There’s a definite thrill in the herbarium as French, Occitan, Swedish, Algerian and English teams take their places. The Latin team is elderly, but a strong contender. There’s even a lone Italian. And what’s more, every competitor is clean: no steroids, no EPO, no diuretics. Why am I so sure? Well, this is botany,not professional cycling, and furthermore the whole thing is of course completely imaginary.
Here for starters is the spurge that’s been lighting up the vineyards (if not the sports headlines) for a few months now: and the Latins are off the mark with Euphorbia segetalis, or field spurge.
Its leaves have fallen and the pink stem holds a yellow flowering and fruiting head, sometimes ball-shaped, usually slightly flattened. The French team call it Euphorbe des moissons (harvest spurge), from its late flowering, and the Occitans lo lantreson, a contraction of the Latin lacteritia or milk-yielding.
Other Occitan names, applied to various species , include lo marcivol, which is derived from the Latin marcere, to wither or fade(marceribilis= liable to wither) – I presume because of the blue- or grey-green colour of the leaves, or because the flowers have no petals, as if they have already dropped. Also la lachuscla, from lach (milk) and usclar (to burn) – this is worth remembering since the sap is irritant to the skin, sometimes severely so, and can cause blindness if it gets in the eyes. If you’re weeding it in the garden, or pruning any Euphorbia species, wear gloves and don’t touch your eyes. This property means it has been used in traditional medicine for warts and skin cancers. In the middle ages the irritant leaves were used by beggars to produce unsightly sores on their skins, with a view to eliciting more pity and more money from passers-by. Extra points to the Occitans for being safety-conscious.
How are the teams shaping up so far? I must admit I’m a bit disappointed by the Occitan vocabulary here. Since the plants are all known to be strong purgatives (spurge is from the Latin expurgare, via old French espurge), I was expecting a variety of shit-related names, a cacophony of caca. In fact there seems only to be one: for the caper-spurge (E. lathyris) there is catapuça (catapuce in French) from the Italian cacapuzza, or shit-stink. In Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, ‘katapuce’ is one of the ‘laxatyves’ recommended by the hen Pertelote for the cockerel Chauntecleer to rid him of the indigestion which is giving him frightening dreams: ‘To purge yow bynethe and eek above’. The large fruits of this species were taken like pills in the 14th century.
Let’s try another round. Here is E. characias (Mediterranean spurge) easily recognised because it’s one of the tallest spurges, often over a metre high, and because it has violet-brown nectar glands.
For some reason, in Occitan it has the feminine version of the same name as the previous spurge: la lantresa, so for unoriginality the team lose the extra points they just gained.
So far the inter-language naming competition hasn’t really taken off: French and Occitan are being descriptive and everyone’s still hanging around nervously outside the privy door. But now here’s an unusual joint effort from the Algerian and Swedish teams. How so? Let me – like all good sports commentators – profile the team by telling you the background story.
It all started in 40BC when Cleopatra VII of Egypt and Mark Antony had twin children, named Cleopatra Selene [moon] – or Cleopatra VII – and Alexander Helios [sun]. It was all looking so good for little Cleo – her famous mother’s only daughter – when at the age of 6 she was made ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya. However in 31BC her daddy was defeated by Octavian’s fleet at the battle of Actium, and within a few months both her parents had committed suicide. Octavian took the children back to Rome, where they were paraded in golden chains too heavy for them to be able to walk. The twins were given to Octavian’s sister Octavia Minor to raise – she had once been Mark Antony’s wife. Pick the family dynamics out of that one.
Sometime after her 14th birthday Cleo Selene’s twin brother had died, and she was married to the exiled African king Juba II. They were sent to rule over Mauretania, present-day Algeria, where Rome needed a client power. At some point Juba became ill and was successfully treated by a herb collected in the Atlas Mountains by his personal physician – the grateful monarch named the herb Euphorbia regisjubae after the doctor, whose name was Euphorbus, and of course after himself (it is now named Euphorbia obtusifolia ssp regis-jubae. Juba is said to have written over 50 books, some of them works of natural history.
All so confusing for newcomers to our sport who translate the Greek Euphorbia as ‘good forage’, which is its literal meaning, but which is obviously wrong for a toxic plant. The Swedish contribution came in 1753 when Linnaeus used the name Euphorbia for the whole genus of similar plants – the full story and much more is on the EuphORBia site here. If you’re an incurable romantic who just wants to know if Juba and Cleo were really in love, you’re reading the wrong blog: try this one here.
Sorry about the digression – I think the judges might penalise this team for time-wasting. But from now on I’ll look at a spurge, recall Cleopatra, and call the flowers a name that hasn’t – as far as I know – been used yet: sun and moon, in honour of the twins.
But look who’s limbering up now! It’s time for the English countryman’s team to enter, trained at a secret hideout by their Head Coach Geoffrey Grigson. In The Englishman’s Flora, Grigson records a fantastic range of names for spurges used in various English counties – I was alerted to these linguistic riches by this entry in a fascinating photo-a-day journal by a writer who often comments here. These names include: the devil’s cups and saucers (my personal favourite), wolf’s milk , deer’s milk, virgin mary’s nipple (but giving emetic milk – an anti-mariolater at work here?), devil apple tree, devil’s churnstaff, wart-weed, bible leaf, potatoes in the dish, and Kiss me Dick (I can’t explain this, but I thought you’d want to know). A sensationally poetic performance which puts the yeomen in line for the gold medal. While we await the adjudication, you might want to read this article by Richard Mabey on species naming –click here.
In a return to the classic boy-meets-girl, boy-pollinates- girl-with-aid-of-insect theme, here are some photos of male and female Mercurialis annua (annual mercury) plants – mentioned in the last blog post. This habit of single-sex plants is an adaptation to ensure cross-pollination. Male and female side by side: male has the erect inflorescence, female flowers well-nigh hidden.
Flowers in close-up: male has the stamens:
the female flower isn’t obvious, but you can make out a bristly fruit.
Music which pays tribute to the traditions of north Africa: the great Randy Weston.
Coming next: the last in the present spurge series.