Tag Archives: Pliny

Size isn’t everything – Iris lutescens

Dwarf iris - Iris lutescens -  the colour variety which gives it its name

Dwarf iris – Iris lutescens – the colour variety which gives it its name

A moment this week which I’ve been anticipating keenly – my first sight of the dwarf iris, Iris lutescens, in the garrigue near where I live. Why is it special? Because it’s beautiful, its form enhanced, in my view, by its modest size – usually only about 20cm high. Its name comes form the Latin for yellow, luteus, but there are common blue and white versions of the same species.

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer

Irises – it has to be said, probably the taller species – have impressed us humans for a long time. The upstanding slim pointed leaf-blades have reminded all cultures of spears and swords: the yellow flag iris is called Jacob’s sword in English, and other names such as segg and gladdon or gladwyn betray repectively Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for swords too. The blue or white irises seen often here on banks and in ditches are Iris germanica, called la cotèla (knife) or la cotelassa (dagger) in Occitan. I think that’s one reason why I prefer the smaller, less warlike dwarf iris – ‘nail-scissor iris’ wouldn’t have the same belligerent ring to it.

The large species have showy flowers, of six tepals (the name used for the similar petals and sepals in this family of plants) carried on long stems, and perhaps for these reasons they were sacred to the ancient Egyptians who used a symbolic representation of the plant on the first sceptres, and they also appear in pictures and artefacts from Babylon.

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The name iris means rainbow in Greek, and it is supposed that the plant was so christened because of the range of vivid colours in each flower, as well as between varieties and species. Greek mythology includes the goddess Iris, who acts as a messenger for the gods, particularly Zeus and Hera, when they need to communicate between each other or with mortals. This may be because the rainbow seems to connect heaven and earth. There are two statues of Iris among the Elgin marbles.

Exactly when the plant acquired its present name is not clear – the term iris is used by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History, in which he describes in detail the cultivation of irises in northern Europe for their magical and medical properties. Three months before harvesting, the ground around the plant was soaked in honeyed water, and three circles were drawn around it with the point of a sword.

But then this name seems to have been forgotten, and until the 16th century they were commonly given either the sword-names listed above, or fleur de lis or flower de luce. One explanation for the latter is because the yellow flag iris, Iris pseudacorus, grew plentifully by the river Luts (or Lits) in what is now southern Belgium, and a symbolic representation of three of its tepals was adopted by Gaulish and Germanic kings as the well-known heraldic symbol of the fleur-de-lys. It became the emblem of the French royalty since Louis VII, so identified with the royal cause that anyone wearing the flower after the French Revolution was likely to be sent to the guillotine. Napoleon substituted the bee as a national emblem.

The flower pushing its way between stones

The flower pushing its way between stones

The dwarf iris is a tough customer, native to the Mediterranean region of France since it positively thrives in heat, drought, and on poor limestone soils. It’s often dug up for transplanting to gardens, but conditions there may well be too rich for it. In the garrigue you often find it among patches of rock and stone chips where no other plant can get a foothold.
Blue flames

Blue flames

I have other, more personal reasons for my attachment to this flower. It was in a patch of garrigue near M’s house that I first saw a carpet of these flowers, lighting up the hillside like flames, so they remind me of walks we’ve taken together. So to accompany this post, why not Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, because if M asked me if everything is OK, I’d say ‘Yeh, Yeh’.

Size isn’t everything



Filed under Iris

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

Botany epitome no 1: juniper, rosemary and heather

I’ll start by explaining the odd title. A couple of times recently I’ve been out and looking for plants and noticed that several characteristic species of that habitat were growing close to each other, giving a typical snapshot of its ecology. Number one? Yes, there’s another one coming soon.

The Cirque de Mourèze with the village in the background (photo Wikipedia)

 The first place is near the Cirque de  Mourèze, an area of dolomitic pillars and weird shapes sculpted by erosion, about 20 km north of where I live. Dolomite – a mineral named after the French geologist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu (1750–1801) – is formed by the combination of magnesium and limestone, and resists erosion so that patches of it protect the limestone beneath while the surrounding stone is eroded by acidic water.

L to R: juniper, rosemary and heather

Just north of Mourèze the narrow road goes through a few hectares of a unique landscape known to Chaiselongue and me as ‘the Libyan bit’ or ‘the road to Apollonia’, not for a Hope/Crosby film but since it reminds her of a landscape she knew as a child in North Africa. It’s a very dry sandy area between hills of limestone outcrops, protected in a small pass.  It’s the only area I’ve seen near here which has a lot of heather growing in it, and in the patch I saw, that was associated with juniper and rosemary.  All three plants have adopted the same dense bushy shrubby habit, and small linear leaves, for the same reason: to reduce water loss. All three are often found near the sea, adding to the coastal feel of ‘the Libyan bit’. Spot the odd one out? Yes, juniper is a conifer, so it has cones rather than flowers like the other two.

The juniper is Juniperus oxycedrus, prickly juniper. The leaves are typically arranged in threes on the stem, and this species is distinguished from the other common juniper species, J. communis (common juniper), by having two white stripes on the top of the spiky leaf, while J. communis  has only one on a softer leaf.  The former species is native to and most common in the area of the Mediterranean basin where it often colonises burnt or neglected ground; it also has brownish cones ripening to red-purple in the second year. The latter species is native to Britain and in my area tends to be found at higher altitudes; it has green cones ripening to black and it’s these which give an oil used for making gin. The wood of prickly juniper, known as cade in French, produces an oil which has disinfectant properties and is used in the treatment of psoriasis. The wood of both is valued for its durability – I have a lovely pocketknife with a juniper handle.

Then there’s rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), too well known to say a lot about except that its English name has nothing to do with roses or Mary, coming from the Latin ros marinus meaning ‘dew of the sea’.  The Roman Pliny explained that it grew ‘in dewy places’ – well, maybe, but dew is rare where I found it. The two prongs rising from the flower are the two stamens. Glands on the leaves produce the oil which gives the plant its aroma, and which is supposed to improve blood circulation. I love using rosemary with all sorts of meat, and roast or fried potatoes (my son’s idea), though famously Elizabeth David wouldn’t have it in the kitchen except as decoration in a vase.

Erica multiflora

The heather is Erica multiflora, which I don’t think has an English name, probably since it’s native to the area between Spain, North Africa and Italy. The stamens protruding from the bell are a characteristic feature, as are the long stems, which bear the flowers near the tips.

For this trio of plants I thought I’d find some trio music. If someone says ‘jazz trio’ what usually comes to mind is a piano/bass/drums unit, such as the famous Bill Evans or Brad Mehldau outfits.  To mark the North African connection I’m suggesting something different which is a favourite of mine : the Anouar Brahem Trio with the Tunisians Brahem on oud and Lassad Hosni on percussion, and Barbaros Erköse (from Turkey) on clarinet. Here’s the title song from their album Astrakhan Café (2000).

NB – if you like this, look on youtube and you can find the whole album – better still of course, buy any Brahem album and you won’t be disappointed.

Coming up next: number two in the series.


Filed under Erica, Juniperus, Rosmarinus

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


Filed under Lysimachia, Portulaca