Tag Archives: Dioscorides

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.



Filed under Lysimachia, Lythrum

In the vines, part two: Malva sylvestris (Common mallow)




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.

Apsynthion BathyprikonWormwood- 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.


Filed under Malva

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

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