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
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.
Also known as purple archangel – though the name is usually used for the yellow-flowered L. galeobdolon. This powerful name came from the Latin archangelica, recorded as early as the 10th century, which also covered other Lamium species and was later applied to the plant now called Angelica, which everyone knows from the candied stalks. For the latter, it was said that an angel revealed its medicinal value against epidemic infectious diseases, but the origin of the other angelic names for deadnettles is lost in time – Grigson suggests that there may be a lost legend about an archangel relieving these plants of their sting in recognition of their healing properties.
Leaving supernatural revelations aside, we should still be truly grateful to the plants of the family to which deadnettles belong: the Lamiaceae, formerly Labiatae – both names because the flowers have upper and lower lips resembling a mouth. They’re a pleasure for the palate too, since they include many if not most of our aromatic herbs (thyme, oregano, marjoram, savory, mint, lavender, basil, lemon balm and sage), and many more of them can be used in salads, sauces or to make tisanes. The production of large quantities of aromatic oils is an adaptation which reduces water loss by evaporation, enabling these tender herbs to survive hot Mediterranean summers. Young leaves of red deadnettle can be used in a salad, especially for their colour I imagine, but their taste in cooking is apparently nothing to write home about.
I’ll come back later to the more aromatic plants in this family. I’ll just mention that they’re even more valuable to insects: red deadnettle can flower all winter in a mild climate – I took the pictures above last week – and so it’s a useful source of both pollen and nectar for bees when there’s not much else available.
I’ve just found a stunning video which really relates to my last post and the orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis. I found it on the ARKive site – worth a look for wildlife videos, especially for schools. The film shows exactly what Darwin was writing about, as the moth collects nectar and can’t avoid getting pollen sacs glued to its proboscis, and then takes them to fertilise another flower. More oral gratification for the moth – but I wonder how it gets the pollen sacs off again – must be worse than a bit of sellotape on your fingers. You can find the video by clicking here.
What else could I play now but ‘Lucky lips’, by Ruth Brown, from 1957. Her energy and bounce were incredible, and she sold so many records for Atlantic that it became known as ‘the house that Ruth built’. If you watch her lips closely on the video, you’ll see that she’s singing another song, but hey, what do you want for free entertainment ?
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.
Wormwood- 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.
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.
Welcome to the start of a new series featuring some figures from the earliest eras of natural history, accompanied by some of my favourite jazz bass players – the title is not a mis-spelling. I’m researching and listening to things I like, with some plants along for the ride. And by the way, this blog has just passed 1,000 views – thank you all for your support.
This flower I’m starting with is, however, no simple passenger – it’s as striking as an asphodel, and with an equally long and significant history. Although it’s originally a Mediterranean plant, it‘s also found in the milder west of France, and
The distribution of Acanthus mollis in France – green=present
it’s become well-known in gardens. It was introduced to Britain in the 16th century – the photo above is of a plant I’ve grown from a cutting I took from my mother’s garden near Eastbourne. The English name means ‘bear’s claw’, from the shape of the flower.
It’s also well-known because the distinctive deeply-lobed leaves feature on columns of the Greek Corinthian order of architecture. The story is told – started perhaps by the Roman architect Vitruvius – that the idea came from a Greek architect and sculptor named Callimachus (NB – see below) who saw a basket placed on a young girl’s grave, through which had grown an Acanthus, its leaves emerging through the basketwork:
From Claude Perrault’s Vitruvius, 1684 – courtesy of wikipedia, where else
The proportions of a Corinthian column are intended to represent the slender body of the young girl. It’s an architectural detail which has spread even further than the plant – they’re on the Roman Pantheon, the Bank of England, and the US Capitol for example. If you want a bit of historical gravitas, mixed with its apparent opposites of grace and style, go for those leaves.
NB Don’t confuse this Callimachus with the Greek poet who lived in Alexandria 200 years later, or with the drink calimocho (originally kalimotxo in Basque) which is another mixture of opposites, this time cheap red wine and cola. But if you’re tempted, there are useful recipes (including ingenious use of a plastic bag) here.
The plant has also been important in herbal healing: Culpepper says it is ‘…an excellent plant under the dominion of the moon’. The cooked leaves ‘mollify the belly’, the bruised leaves ‘applied like a poultice, are very good to unite broken bones and strengthen joints that have been put out’ and ‘there is scarce a better remedy’ for burns, ruptures, cramp, gout, or ‘hectic fevers’… (Kalimotxo could also be a remedy, of course, principally in cases of unwanted sobriety and hypoglycaemia).
I’d suggest that perhaps these two uses of the acanthus are linked: the earliest Corinthian capitals found (c. 450 BCE) are not supporting a roof but inside temples on votive columns, and another early example from the 4th centuryBCE is at Epidaurus in the temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing whose staff and snake feature in so many pharmacies.
The association of plant and god may have come about from the healing uses of the plant – I imagine that the big fleshy leaves of the acanthus were already a folk remedy for aches and burns, similar to our use of dock leaves for nettle stings. However, the concept of illness at an asklepion (as the temples were called) was as something supernatural such as a divine punishment, and most of the practice of the cult of Asclepius consisted in ritual baths and purification (one of his daughters was not called Hygeia for nothing), and votive offerings – according to Plato, the last words of Socrates were ‘Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget’ – a joke of Socrates about giving thanks for his ‘cure’ from the ills of life. Cure-seekers also slept overnight in the temple, after which the priests would interpret any dreams and use them to recommend what to do. Another of the daughters of Ascelpius was Panacea, who must have been very busy (perhaps with the acanthus, which is so good for everything). It was at an important asklepion on the island of Cos that Hippocrates established his school – more about him in another post.
I like to imagine Asclepius appearing before a panel of doctors in the new, cash-strapped Greek health service to decide whether he is fit to practise healing:
Doc: Welcome, Asclepius. We’ve had a very good letter of recommendation from the Mount Olympus Community Team, Mr. Apollo something…..Apollo what?
Asc: Just Apollo. My Dad.
Doc: Your parents are gods?
Asc: Only on Dad’s side. My mother, Coronis, was just an ordinary princess, daugther of the King of the Lapiths. But Dad had her burned to death when she married someone else, and he came and pulled me out of the flames just in time.
Doc.:I think we’ll move on from your family to your qualifications. Where were you trained?
Asc: Well, I learned the basics from a centaur, Chiron. Apart from that, there are the acanthus leaves, and I get inspiration from Dad, and sort of improvise on that…
Doc: And we hear from your previous employer that you let snakes crawl around freely on the floor of your clinic.
Asc:Temple, not clinic. Not just any snakes, mind – sacred snakes. It’s really therapeutic.
Doc: Hmmm.How very….alternative. We’ll let you know. Who’s next?
Doc: Well, it can’t do any harm to see him.
We saw this wonderfully preserved statue of Asclepius at Empúries in Catalunya – an astounding site with the remains of the Greek town called Emporion (founded in 575BCE) and of the later Roman Emporiae. I was struck that the statue came in two parts from different Greek marble quarries: the bust from the island of Paros, and the rest from Pentelicus in Attica – international trade 2,500 years ago His was the largest temple on the Greek site, evidence of the importance of this cult – after all, what’s more important than health?
No Corinthian columns with their acanthus leaves at Empúries – but they do feature on one of the finest Roman buildings in France – in fact, the best preserved temple in all the former Roman empire, the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, where carved acanthus also adorns the frieze on the architrave. This temple was built in 16BCE, and so impressed Thomas Jefferson when he was minister toFrance in 1785 that he had a stucco model made, and copied it for for the Virgnia State Capitol when he returned.
Well done for making it this far!
This post is dedicated to the memory of my mother, her garden, her humour, and her love of music.
It’s about time for some jazz – this is Miroslav Vitous, perhaps best known from his short stint with Weather Report but his best work is elsewhere, such as on Epilogue, a track from the fine album Mountain in the clouds (1972 – also available as Infinite search) which also features Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin and Joe Henderson.
Next: Back to blues, and set-aside, and honey, and Etta James.
A botanical name to rejoice in. Doesn’t it sound like the name given to his eldest son by a classically-minded aristocrat? ‘Tragopogon – oh you must know Traggy. His brother Xerxes was my fag at Eton’.
Back to the plant. From the Greek tragon, billy-goat, and pogon, beard because of the hairy seed-head or pappus. Did you know that the hairy lobe of cartilage in front of men’s ears is also called a tragon? I didn’t till this week. Porrifolius because the leaves – unlike the dandelion which in other ways this resembles – are smooth and linear, like a leek (Latin porrus). The flower is also called purple goat’s beard in English. The long spiky bracts, much longer than the petals, really give this flower a look.
People who don’t know the flower may know the roots which are cultivated as a vegetable – these were developed in Italy, arriving in the rest of Europe in the 17th century, and the name salsify comes from the Italian sassefrica – maybe there is some connection to salt or sauce in the name. It is a native of mostly southern Europe, as the tela botanica map shows:
A brief digression on the word ‘vegetable’. I was surprised that Geoffrey Grigson says this was not used in the sense of a garden plant for cooking until the late 17th century, and the earliest OED quotation is from 1768. What did they call the stuff they ate with their meat before then?
The salsify roots are – or were – also called vegetable oyster, because people thought they had a marine flavour (Richard Mabey says it tastes like baked salt fish). The French method of cooking them is to peel them then cook with lemon and butter. Jane Grigson recommends topping and tailing the roots, washing them well, then boiling for 30 minutes before plunging them in cold water and then peeling them. They can then be put into salads, fried, or frittered – as you want. Don’t dig up wild plants by the root – these suggestions are for cultivated veg.
Not only are the flowers impressive, but so are the seedheads. Driving back home the other night the closed-up flowers looked like huge green candles in the headlights, and the dried head is like the biggest dandelion clock you’ll ever see.
Spiky, colourful, rootsy – the jazz has to be Charles Mingus and the album Blues and Roots (1960). A wonderful musician whose work I love very much, but in person, well, spiky: a friend of mine saw him at Ronnie Scott’s and went up to him to say ‘Great set, Mr Mingus’. ’F… off’ replied the great man. This is Moanin’ and from the first honks of the baritone sax (played by Pepper Adams) you know this is going to be fun.
Coming up soon: this has given me an idea to do a series of blue flowers with some blues tunes.
This is a perennial, found all over France (except Brittany, maybe wrong soil), but rare in Britain. It likes limestone hillsides and woods – which is where I saw this one.
The Lady orchid was probably named after Our Lady, i.e. the Virgin Mary. Geoffrey Grigson comments that English plant names starting ‘Lady’ often derived from German monastic herbals of the 16th century, and were unknown before these herbals were translated – similar English names before then tended to use the name Mary. It must be an Anglo-German connection: the French name is Orchis pourpre (purple orchid).
The Lady prefix tended to be used to honour particularly medicinal or attractive plants. So Lady = Pretty, and this plant is undeniably pretty. But hang on, isn’t there a contradiction in the name? Yes, of course, orchid derives from the Greek orchis, meaning testicle, because of the shape of the underground tubers.
Something with balls becoming a lady? Here we’re in the realm of the latest Pedro Almodóvar film, La piel que habito (The skin I live in) – review here. Even more so if you consider the names of this flower in Occitan: l’òme penjat, l’embriaïga, lo soldat (the hanged man, the drunkard, and the soldier – a film title in itself). I think it’s the red face and lolling tongue – and maybe a phallic symbol too. You can’t read much about orchids before realising that, as a village shop proprietress once warned me of the Sunday papers, ‘They’re just about sex, sex, sex’.
Firstly, the botanical side. The flowers of orchids have evolved such a huge range of strategems to achieve not only pollination, but cross-pollination (fertilisation with pollen from another plant of the same species) that they became fascinating to Charles Darwin as he developed evidence to support his recently-published Origin of species (see this photojournal which reminded me of an orchid anniversary). The whole orchid flower is constructed to ensure that its own pollen does not reach its own stigma, and to this end is often adapted to a particular insect or other pollinator, which in turn adapts to the orchid – an example of coevolution. The crucial thing about cross-pollination is that it increases the variety of the genetic make-up of the seeds, helping Darwin prove that sexual reproduction between unrelated strains was an evolutionary advantage. He was well aware that he himself had flouted this rule in marrying his own first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and all his life he worried that this was the cause of his children’s illnesses and frailties.
Certainly this orchid habit of looking outward for pollinating partners has resulted in rapid evolution in the family, with more than 24,000 species identified worldwide – four times as many as all mammal species put together.
Now the social/psychological side. Orchid collecting became astonishingly popular for well-off Victorian gentlemen soon after the first exotic species were brought to Britain by plant collectors, who often followed in the wake of British Navy expeditions. Entire forests were stripped of millions of orchids. An English botanist wrote in 1878: ‘Not satisfied with taking 300 or 500 specimens of a fine orchid, they must scour the whole country and leave nothing for miles. This is no longer collecting; this is wanton robbery.’ Like Darwin at Down House, the gentry built hothouses and eagerly sought rare specimens which they had to pollinate by hand in the absence of the necessary insect– the craze became known as orchidelirium. Yes, gentlemen – after all, a rather obsessional hobby involving dangerous foreign travel, semi-legal activities, a whiff of exotic sex and ostentatious display of wealth and prestige: what’s not to like for a rich chap?
These flowers and these themes – Mariolatry, hanged men, the search for sexual partners and obsession in hothouses – should all feature in a film, say by a gifted director with a taste for melodrama – come on, Pedro!
So back to his latest film – here’s Concha Buika, who features in it with this song En mi piel:
and just because I love her stuff and would like her to do an album with this guitarist, Javier Limón, here’s Oro santo: