For this post there’s a treat in store with the music: both that and the plant are I think equally important, as widely appreciated, and just as good for you. But first, a quick detour: if the title makes you, like me, think of a song you once heard, maybe it was Leadbelly’s In the pines (to hear it, click here).
And next to the second part of the title: the flower, which is indeed very common in the borders of fields, vineyards and roads all over Europe, and especially on the lower ground in the Mediterranean region. I feel a bit foolish that it wasn’t till I moved to the south of France that I realised that the French name for this plant has become the English word for its colour: mauve, a Frenchified version of the Latin name. The flowers appeared first in May and have only just finished. Here it is in flower not long ago by some vines just up the hill from my village:
It was well known two thousand years ago to the first botanists, such as Dioscorides, who recommended it as a healing and softening herb for bruises and inflammations of the skin, and to prevent insect stings and bites. In his herbal it is called Malache (for the section which discusses mallow, see section 2-144, page 267, here). In fact its modern Greek name, molócha, comes from malakós, meaning soft.
It was also an important vegetable for the poor – and still is in the Middle East – since all parts of it could be eaten. In his book Wild foods by the wayside (see my review here) Heiko Vermeulen suggests putting the young leaves and flowers in salads, using the leaves to thicken soups (as in the Egyptian classic soup malokhia, for which he gives the recipe), and nibbling the seeds, known as cheeses from their shape, as a snack. I’ll try that soup next spring, Heiko – honest. The dried flowers are also sold in Greece to make a tea which is a popular remedy for sore throats and stomach complaints. I tried out the tea, and while I was disappointed that the infusion wasn’t as mauve as the flowers, it was very soothing.
Because of its long botanical history, let’s have another detour to look at the life of Dioscorides, as a part of my continuing ‘bassics of botany’ series. Pedanius Dioscorides was born at Anazarba, a town in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) sometime between 30-40 AD, and studied in nearby Tarsus.
He lived in Rome at the time of the emperor Nero, became a surgeon in the Roman army, and in that capacity travelled through Italy, Gaul, Spain, and North Africa, recording the existence and medicinal value of hundreds of plants. Greek was his native language, so that is what he used in about AD 65-70 to write his most famous work De Materia Medica, a five-volume treatise on the medical uses of about 600 plants, including cannabis, colchicum, water hemlock, and peppermint, and of animal products and minerals. Dioscorides died around 90 AD but his work had a remarkably long life: translated into Latin, Arabic, and many other languages, it is astounding that it remained in continuous use as the primary text on pharmacology for some 1500 years. And remember that this was before printing, so all texts were copied by hand, each manuscript accumulating marginal notes from generations of scholars.
Wormwood- from Vienna copy
No original now exists and it is not known if it was illustrated, but many later copies were richly illustrated: see the Vienna copy here, for example. Forget individual textbooks, medical students were lucky if there was a single copy in their medical school or University – in fact the possession of such a copy is what probably attracted them to study at the school. De Materia Medica was finally superseded by new, printed herbals only after 1600.
Now if you’re thinking ‘Ah, these ancients knew a thing or two’,well perhaps they did, but I don’t know if you’d want to try all of Dioscorides’s suggestions from the first Iink I gave. For example, he recommends:
The burnt skin of the earth hedgehog is good for alopecia [baldness], rubbed on with moist pitch.
As good as anything you’d find nowadays on the internet, I suppose. Or then there’s this:
The stones [testicles] of the hippopotamus are dried and pounded into small pieces and taken in a drink in wine against snakebite.
Have you tried finding a hippo after you’ve been bitten by a snake? Let alone removing its testicles. On a serious note, I was interested to see how many grains he recognises as edible and medicinal, while we’re used to consuming only wheat.
Of course, vines and mallow made me think of the song Fine and Mellow , which Billie Holiday both wrote and sang, and particularly of her version filmed for TV on 6th December 1957, less than two years before she died. The band is a roll-call of the greats: the sax section is Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young on tenors, and Gerry Mulligan on baritone. Roy Eldridge is on trumpet, Vic Dickenson on trombone.
You can see from her face that Lady lives every moment of every solo – never more so than when Lester plays. You can understand why musicians loved to play with her, and on this date each musician’s solo, played facing her, sounds like a tribute. Am I a fan? Yes, just short of obsession.
Apart from the title pun, there’s another connection to mallow and its healing properties: I’ve never listened to a Billie Holiday record without feeling better – often emotionally exhausted, but somehow stronger. ‘Blues is a healer’, sang John Lee Hooker, ‘All over the world. It healed me.’ You want to hear that too? All right then, here it is.
Coming up next: The dunes and the ballot box in Catalunya.