Category Archives: Lysimachia

Purple loosestrife

Loosestrife at the foot of a damp wall

Loosestrife at the foot of a damp wall


If I go out looking for plants in flower now, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) seems hard to avoid. Since it’s a water-loving plant, and this is the middle of August and la grande chaleur, that seems surprising. But there are streams, deep ditches that collect moisture seeping from the fields, and springs, and reservoirs like this one in my village.
Purple loosestrife at the side of a reservoir

Purple loosestrife at the side of a reservoir


I feel I’m always going on about plants adapted to dry conditions here, but the truth is that each plant has its niche, and niches by definition are not characteristic of the whole.
The origins of the English name are interesting – and for this I rely totally, as I often do, on Geoffrey Grigson’s Dictionary of English Plant Names. The name was coined in 1548 by one of the first and greatest English botanists, William Turner, who took the yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris) and purple to be the same plant. He understood the word lusimakheios, used by the Greek herbalist and physician Dioscorides to mean ‘deliverance from strife.’ The Roman Pliny described the herb as being so powerful ‘that if placed on the yoke of inharmonious oxen it will restrain their quarrelling.’

As someone who will go to any lengths to avoid an argument, this appeals to me. However, I have yet to test it with friends, neighbours or indeed oxen. I think a good way to avoid strife is to remember that like plants, humans have their preferences and their niches and their own way of seeing things. I don’t take this too far – like the great Nye Bevan I believe that voting Tory is just wrong.

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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

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