Tag Archives: red

Oral gratification: Lamium purpureum – red (or purple) deadnettle

Lamium purpureum - near

Lamium purpureum – near





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 ?



Filed under Lamium, Uncategorized

Botany epitome no 2: L’ariège – la salsepareille – Smilax aspera – Common smilax, and friends

Typical Mediterranean shrubs, my village in the background

This dollop of garrigue – a few metres of verge by a road very near my village, just two vineyards from my house – has all I need to know I’m home.

I was particularly pleased to find a flourishing smilax, creeping all over a lentisc shrub. The name of smilax in Occitan is l’ariège, after which (according to my Occitan friends) came the river of the same name, and after that the département  of the Ariège, in the Pyrenees. But the river was called Aurigera (gold-bearing) by the Romans, so perhaps the river’s name came first. Another Occitan name means ‘cat-strangler’ (due to its tough twining habit) and there’s no département  called that.

There’s no other plant with leaves like it: thick and cuticle-covered,  heart-shaped at the base with an elongated point and spiny round the edges, a  pair of tendrils arising from the leaf-stalk, and very tough, as are the shoots too. Very resistant to both drought and grazing by herbivores, it can have an almost leafless form in open steppe  conditions, while in shady wooded areas the leaves become more fully  heart-shaped.  It surprises me that it’s a member of the Liliaceae family, along with garlic, grape hyacinths and asphodels; less so that it’s thus a cousin of asparagus which is similarly woody, has similar berries, and the young shoots of both can be eaten like, well, asparagus.

The French name salsepareille  derives from the Spanish zarzaparrilla (zarza= bramble and parrilla=a small climbing vine). The American sarsaparilla was a root beer made from roots of Smilax regeli . Was made? What happened to it?  It lost out to the tooth-rotting abomination known as cola (see here), and one brand has the same name as the respiratory disease Sars, which can’t have helped the PR .

Don’t lose heart – you can still find it made with Smilax root in Australia, as you can see here (anyone who’s tasted it, please get in touch).   Or you could be sensible and drink wine.

Is a song almost running in your head? It was in mine, and perhaps it was this, though I’m sure there are others:

You like vanilla and I like vanella
You sarsaparilla, and I sarsapirella

(George and Ira Gershwin: ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’)

Back to the garrigue, and the lentisc with its curious pinnate leaves  – opposing pairs of leaflets –  like an ash tree  but without an end leaflet, so that it looks as if there’s something missing. The red berries  eventually  turn black.  The Latin name for lentisc – Pistacia lentiscus – shows it belongs to the same genus as the pistachio nut (P. vera).  An alternative name for the shrub is mastic, since a chewable gum can be produced from the resin of the tree. Masticating (yes, same word) the gum can whiten the teeth and reduce oral bacteria, apparently – see here.

If you look carefully at the other shrubs and trees along the roadside (the resolution of my photo permitting) you should be able to make out the rush-like stems of Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) and other signature plants of the area such as Bupleurum, olive and oak trees. I’ll probably say more about these in future posts.

Taking smilax, lentisc and broom as today’s trio leads me to today’s jazz threesome.  It’s the drummer Aldo Romano, bassist Henri Texier, and reedsman Louis Sclavis, and such a wonderful series of three videos from a live performance in 2005 that I’m going to link to all three.  They’re consecutive parts of a TV broadcast, with interviews with all three members in between (in English), so they form a whole. For completeness, start at the beginning. For great solos, try the second. And the third begins with amazing use of all the sonorities of a bass clarinet and stunning use of circular breathing by Sclavis.  I was so happy to find this performance, since in joy, communication and musical skill it’s the epitome of what jazz is all about.

Part one(Windhoek Suite):

Part two (Entrave):

Part three (Les Petits Lits Blancs and Soweto Sorrow):

If you want to hear more of this great trio, try the albums Carnet de Routes (1995) and Suite Africaine (1999), results of the travels the trio made in Africa, and  from which these songs came.

Coming up soon: Pretty flowers. Jazz. Lots of stuff in the files, just waiting for Fate to give me her usual nudging signal…



Filed under Lentisc, Smilax

Light and dark: Mirabilis jalapa – Belle de nuit


My neighbour and I were very happy to discover this plant growing at the foot of the wall of the garage that we share, and since then we’ve been looking after it tenderly. It’s an unusual flower coloration for our village – almost all others are red or yellow, and you can have both on the same plant.   It seems to love cracks at the edges of roads or pavements, growing up fast in mid to late summer and in full bloom at the moment. The plants grow from tubers, like dahlias, and can also reseed, thus quickly becoming invasive once established. It’s a garden escapee, now naturalised.

One English name is the four o’clock flower, and the blooms do indeed open late in the afternoon –  earlier on grey days  –  and stay open all night to attract moths. The plant originates in Peru, and this nocturnal habit is an adaptation which is more common there or in Mexico (Jalapa is a Mexican town), where temperatures can be too hot for a flower in the daytime.

The plant has some significance to botany since it was studied by Carl Correns, who was one of the rediscoverers of Mendel’s genetic laws in 1900. Correns researched into the causes of the variegated leaves of some plants of M. jalapa and showed that the white mottling was a characteristic inherited from the seed (‘mother’) plant, rather than from the pollinating plant.  This was the first demonstration of cytoplasmic inheritance: the fact that all sexually reproducing organisms from pine trees to humans inherit DNA from both male and female parents, but can also inherit factors in the cell from the female line only.  In the case of plants, this inheritance includes the cellular organelles called chloroplasts containing the chlorophyll which turns sunlight into sugars, and gives all plants their green colour. The fact that some cells in leaves of M. jalapa lose their chloroplasts and their colour is due to such a cytoplasmic factor.

Light and dark. I’d like to play At the dark end of the street (1967), sung by James Carr (1942-2001). He was a powerful and moving soul singer, and this performance of a song written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn is his masterpiece – one of the few records I think of as perfect, unimprovable.  Unfortunately Carr seemed unable to cope with his success in the late 60s, and made few further records.   For the rest of his life he engaged in a long struggle with bipolar disorder.

Coming up next: a bunch of roses.


Filed under Uncategorized

Gladiolus communis – common gladiolus

A smallish plant, usually up to 50cm tall – not to be confused with the showy garden flowers, emblem of Dame Edna Everage, which are species from South Africa. Also known as Cornflag.

The name is from the Latin gladius (sword), and means a small sword, from the shape of the leaf.  The same derivation lies behind the French glaïeul and Occitan glaujòl, but I was interested  that one Occitan name is la cotèla or  cotelassa (pronounced cootaylasso) – a big knife.  Adding -as (-assa for feminine words) to the end of a word is a common augmentative in Oc: enfantas means a big child, and more vulgarly you can call someone a plonker by using colha (testicle), or colhassa to call them a big plonker.  It’s not a French form – so I was excited to think that it may be a rare example of an Occitan word becoming an English one: cutlass. The OED gives an Italian word – coltellaccio –  as the source, but it must have passed through Oc.

Anyway, the flowers are all the more lovely for not being an everyday sight, and I’ve usually seen them in ones and twos, in contrast to the groups and drifts, or colonies, of other flowers.  Maybe they don’t propagate well by seed, and the corm at the base doesn’t often divide.  I’m sad that they’re not in the catalogue of the usually comprehensive supplier of Mediterranean plants for the garden – Pépinière Filippi near Mèze (see www.jardin-sec.com on my new Resources and Links page).

Now I confess that I identified these with our old copy of Flowers of the Mediterranean by Polunin and Huxley, and I see from my new and excellent Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean by Blamey and Grey-Wilson (also see Resources page for details)  that they may be G. italicus – but I wanted the communis for my link to a song appropriate to a red (communist) flower – the Internationale.

Thanks to my friend Pete for the link to this version, by the American singer Tony Babino, described on his own website as ‘one of today’s premier vocalists’. He’s best known for contributing this song to the credits of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: a love story (2009).

While you’re about it, why not have a look at Pete’s own blog here: he’s a writer and if you’re interested in popular music, psychoanalysis and street photography this is the blog you’ve been waiting for.

The French words to the Internationale were written in 1871 by a member of the Paris Commune, Eugène Pottier, and the tune by Pierre De Geyter (1848-1932), a woodcarver. It became the official anthem of the Second International, and of the Soviet Union until 1944. I still remember all the words to the first verse by heart from my youthful career as a left-wing agitator.  Stand and raise your clenched fist after you hit the youtube play button to recreate all the atmosphere of a Seventies socialist youth rally.

Coming up soon: roots and blues.


Filed under Gladiolus