Tag Archives: blue

Man’s best friends: Bupleurum fruticosum (shrubby hare’s ear)


This is flowering everywhere at the moment. Well, everywhere in the garrigue – sorry, I’m getting a bit Midi-centric. Its great banks of yellow flower-heads stand out as much as the deep green of its glossy leaves when all around is dry, papery and straw-like. Bupleurum is quite a big genus but this is the only species I’ve identified so far, perhaps because it’s so  bushily obvious – it’s the only shrub species.


I’m using it as an introduction to wondering about the use of animals in plant names, and this one is a bit of a puzzle. ‘Bupleurum’ means ox flank (remember the ‘bu’ of bugloss, meaning ox tongue? Post of 11th May).  Why should this be applied to this plant? No-one seems to know. My guess is that the great bushes might seem as big as the bodies of oxen.  The leaves do look like hare’s ears – well, a bit.

This plant name belongs to a group which uses animal names in a descriptive way, often with a touch of affectionate whimsy: think of harebells and foxgloves. This seems most common with wild animals – when we get to Man’s best friends, the domesticated animals, the picture seems to change.  A hierarchy emerges in which some animals appear much more equal than others. Near the top of the dung-heap, poultry gets off quite lightly: fat hen is a good salad, chickweed is a small flower which is pecked by chickens, henbane (see post for 4th August ) is a warning of poison.

Introducing a note of distaste, Geoffrey Grigson points out that in English the use of ‘horse ’in plant names ‘frequently indicates some  coarse differentiating quality’ e.g. horse-mint, horseradish, which could be seen as admiration of the size and power of the horse. Horsetail is purely descriptive.


Rosa canina – dog rose

Then if you want to show that a plant is definitely second-rate, pick your closest cottage companion: a dog-rose is unworthy of the cottage garden, even in Latin (Rosa canina).  Dog-violet and dog’s mercury both also take their names from the Latin versions (Viola  and Mercurialis canina) because the violet was not scented and the mercury was thought not as medicinal as M.annua. The pretty blue Muscari  comosum is called  ail des chiens (dog garlic) in French, presumably because you just can’t make a good sauce with it. Wild asparagus is espargue de chin (dog asparagus) in Occitan, because judged second to the cultivated variety (though I like the wild spears better).


Muscari comosum – tassel hyacinth

But it could be worse – further down the pecking order from the pecking and the barking comes the grunting. Pig, sow or hog in a name usually mean fit only for swine: hogweed, sow thistle, pignut. I mentioned the other day(21st August) that ‘purslane’ may have come originally from a pork-related derogatory word. At first I thought this apparent disrespect  for the animals on which peasant farmers depend was rather ungrateful, but I realise that there was a hierarchy in the subsistence economy of the rural household: what humans could eat, they ate.  What was left went to the dogs and chickens.  What could be foraged for free in the hills could go to the pigs. Nothing was wasted.

And the donkey – because yes, you can get lower than a hog .  Perhaps because it’s a poor version of a horse, perhaps because they will eat anything, and especially in Occitan, the donkey gets the rawest deal.  The thistles in the Cirsium genus are lo cardon d’ase in Occitan, and the Eryngium campestre  (29th August)is pan blanc d’ase.   Oddly, in Oc an aubergine is not something you’d find in an auberge, but a viet d’ase – a donkey’s penis.  Ok, perhaps you’d find that at an auberge too – but maybe outside.

For all you need to know about the different styles of expressivity in Paris and in my village, I’ll give in full my favourite entry in the lexicon Las plantas , which gives plant names in French and Occitan:

algue microscopique: flottant à la surface des eaux stagnantes, genre diatomée. La mèrda de grapaud.

In plain English – toad shit.

Some animal music for you: first, Rufus Thomas and a remake of the original record (which I couldn’t find on video):

Now the poultry:

and the canines:

If anyone can think of a song about donkeys which is acceptable family viewing, let me know.


Filed under Bupleurum

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

Cichorium intybus – chicory

A tough and long-lasting plant – it’s one of the few flowers still going strong in the heat and dry weather (apologies to any reader in northern Europe who may have forgotten what that’s like) – it flowers from May (when I took this photo) through to August.  And I’m still going too – apologies also for the gap in posts which has been longer than I meant, due to priority given to work finishing a new bathroom.

At present these plants are usually seen standing proud up to a metre tall – all stem, bearing a few finely-lobed leaves and these lovely flowers. It’s hard to associate them with chicory or the closely related, and very similar endive.  Both have thick tap roots, which is why they can survive the dryness (sorry, mentioned it again) surmounted by a rosette of bitter leaves which can go in salads.  I have grown endive – you have to cut the leaves off when the root is good and thick,and earth them up to get  the fat, yellow-leafed new buds.  One of the prettiest salad flowers, and I guess common in the wild as an escapee from cultivation.

It was originally a native plant of Egypt, introduced to cultivation in Europe in the 15th century, when the Arabic kehsher had been transformed into the Latin cichoreum and became the French chicoree.  Among several descriptive names in Occitan, there is l’arrucat, meaning ‘pressed together’, presumably from the leaf buds which, my Oc dictionary informs me, ‘are eaten as a salad in Narbonne’.  Maybe a whiff of Occitan snobbery there, since it’s also called engraissa porc – fit for fattening pigs.  Using the word ‘pig’ in a plant name is not generally positive –  the use of animals in plant names is a topic I’ve pencilled in for sometime.

My first thought for some music – given the plant name – was Chick Corea, but I’ll save that for later and go with a song title that was obvious when I saw the picture.  It’s played by Stephane Grappelli and Martin Taylor – and they’ve even got the right stage lighting.


Filed under Cichorium

The Blues: Medicago sativa – lucerne (alfalfa)

Time to play ‘guess the odd one out’ of the above photos, taken along the same 10 metres of roadside verge……(clue: you can move the cursor over the images). The answer? They’re all from the family Leguminosae with the characteristic upright standard petal at the back, and a ‘keel’ projecting forward, like garden peas and beans.  But the odd one out is the first one, Psoralea bituminosa, a plant which looks like clover or lucerne but isn’t. The other two are the same species, Medicago sativa or lucerne (often called alfalfa in the UK), though the yellow flower is a subspecies (falcata).  I had to do some close looking and reading to be sure  – more disambiguation!  I’ll explain.

Psoralea bituminosa has a leaf divided into three, like the others, but the leaflets are elongated, and the flower stalks much longer than for the Medicago. It is supposed to smell of tar, due to glands on the leaf which appear as bright points against the light – I couldn’t see these or smell the tar, hence my hesitation in identifying it.  Maybe we have a different variety here, maybe the smell develops later.

The lucerne was easier to identify in the end, because we’ve seen whole fields of it lately, and the plants I saw were escapees from an earlier planting, now naturalised. The flowers are very variable in colour, from deep purple through to light blue, and often have the yellow plants mixed in since the seeds sown for lucerne crops are themselves mixed, and the two varieties interbreed.  In fact the yellow is probably nearer to the parent stock, first cultivated in the near East (Iran and Turkey) over 2000 years ago, but  grown in Europe since the 4th century CE.

A plant with three names: Medicago and sometimes Medick in English because early Roman writers attributed the plant to the nation of the Medes, in present-day Iran.   Alfalfa because the Spanish took the plant and its name alfalfez (from the Arabic al -fisfisa) to South America, and North American settlers took the seeds and name from there, especially from Chile. And  to me the most interesting name of all is lucerne:  not, as I thought, related to a Swiss town, but coming from the Provencal or Occitan word la lusèrna, meaning meaning a little light, or glow-worm.  In fact I think the latter is more likely because the seeds are not only shiny but coiled like a worm.

Lucerne is an amazing plant. Its roots can be up to 15 metres long, and go up to 2 metres deep, giving it great drought-resistance.  It flowers in July when other flowers are fading and so is very important for bees.  It fixes atmospheric nitrogen like many legumes, so does well on poor soils.  It can be cut up to 12 times a year and regrows from its extensive roots – that’s why it does so well on roadside verges which are cut back.  It is the most widely grown forage crop in the world.  It produces an autotoxin – a chemical which inhibits the germination of rival plants.  I could go on, but you have Google and wikipedia just like I do, and it’s time for music.

This is Dinah Washington’s version of the Bessie Smith classic, Back Water Blues. A more rootsy blues for a rootsy blue flower.



Filed under Medicago

The Blues: Centaurea cyanus – Cornflower, and jachère fleurie

Thanks to herbicides, the cornflower has disappeared from the corn – together with other plants which were probably more toxic. Disappeared along with the word ‘corn’ – until the 18th  century, all grain was called ‘corn’, and after that the term was gradually applied exclusively to Indian corn or maize (Zea mays). But thanks to the European Union policy of ‘set aside’, where farmers can be paid to leave fields fallow (jachère in French) rather than grow crops for which there is already a surplus, the idea of  sowing with an annual flower mix which won’t persist into the next year (jachère fleurie)  and which almost always includes cornflowers,  has taken off.  I’ve seen it a lot in central France, and local authorities are encouraged to sow flower mix on any empty ground they own, but this is not widespread in the Midi, where vines are predominant –  if they are grubbed up, winter wheat or maize are often sown.

So I was very pleased and intrigued when a neighbour sowed this lovely jachère fleurie in his small field on the way up to our garden. When I asked him about it, he said he just wanted to use the land for something, and that he’d got the seed mix from the chasseurs – the village hunting association.  He explained that they sow this mix, and also pea plants, in wild spots where they want to attract game. You can get ‘tall mix’ (1m), ‘short’ (0.5m), and ‘new wave’ – this is a mix of sizes which provides good cover for game and increases the insects and other invertebrates on which partridges feed. I know this neighbour also keeps bees, and I asked him if the seed mix was a special honey-assisting one (mélange mellifère). He said no, though all flowers will help the bees.  He keeps bees partly I think because he also has a lot of peach and nectarine trees he wants to have pollinated.

Research has also shown that the flower mix increases the number of true wild flowers, since the fields are untreated with chemicals and undisturbed all year. It made me think how all the activities of a village are connected, so that hunting is tied in by many links to other crops and products, to biodiversity and sustainablility. In fact I found that the Departmental Federations of Hunters are the main bodies giving advice and distributing seed.

You don’t have to drive to France to see it – you can get screensavers of jachère fleurie here (Télécharger = download), and the photos give a good idea of the effect.

On the other hand of course, if you leave land fallow, it will soon be colonised by herbs, then perennials and shrubs, and finally by trees, and eventually the biodiversity will be even greater. Fifty species per square metre is possible for old hay meadows in northern Europe, which are cut every year and hence avoid the shrub/tree succession (as opposed to four or five species in jachère fleurie).  There remains only one per cent of  the meadows which existed in 1940 (more here).

However, this recolonisation takes many years, and may not be realistic for former agricultural land with a depleted seed bank, while the jachère fleurie is an instant, artificial solution, and presumably brings the partridges in that much quicker for the hunters.   All this reminds me to have a close look at the flora in some abandoned vineyards, and at  the succession of plants here which is not the same as in northern Europe.

Time for Etta James and Burn down the cornfield (originally by Randy Newman) – an incitement to passion, or a protest against monoculture? You decide. There’s some debate whether the slide guitar is by Lowell George or Ry Cooder – for anyone with ears, it’s definitely George.

Etta James died in January.  I can’t imagine her resting in peace now – burn on, Etta.


Filed under Centaurea

The Blues: Campanula rapunculus – Rampion bell-flower

I hope you like the new header, which I think better illustrates the blog title.

Campanula of course means a lttle bell, but the other part of the name is more interesting, because the Brothers Grimm may have taken the name Rapunzel from this plant, for their tale of a maiden locked in a tower. In French, it’s raiponce and in Occitan reponchon (it’s among five other plants which are often called this), both from the Latin rapa or rapum (turnip) which signifies any edible root.  Geoffrey Grigson says that ‘In the 16th century Rampion was commonly known as rapunculum, quasi parvum rapum,  ‘as if a little turnip’, and it was identified with the wild turnip of Dioscorides.’

The Campanulas generally were often cultivated in the potager in France for their roots, and the leaves were used in salads.  According to Richard Mabey, the wild Rampion, a biennial,  was used in the same way, which has now made the plant very rare in Britain, so it doesn’t seem to have been widely cultivated there. He says that the fleshy parsnip-like roots were chopped, boiled, and served with vinegar  (rather like15th century soggy chips, I suppose).  I’m just thinking that ‘Parsnip, Parsnip, let down your hair’ doesn’t sound so good.

I found this flower hard to identify because there are so many similar species which differ in the degree of branching of the stem (this is branched, C. rapunculoides  and persicifolia are not), the exact size and orientation of the flower and the size of the sepals. There are at least 500 species of Campanula. It is difficult to imagine how a botanist can see such variety and not think of how small variations can accumulate to result in new species – an illustration of Darwin’s gradualist model of evolution.  Nowadays we know that climate changes, catastophes such as meteor strikes and changes in other flora and fauna can produce rapid and striking evolutionary change with many entirely new species arising (known as radiation): this is Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, to which I’ll no doubt return.  But for now, the varieties of the Campanulas are a reminder to me of Darwin.

Now for a earful of blues. I thought it was about time I found something more obviously based on the blues chord changes, and this fits the bill.  It’s.the Thelonious Monk Quartet and Blue Monk, for no other real reason that I like it and a friend recently reminded me of it (what he really said was, ‘you know that Monk tune that goes Dah dee di dah, dah dee di dah?’).

Next, we interrupt this series to bring you another series: Any list will get boring if it goes on too long, so I’m going to mix it up with a few posts on early naturalists and jazz bass players: the bassics of botany.  I’m starting with Asclepius – OK he’s a god, and neither a botanist or a bassist, but anyway…..


Filed under Campanula

The Blues: Aphyllanthes monspeliensis

A curious plant because it is virtually leafless (Aphyllanthes means a plant without leaves)– the leaves are reduced to brown scales wrapping the base of the stems, presumably a chance mutation which gave an advantage in reducing water loss from leaf surface area.  Maybe a relatively recent evolution: this is a genus with only one species – there are no close relatives.

The stems grow in tufts from a mass of swollen fibrous roots, which are sometimes fed to sheep and goats and are supposed to give a fine taste to the resulting cheese – certainly the goat’s cheeses we buy from the farm in the hills where this plant grows abundantly are the best we’ve tasted inFrance.

In French, Aphyllanthe de Montpellier. In Occitan lo blavet (little blue), lo bragalon (little trousers – from the stems?), la dragona (from word for a drumstick or sword?). There is no equivalent English name, since this is a plant of the Midi – see the tela botanica map (green = present).

Now the story I want to tell about this plant is a long one with several digressions – you may want to skip to the end and some  of my favourite jazz , but you’d miss the history of a long friendship, more on the central role of Montpellier in botany, and my republican canard  in response to the British royal jubilee excess: the story of a kinky monarch and an assassination.

First, the friendship: Aphyllanthes monspeliensis was first described by two botanists, Pierre Pena and Mathias de Lobel in their Stirpium Adversaria Nova, published in London in 1571.  This was a pioneering work which described 1,500 species with great precision and full details of the locations where each plant had been found – a real advance at the time, and one of the foundations of scientific botany. Because both men had studied medicine in Montpellier and collected plants near there and in Provence this book also gave the largest place to the Midi of any 16th century botanical text.

Mathias de Lobel (1538-1616) was Flemish, born in Lille, and met Pierre Pena when both enrolled as medical students under Guillaume Rondelet in the University of Montpellier in spring 1565.  I can’t give Pena’s dates because, as one French source says,  ‘A strange mystery covers the destiny of Pierre Pena’. It is known however that he was born in Jonques, near Aix en Provence.  His brother, a mathematician and secret  astrologer, advised him from his star charts to give up a career in the army to study, and Pierre went to Parisand then began plant-collecting trips. It is possible that he first met  Lobel on one such trip to Italy– both were in Venice at the same time.  Pena had visited Padua, an old University town with the earliest Botanical Garden in Europe (1525), rival to Pisa, whose Garden was founded in 1544 (that of Montpellier would not be established until 1597 – still a year ahead of that at Paris).

Anyway, after qualifying in medicine at Montpellier, Pena and Lobel seem to have travelled and worked together closely for some years. Certainly around 1570 both were in England, practising medicine and visiting prominent British botanists such as William Turner (who produced the first English Flora), Dr Thomas Penny, and the pharmacist Hugh Morgan (I’m sure I’ll return to this Welsh connection). It was in London that they finished the first edition of  Stirpium Adversaria Nova, which had an unusual dual dedication: to Queeen Elizabeth I, and to the professors at Montpellier. Pena is mentioned on the title page, but not in the text, and Lobel published other works alone.  So why did they part, and  what became of Pena?  Here is a mystery – many sources say he returned to Provence to practice medicine – he published nothing more. But one source offers a solution: he may have become the secret doctor to the French King, Henri III, and this also explains why Pena died a rich man. Henri III, who came to the throne in 1574, was unpopular and was, as described by André Maurois

‘strange and disturbing….tall, thin fastidious, gracious … he showed intelligence but inspired no respect; his effeminate manners, his bracelets and necklaces, his liking for perfumes upset people, as did even more his suspect ‘little darlings’, gentlemen who were altogether too bedecked and beruffed.  When it was learned that he dressed himself as a woman for certain Court festivities, he began to be called ‘Prince of Sodom’.

Clearly there was even more soap opera material there than there is for the Germano-Greek lot in Britain. In 1589 Henri was stabbed to death with a poignard by Jaques Clement, a Dominican friar and a fanatical Catholic (he had first checked with theologians that regicide was OK if it was for religious reasons). I suppose that in the Darwinian struggle for existence till now there must have been more ridiculous royals than dangerous Dominicans – the first breeds more than the second, I guess.  One also presumes that after this drama Pena then went back to the safety of Provence.

Just two more botanical tidbits: firstly to clarify that though they described Aphyllanthes precisely, Pena and Lobel put it in the genus Caryophyllus, and it was the botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort who established the genus Aphyllanthes, and credited his predecessors by using the species name monspeliensis (‘from Montpellier’).

Secondly, both Lobel and Pena had plants named after them.  Lobel obviously, in Lobelia, seen in many a hanging basket. Pena was commemorated by the botanist Charles Plumier in the genus Penoea, which I think is an American shrub. Lobel, incidentally, often spelt his name L’aubel – a northern French name for a poplar tree, and the frontispieces of his books featured a nubile young woman embracing two poplars.  One can only guess what the English botanist Joseph Hooker might have designed for himself.

Thanks for getting this far. The jazz is well-known but still a favourite, and a tune to play to close your eyes and escape far from monarchist pomp: it’s Miles Davis and Bill Evans and a title that always comes to mind when I see a clump of Aphyllanthes: it’s Blue in Green, from Kind of Blue (1959).


Filed under Aphyllanthes

The Blues: Anchusa azurea – Italian bugloss

If you’re going to start a series on blue, you have to start here.  This plant is all about colour.  The flowers are small but the most intense blue I’ve ever seen – if you pass a stunning flash of deep gorgeous blue, chances are it’s this plant.  Sometimes there are swathes of this colour in fields or at the edges – a wonderful sight, but one I’ve found it hard to capture on a small digital camera, whose sensor just can’t take the saturation (so the first two photos are courtesy of Chaiselongue).

It is also called Italian alkanet, and like alkanet the long Anchusa taproots can be used to give a red dye.  The word alkanet comes from the Spanish alcaneta, diminutive of alcana, in turn from the Arabic al-hanna: so meaning ‘little henna’.

This plant is found all over France, and indeed all round the Mediterranean.  Some areas treat it as a noxious weed: it’s covered with long hairs which can prick the skin so I wouldn’t advise picking it – apparently its hollow stems don’t make it a very successful cut flower anyway. It is said that in  Crete the young stems are cooked and eaten. Many varieties are grown in gardens for their colour and height.

I pondered long and hard over what blue tune should go with this, the first in the series of blue flowers and blue  music.  It’s the sort of task I very much enjoy. In the end I settled for this, for its liveliness which I thought suited the flower. Dianne Reeves gives it all she has in New Orleans on her version of the Cuban musician Mongo Santamaria’s  Afro blue.

Because it’s so good, try Santamaria’s  original 1959 recording, based on an African drum rhythm:

Next:  more blue.


Filed under Anchusa

Echium vulgare – Viper’s Bugloss

French name: Viperine. Biennial or perennial, found all over France, and indeed most of Europe.

What a great English name! It dates all the way back to the Greek naturalist Dioscorides (40-90 CE) and his book De materia medica, which remained continuously in circulation and use till about 1600 – it wasn’t one of those books like earlier Greek natural philosophy which went out of sight until translated in twelfth-century Moorish Spain.

This plant is thought to be the one Dioscorides called ekhion and recommended for both prevention and cure of snakebite. This seems to have arisen from the shape of the seeds, which resemble snakes’ heads.

Sixteenth-century botanists thought it similar to bugloss (Lycopsis/Anchusa arvensis), and indeed both belong to the same family: Boraginaceae. Bugloss comes from the Greek bouglossos, meaning ox-tongued – most plants in this family have thick, rough, tongue-shaped leaves. A particular feature of this plant and many others in the same family is that the flowers start out pink and change to bright blue – you can see both colours in the picture. It must be a change in pH in the petal, which responds like litmus paper – if you put a blue flower in vinegar it changes back to pink (I’ve just tried).

Coming up soon: Ray Florets – who’s he and what’s he got to do with New Orleans?

And on 15th May a Presidential transfer special with two trips to Hades and one to Athens – none to Holland, strangely.

Now to another herb: if you’re a fan of the jazz of 30’s Harlem, you may know that ‘viper’ was a slang term for a marijuana-smoker, and featured in several cheeky drug-related songs by Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Stuff Smith, among others.  I’m featuring the violinist Stuff Smith and his You’re a Viper (1938).  ‘Mighty Mezz’ in the song is a reference to the strong Mexican dope sold by the musician Mezz Mezzrow. It was the innocent days before heroin arrived and pretty well every musician smoked a lot of reefers.  Of course, it’s all different now.

Dreamed about a reefer five feet long. Mighty Mezz, but not too strong. You’ll get high, but not for long. Cuz’ you’se a viper.

I’m the king of everything. I’ve got to be high to have that swing. Light a tea and let it be. You’se a viper.

When your throat get dry you know you’re high. Everything is dandy.

Truck on down to the candy store. Bust your konk on a peppermint candy.

Then you know your body’s spent. You don’t care if you don’t pay rent. Sky is high, you high. If you’se a viper.


Filed under Echium