In a square foot of earth: Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

Agrimony - Agrimonia eupatoria-  in August

Agrimony – Agrimonia eupatoria- in August

I have had this post in mind since early summer, and so what has happened since has driven what I then wanted to say from my mind. I’ll try to remember – here goes.
I’ve seen a few of these yellow spikes in my part of the Midi, all on north-facing banks or in ditches. It’s not that common, and I guess that this is the extreme of its usually more northern and temperate range. It’s not listed in my Mediterranean flower guides. I think of it as a ‘plant on the edge’ – one that just about survives here, but which could vanish if climate or other conditions change.
One feature which may help it is that its seeds are covered in tiny hooks and cling on easily to any passing animal or clothing, ensuring that they are dispersed widely and thus might find the right conditions.
Agrimony plant showing the characteristic deeply-divided pinnate leaves

Agrimony plant showing the characteristic deeply-divided pinnate leaves

Agrimony has long been used as a medicinal plant: legend (and its scientific name) has it that its healing properties were discovered by King Mithridates VI, aka Eupator Dionysius (132-63 BCE), who ruled over Pontus and Armenia Minor in Anatolia, Turkey. He had an eventful life which included spending seven years in the wilderness cultivating an immunity to poisons, which he believed had ended his father’s life, by taking small quantities of them . Maybe that’s how he discovered agrimony – one imagines he might have exclaimed, ’Damn! This one does you good!’
The English and genus name comes from a confusion with a plant the ancient Greeks used to treat eye disorders, called argemon, and which actually resembled a poppy. From the Anglo-Saxons onwards agrimony was used for treating wounds, in a solution called ‘eau d’arquebusade’ (musket-shot water). The leaves added to tea make a spring tonic. There’s much more on healing uses here.
I also wanted to bring to your attention something from a recent article in the Guardian newspaper which bears on how I found this plant, and a recurring theme on this blog (see this, for example, and marvel at Durer’s Large piece of turf). It’s from an interview with the ‘Space oddity’ astronaut Chris Hadfield:

When Chris Hadfield was a child, his teacher took the class to a deserted parking lot, gave them each a piece of string and told them to mark off a square foot of ground and spend the hour studying it. “It was just wild weeds and stuff. I don’t remember a lot of grade six, but I remember that clearly; that if you take the time to notice, there’s a fascinating amount of things happening in one square foot of earth. It taught us appreciation and a little bit of ecology; but it was a real perspective-building thing for me. To recognise the world of wonder that exists in this little square of normal nature. And that same idea carries through to everything. If you notice the minutiae around you, I don’t know how you could ever be bored.”
Interviewed by Emma Brockes, Guardian 26th September 2013 – full version here.

More minutiae to come on this blog. In the meantime, here’s some music I found recently and just loved. It’s got no connection to the plant that I can think of, but if you can think of something, leave a comment. It’s a guitar duo, Birelli Lagrene and Sylvain Luc, and I thought their understanding of each other and their playful improvising spirits were wonderful. The whole hour-long concert’s on youtube too.



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11 responses to “In a square foot of earth: Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

  1. Another wonderful dance of a post that skilfully moves the reader around the dance floor of possibilities. Love the post, the pause for thought and the wonderful musical finale. Thankyou for sharing 🙂

    • You’re very kind, as usual, encouraging my sporadic return to blogging.

      • Purely selfish I assure you, your wonderful eclectic mix of music and your passion for plants blends together wonderfully and make your posts a “must read” even if I am pushed for time (like I was this morning 😉 ). The more sporadic you post, the more gem like these posts become 🙂

  2. Up with minutiae! And with never being bored. The two guitarists obviously enjoy and respect each other. And are not bored. So there you have it–connections made.

    • Thanks for making the connection for me – I think I was just tired! I’m with you in looking at the little stuff: the people, the details, the ‘weeds’, all that we often walk past.

  3. I didn’t realise Agrimony was a cool climate plant. It is one of the dominant plants of my orchard in the Touraine and my clothes are always covered in its seeds.

    The technique of using a standard square measurement and logging everything within is now a well established biodiversity surveying method. Pioneering field botanists in the early 20thC developed the technique and it is why we have such good historical records of the plant life of certain areas, such as the Dorset heathlands. Botanists love it, and as you say, is often the thing that gets people really interested.

    • I can remember doing it on a field studies course in the late sixties, when I was still at school (I think we used a metre square), and I’ve seen it in research papers. I didn’t know when it was developed, so thanks for that. Interesting that agrimony is so common in your area – I looked for the distribution chart on tela botanica but it didn’t have one. I was struck in Hadfield’s account by how if we remember our early schooldays, some hour-long session stands out sharply, while whole years are a blur. And it’s often the teacher’s own pet idea that works and is memorable.

  4. Ceridwen

    So glad you have focused on agrimony. I found it locally a few years ago. It’s not common so I had to look it up to identify it and was struck by its interesting ‘roots’ you might say. In fact mine is here
    Your teacher was remarkable in his vision and confidence. The idea of concentrating on a small area or a single theme to wring the juice out of it is one that engages me a great deal. Cf Jane Austen’s ‘little piece of ivory’ or Buddhist-style recommendations to seek the answer to a big question right where you are.

    • The square I used was for sampling a standard area, to compare plant frequencies: I can remember contrasting a trodden area of path with untrampled ground in the same meadow, for example. I have started to do something of the same with my patches in the dunes (as in this post) and on the sauveplaine. But as you and Chris Hadfield say,it’s also a general principle of life.

  5. I also discovered agrimony this year. It is very common here. I have noticed a great difference in the size of plants. It seems to be a good healing herb for many conditions. It’s used in trauma treatment and surgery in Chinese hospitals. It’s also one of Bach’s flower remedies used to treat “distracted states”. Julie/Matthew Seal(Hedgerow medicine) say “Agrimony tightens and tones tissues, and, in in a seeming contradiction, also relaxes tension, both physical and mental. This is the herb for when you are feeling frazzled, when stress/tension or pain are causing torment” So there is the connection to the relaxed and non frazzled music….
    I was waiting for this post,
    So sorry for your great loss X

    • Thank you, both for your contribution to the healing properties of this plant, and for your condolences. The effects the herb has are something I could do with now, and that’s also why I was keen to post it.

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