivals the attendants of Dionysus, the god of wine, each carried a wand made out of a large fennel stalk topped with a pine cone called a thyrsus.  Fennel was used instead of wood because if, under the influence of wine, they had a quarrel they were unlikely to injure themselves.

Here’s a picture of  a relief of Dionysus bearing a thyrsus.  The fennel bulb, stalk and cone tip clearly also have phallic overtones (compensating for what the sculptor has given him elsewhere in this picture), not surprising in a fertility cult, and were often entwined with ivy and vine shoots – both fast-growing green shoots.  The staff was thrown in the air during Bacchic dances.

The Dionysian ceremonies seemed to have two aspects – the ecstatic revelries with wine, and the later, more sober and spiritual Orphic rituals which had great influence on Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato.  The latter is paraphrased by Bertrand Russell thus: ‘For many are the thyrsus-bearers, but few are the mystics… meaning the true philosophers who will dwell with the gods’.

Reading Richard Mabey’s quotation from The Englishman’s Doctor (1608), I wonder if fennel was carried as a kind of hangover cure:

Of Fennel vertues foure they do recite,

First it hath power some poysons to expell,

Next burning Agues will it put to flight,

The stomack it doth cleanse, and comfort well:

And fourthly, it doth keepe, and cleanse the sight.



When fennel is mentioned, the plant which may be referred to could sometimes be the giant fennel, or Ferula communis (shown above), a similar but larger plant from the same family, and one  I’ve seen more often in the Aude.  It can grow to 3 metres or more, and has stouter stems which become hard and woody, and which were used in Greece for furniture-making, and also as canes by schoolmasters (Shorter Oxford: ‘Ferula (2) rod, cane or instrument of punishment’) . Apparently the pith inside can burn while leaving the stem untouched – some say this is the origin of the Olympic torch (second and last mention). Legend also has it that when Prometheus stole the divine fire from the gods he hid the ember inside a giant fennel stalk.

This leads me to the strange story of an extinct and semi-mythical plant: Silphium, once so much the dominant product in pre-Roman times of what is now eastern Libya that the stem was featured on most coins from the port of Cyrene, such as this silver coin:



The exact identity of the plant is now unclear but it seems most likely that it was a species of giant fennel of the genus Ferula. It had been known to the Egyptians and most ancient  cultures as a strong seasoning, and as a medicine – it stimulated abortions.  This was before the days of food labelling.   However, don’t worry now – the plant was harvested to extinction during the Roman era (and this contributed to the decline of Cyrene).

And this is what we did with what Prometheus brought in that fennel stalk – a sort of Dionysian revelry for you with the Ohio Players from 1975.



Filed under Foeniculum

And the botany medal goes to….

I gather there’s a festival going on in East London of running, jumping and throwing things.  And for the first time this year, throwing matches apparently, as well as spears and balls and plates.  As part of the build-up, I heard a World Service broadcast from Spitalfields Market which reminded me of the great English herbalist and revolutionary Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54), who in 1640 set up his practice in Red Lion House just east of that market, and at that time in open country.*

Above, Culpeper surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac, and Red Lion House.

The British press has been full of aspiring athletes struggling against adversity, but how many compare with Culpeper for bad luck? His clergyman father died just days before Nicholas was born, the family thus losing a substantial inheritance.  Secretly in love with a young woman whose family opposed their relationship, he arranged to meet her in Lewes and elope to the continent: her coach was struck by lightning en route and she died.  The griefstruck Nicholas’s tryst being discovered, he lost his place and funding to study medicine at Cambridge.  Six of his seven children died before he did. Though working as a field medic rather than in the front line in the English Civil War (on the Parliamentary side), he was seriously wounded in the chest and never fully recovered, dying at the age of  38.

These experiences and his Puritan background made Culpeper a revolutionary. Not able to take a medical degree, he had to fight against the established power of the physicians and apothecaries who used their specialised knowledge and command of Latin to maintain a monopoly and charge the fees to go with it.  Culpeper established his herbal practice outside the City of London to escape some of their regulation and to treat the newly arrived poorer workers of the capital, charging low or no fees. He described the Royal College of Physicians in these words:

They are bloodsuckers, true vampires, have learned little since Hippocrates; use blood-letting for ailments above the midriff and purging for those below. They evacuate and revulse their patients until they faint. Black Hellebor, this poisonous stuff, is a favourite laxative. It is surprising that they are so popular and that some patients recover. My own poor patients would not endure this taxing and costly treatment. The victims of physicians only survive since they are from the rich and robust stock, the plethoric, red-skinned residents of Cheapside, Westminster and St James.

After the success of the Parliamentary side in the Civil War (for which he raised a troop of 60 men), the Court of the Star Chamber was abolished and for the first time he could publish the main works of medicine, such as the London Pharmacopoeia, in English without fear of prosecution. He also made his own knowledge available to all: his Complete Herbal (1640) was the first herbal in English which used the English terms for hundreds of common plants, gave clear and full descriptions, and avoided expensive and rare imported herbs.  For those who are interested, there’s a good short biography here.

However, I take issue with some elements of this bio and many others, which tend to the alternative side of health practice.  Why? Firstly, because they tend to be uncritical of Culpeper’s almost complete reliance on astrology, with which he was obsessed, to classify, diagnose and treat illness. In the Complete Herbal he writes: ‘Such as are astrologers (and indeed none else are fit to make physicians) such I advise…..’

Secondly, because they skate over the fact that many of his ‘medicinal herbs’ are in fact poisonous – it is unfortunate to say the least that many of his reprinted works have no addenda to point out the dangers of aconite, hemlock and nightshade, for example. The poison garden website is a good reference to check simple trust in naïve herbalism. The edition Culpeper’s colour herbal  (ed David Potter, Foulsham, 1983) is an honourable exception, with any risks clearly pointed out.

 Thirdly, because there are some common errors which tend to spread through the web: that he was born in Spitalfields, for example (he was in fact born in Surrey).

So, just to put you on your guard, here’s one of the poisonous plants from Culpeper’s herbal: white henbane, or Hyoscyamus albus, which I found growing in the street just round the corner from my house. To his credit, Culpeper does say of the Common Henbane (H. niger) that  it should ‘never be taken inwardly’, and his description is full of adjectives such as dark, ill, greyish, hollow, deadish, heavy, offensive, so you should get the message. And it’s in the name: ‘henbane’ means ‘hen killer’, the poultry connection perhaps because as a casual plant, it often arrives by seed on bare hen-scratched ground.  Culpeper suggests its external use for swollen testicles, lice, headaches,  deafness and worms in the ear among other things.  If you are an astrologist, you’ll want to know that it’s ‘under the domination of Saturn’.

* As far as I can tell, neither his house nor the pub next door – yes, the Red Lion – nor the address (Red Lion Street) still exist, being buried under the development of Commercial Street. Any Londoner who knows better is invited to correct me.

As for music, I guess this could well be one of the ‘bassics of botany’ series, so here is not only a great bass player but one of the most politically committed: Charlie Haden leading his Liberation Music Orchestra:

Coming up next: To be honest, I don’t know because I haven’t decided yet. But it will be soon. And it may feature a plant which has many forms: wild, culinary, giant and mythical.


Filed under Hyoscyamus