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The she-devil who helps you breathe: Sacred thornapple ( Datura wrightii)

Bush of Datura wrightii on waste ground

Bush of Datura wrightii on waste ground

This plant has a long story to tell, connecting Culpeper, Linnaeus, Charles Darwin and Carlos Castaneda, via shamans, drug users and asthmatics. Its powerful presence in the history of botany and herbalism is due to the tropane alkaloids it contains: atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine, which inhibit certain nerve pathways.
Datura belongs to the plant family Solanaceae, together with deadly nightshade, another potent source of atropine. But also in this family are cultivated fruits such as aubergine, peppers and tomatoes, and potatoes. I do wonder how these were first cultivated, and how many casualties there were from the first breeding experiments – we know that unripe fruits of these, and green potatoes, can still cause illness.
This particular plant has been growing for a few years in the middle of some waste ground in my village. I’ve also seen it on the river bank nearby, and planted in public flower beds, but the waste ground specimen is the largest and, I presume, oldest.
D. wrightii flower

D. wrightii flower

At first I thought it was Datura stramonium (Thornapple), but the latter has green stems, more jagged leaves, smaller flowers and upright fruits , while D. wrightii has purplish stems, wavy-edged dark leaves, large flowers and hanging fruits. All species of Datura – there are nine – are very variable, especially in size, depending on location. The name thornapple of course comes from the large spiny fruit capsules.
D. wrightii fruit capsule

D. wrightii fruit capsule

Both are introduced species, probably for decoration in gardens, but have spread and naturalised locally in southern France, Spain, and round the Mediterranean generally.
D. stramonium was the first species to be scientifically described and named Datura, from the Hindi word dhatura for the plant, by Linnaeus in 1753, though it had already been described as thornapple by Nicholas Culpeper a century before. It’s thought that the genus originated in what is now the south-west United States and Mexico, where the greatest species diversity exists, but very soon it must have arrived in India, where it has a long history in Ayurvedic medicine. Why the asthma connection? Apparently the flowers can be rolled up and smoked like a cigarette to relieve symptoms of asthma – the alkaloids inhibit the muscles in the airway walls, and so enlarge the bronchioles, making it easier to breathe. Due to other effects (see below) I would not recommend this.
Datura species have many other names, including moonflowers (because the flowers open in the evening, and are often pollinated by moths), Devil’s trumpet or Devil’s weed (from the delirium it produces), and jimsonweed. This is thought to be a corruption of ‘Jamestown weed’, after an incident in Jamestown, Virginia when the leaves were:

gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll.
The effects lasted for eleven days. (from The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705, via wikipedia).

Charles Wright

Charles Wright

Datura wrightii was named in 1859 by the botanist Eduard Regel for the American plant collector Charles Wright (1811-85), who had found it in Texas in the 1850s. Wright did a lot of collecting for Asa Gray, Professor of Natural History at Harvard. Although he was a member of the First Church in Cambridge, Gray was a stalwart supporter of Charles Darwin and tried to reconcile theism with evolution. In view of the early world-wide spread of Datura, it’s interesting that Gray’s knowledge of American flora helped Darwin establish that fruits and seeds could cross the Atlantic.
Stanley Welsh, author of A Utah Flora, has this to say about Datura wrightii: “The flowers are the largest of any native plant in Utah, and are sweetly scented. The herbage smells like a wet dog”. Lovely.
So let’s get on to the sacred aspect, which is connected to the toxic qualities. All parts of the plant contain the alkaloids which cause delirium, delusion, fast heartbeat and a rise in body temperature, followed often by amnesia. This is serious enough to be fatal in a large number of cases. The plants are especially dangerous because the concentration of alkaloids, and their relative proportions, can vary greatly, so users never know what dose they are taking.
The delirium effect has long been used as a way to experience ‘other realities’, especially in India and by Native American tribes:

To the Chumash, D. wrightii has a female spirit, and certain shamans may specialize in the use of this plant, which communicates with them through prophetic dreams… [It] is most important . . . as part of initiatory rituals for boys. To prepare for the ritual, the initiate fasts and eats no meat for several days. He smokes a great quantity of tobacco during this time. The boy then consumes the D. wrightii beverage, which is traditionally prepared by his grandmother. He is left alone in a cave, where he must give in to the power of the plant and allow it to show him visions. At this time, the Datura spirit teaches the boy anything he might want to know, and often assists him in finding an animal spirit ally. The period of intoxication lasts for 24 hours, after which time a Datura shaman assists the initiate in constructing a life plan based on the visions he has experienced .(www.entheology.com)

But perhaps the best known use is recorded in a book once found on many young people’s shelves, including mine. In THE TEACHINGS OF DON JUAN: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, in a segment dated Saturday, July 6, 1963 Carlos Castaneda writes:

On Monday, July 1, I cut the Datura plants don Juan had asked for. I waited until it was fairly dark to do the dancing around the plants because I did not want anybody to see me. I felt quite apprehensive. I was sure someone was going to witness my strange acts. I had previously chosen the plants I thought were a male and a female. I had to cut off sixteen inches of the root of each one, and digging to that depth with a wooden stick was not an easy task. It took me hours. I had to finish the job in complete darkness, and when I was ready to cut them I had to use a flashlight. My original apprehension that somebody would watch me was minimal compared with the fear that someone would spot the light in the bushes.
I took the plants to don Juan’s house on Tuesday, July 2. He opened the bundles and examined the pieces. He said he still had to give me the seeds of his plants. He pushed a mortar in front of me. He took a glass jar and emptied its contents — dried seeds lumped together — into the mortar.

On July 4, 1963 Castaneda applied the ointment he and Don Juan concocted over a period of days. Following that application Castaneda relates that he turned into a crow with the full ability to fly.
As with all Castaneda’s writings, you can believe what he says or not. I can only tell you that we have many Datura plants in my village, but very few crows. The young people here prefer the reliable results of Red Bull and Heineken.

You may have been afraid that after all the above,I was going to play you Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman. It’s OK, I wouldn’t be that cruel. Here’s something which should have become a jazz standard, instead of a very good pop song, which describes Castaneda’s evening antics.



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New flower, and new kit: Reseda phyteuma (Corn mignonette)

Inflorescence of Reseda phyteuma

Inflorescence of Reseda phyteuma

I go out these days not expecting to see much in the way of flowers – but keen to see something because I have new kit to try out.  Chaiselongue and I decided, in the traditional spirit of seasonal extravagance and instant gratification, to exchange presents early, which for me means I now have her  Pentax K7 with a spanking new 100mm macro lens. If your main subject is flowers, this is not the most exciting time of year. So I wander in the vines with a mixture of hope and resignation, and when I see something I haven’t seen before I’m more excited and grateful than usual.  And this little flower is now my new best friend.

R.phyteuma in vineyard

R.phyteuma in vineyard

Reseda phyteuma (Corn mignonette, in an English which seems more like Franglais) is a small plant, usually only 10-30cm tall, which likes sandy and dry ground. I found this in a vineyard which is on a flood plain of a small river, so the soil is sand and gravel. In French mignon means pretty, or cute, and I guess the frilly petals fit that description.  Other distinguishing features: the six sepals look like small leaves, and the stamens seem out of scale for the small flower; they bear pink or orange anthers. It is supposed to flower from April to September – this one has lost its calendar.

I haven’t used the macro that much yet, but I do find the 100mm lens means I can get pictures which look close, without having to lie on the ground with my nose in the leaves.  And joy of joys, I can focus on what I want however slender or small, without the camera deciding that what I really need is a clear photo of the earth behind it.  I’m still finding out what it can do, but it’s making me interested in investigating leaves, so expect more of this sort of thing:

Leaves of Geranium in the garden

Leaves of Geranium in the garden

Et maintenant, c’est mignon, c’est chouette, c’est Thurston Harris et  Little bitty pretty one, de 1957.

Coming up next: trees with balls.

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In the vines, part one: Diplotaxis erucoides (false rocket)

One of the first people we spoke to in our village was the wife of a beekeeper. We knocked at their door because we needed him to come and remove two nests of bees which had settled between our windows and the shutters while we had been away. The beekeeper wasn’t at home. His wife said ‘He’s in the vines.  Or he’s run off with another woman. But after forty years of marriage, I doubt it.’ We had never met her before – or him for that matter.  It was our introduction to a Midi way of talking – making a joke, usually with a scandalous or sexual reference, out of anything at all. For someone like me who spent more years than was really healthy growing up in Tunbridge Wells, where I can’t remember sex ever being mentioned, this habit takes some getting used to.

But for this blog entry, the point is in the first half of the statement: often, if a man is not at home, he must be ‘in the vines’. Vines demand more work than you might imagine: turning the earth between rows to remove weeds which consume precious water, ‘green pruning’ to remove leaves and to let the sun get to the ripening grapes, the vendange, and at the moment the arduous work of pruning last year’s growth which has to be done by hand and will take most viticulteurs till March to complete. Do the math: at about 5000 vines per hectare, if you have a medium vignoble of 10 hectares that’s 50,000 plants which have to be individually and carefully pruned. That’s 500 vines per day.

False rocket between rows of vines, the village of Fouzilhon in the background

So what’s happening ‘in the vines’ apart from pruning, and a bit of partridge- and rabbit-shooting? Well, this plant is growing, for one thing – Diplotaxis erucoides (false rocket – Eruca  is the name of the ‘real’ rocket genus).

It’s an aggressive coloniser of bare ground, so after the ground has been turned (labourée in French) and after the vendange  traffic has stopped, the seeds brought by the wind or remaining in the ground germinate and grow incredibly fast and very thickly, pre-emptively stopping any other plant from gaining a foothold. In fact I always thought the name ‘rocket’ referred to the speed with which all varieties grow: in fact it comes from the Latin via Italian ruca, diminutive ruchetta, and hence  French roquette. 

A field where vines have been taken up, being colonised by false rocket

The plants are often left between the vines at this time of year, serving as a kind of green manure when they are later ploughed in. The leaves can be used in salad, and have a strong rocket flavour, though I prefer the smaller leaves of another, related plant, which tends to grow alongside the vineyards rather than between the rows: Diplotaxis tenuifolia (wild rocket) whose yellow flowers are nodding away in most verges at the moment.

Diplotaxis tenuifolia – wild rocket

Wild rocket flower

So continuing themes of innuendo and speed, how could I resist playing you Rocket 88, the smash hit recorded in 1951 by Ike Turner and his band (before Tina joined, and under the name of Jackie Brenston, the lead singer. Ike plays piano on this).  It was a number one R&B hit in America, and many have called it the first rock ’n’ roll record – I don’t know about that, but it was five years before Little Richard recorded his first hit, Tutti Frutti, and before  Elvis had his first number one, Heartbreak Hotel.  I was born over a year post-Rocket, and it must be around 1956 that I remember my Dad playing a rough-and-tumble game which involved ‘rocking and rolling’ us children, the first time I heard the phrase. It’s difficult to use the words ‘roll’ and ‘tumble’ these days in an innocent context, but I assure you it was.

The song is ostensibly about a car, an Oldsmobile model  – so a false, not a real rocket. I notice that Wikipedia coyly says it was an early example of a song in which ‘an automobile serves as a metaphor for romantic prowess’.  Hmm – Robert Johnson recorded Terraplane Blues in 1936, and I’m sure someone will tell me of an earlier one. Boys and their cars, eh?

Coming up soon: In the vines, part two, of course, with perhaps my all-time favourite music video.  And after that, it’s off to the seaside, including some souvenirs of a recent trip to Catalonia.


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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

The deli in the ditch: foraging for Silene vulgaris (bladder campion)


I took photos of this flower back in May – but I didn’t know it was edible till I read The LightFoot Guide to Foraging – Wild Foods by the Wayside, by Heiko Vermeulen, Nobel Peace Prize winner*. The book’s available from Pilgrimage Publications here.

Nowadays if I look at a meadow I think lunch – Heiko Vermeulen

For most people in Britain these days, gathering wild food is restricted to blackberry picking.  Since most plants are in fact edible, it’s strange how all the rest have come to seem suspect. The tradition of foraging is more widespread where I live in southern France, I think: people I know remember being sent out as children to pick a salad from leaves common in the vineyards and verges, and neighbours and friends wait impatiently for the season to arrive for wild leeks, wild asparagus and mushrooms. Not forgetting that for thousands of years wild plants have been the poor man’s health service.

Wild Foods by the Wayside is a guide for those who want to renew these traditions and take advantage of a free, delicious and healthy resource.  While it continues in the path of well-known forerunners such as Richard Mabey’s 1972 guide, Food For Free, the new book is a step into the 21st century with colour photographs and internet links for over 130 plants commonly found in north and Mediterranean Europe. And recipes. He’s tried everything himself and reports how each plant tastes to him, and maybe it also helps that the author lives in Italy: I can’t flick though without resolving to pick, cook and eat something new the next time it’s in season.  The recipe for Silene is arroz con collejas, a wonderful-sounding herb, rice and fish dish from Spain.

It’s also very accessible. It’s written very clearly, with the entry for each plant following the same pattern: description, where it’s found, when it’s in season, culinary and medicinal uses, recipe and link to a website (a very good link for Urospermum dalechampii – to this blog!  See post for 13th May). Where necessary, cautions are given in red, a very good idea.  Heiko’s sense of humour, familiar to readers of his blog Path to Self-Sufficiency (see here), is well in evidence in the book too: he comments that Arbutus unedo (strawberrry tree) gets its name from unum edo: Latin for ‘I eat one [berry]’, suggesting that:  ‘once you’ve eaten one, you’re not really tempted to eat another’. I agree – it’s not unpleasant, just bland.

Italian bugloss flowers, steeped in a litre of red wine for a week, can apparently ‘drive away melancholy and depression’.  I’d suggest that Heiko’s book – also taken with a litre of wine – can have the same effect. Am I being a bit partial?  Let me be completely open: Heiko is a commenter on this blog, but I did pay for my copy and I will be using it. Often.

*Along with me and 500 million other citizens of the European Union – joke courtesy of Heiko.

For music – I’ve just noticed that Eric Bibb, one of my favourite songwriters,  has a new album out, Brothers in Bamako, recorded jointly with the Malian guitarist Habib Koite.  Here they are in concert with a great song about Western consumerism, We don’t care:


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Peaceful coexistence: Cistus monspeliensis– narrow-leaved rockrose. (And the biologist Steven Rose)

Peaceful coexistence* has been in short supply in a week which has seen protests against an anti-Islamic film no-one has watched reach murderous heights, and the continuing civil war in Syria. No,  I haven’t decided to make this a political blog – just that the theme of coexistence seemed to emerge from the content that I’d planned.

Firstly, the plant: Cistus monspeliensis. Like most of the many species in the Cistus genus, this is a low shrub mostly seen in the borderlands between the Mediterranean plain and the mountains, in the dry garrigue and the sauveplaine (wooded plateau).  The petals of the flowers look like crumpled tissue paper, and only last one day. This species, first described near Montpellier, is one of the smallest and lowest, and is distinguished by the long narrow leaves which give it its name.

The name Cistus comes from the same root as chest, meaning that the seed capsule is like a little box (not very like, in my opinion). Rose originally meant any beautiful flower, not necessarily like a member of the Rosa genus. So you have Corn Rose (=poppy) and Rose of Sharon (= a Hypericum species from Sharon in Israel). Keeping this connection to the Middle East, species of Cistus were among the first plants brought back from the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe in the 17th century by the early plant collectors (such as Pierre Belon), including C. creticus, which produces a fragrant gum called ladanum, one of the components of myrrh. I’ll come back to this topic with other rockrose species.

The production of gum or oil is just one of the clever adaptations of this species to very dry rocky hillsides. Many species develop associations between their roots and a truffle fungus of the Tuber family. This is mutually beneficial: the fungus gets the nutrients produced by the plant, and the plant benefits from the wide-ranging fungal threads and their ability to extract minerals from very poor soil. The fungus also produces a toxin which inhibits other plants from germinating, giving the Cistus a clear field.

One oddity of Cistus is that its seeds are very water-resistant, and so can’t absorb water to germinate unless they have been first cracked open by heat, usually from a wild fire. Thus after a fire when all else has been frazzled and cleared, the seedlings again have a clear field. In fact Cistus is so successful that the white-flowered species are often parasitised by another plant, Cytinus hypocistus, which lacks chlorophyll.

I’m also using the rose connection to present some of the ideas of a biologist I very much admire, Steven Rose, Open University Professor of Biology and Neurobiology.  He has been a longstanding opponent of the use of genetics as a simple explanation, for example in psychology, and was a co-writer of the radical book Not in our genes (1984). Why is he – a biochemist researching memory –  in a botany blog? Because I think that, like Stephen Jay Gould (a friend and colleague of Rose’s), he explains evolution and how all living things grow in a more convincing way than most (there’s a video of Gould doing that here). I wish that I’d been taught by Rose (born 1938) when I went to university to study physiology in 1970, since he answers many of the objections I felt then to reductionist science.

In his book Lifelines (1997) – which I recommend strongly –   he outlines his approach of seeing every organism, plant and animal, as having an evolutionary and developmental history – a lifeline – without which its present biology cannot be understood. He quotes the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky: ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. He views the genes as only part of the inherited DNA (a view amply borne out recently by the Encode project), and achieving expression only in cooperation with the biochemistry of the cell – and beyond that, with the wider environment. His analogy is that the DNA may be the sheet music, but the cell contains the orchestra which must interpret it. This puts him on a collision course with those he calls ‘ultra Darwinists’ such as Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene, among other titles), who view the gene as paramount, as if it were a CD and the body merely a machine for playing and copying it, like a CD player. This emerges in a video I found (here) of the two of them debating on a balcony poised high above Tate Modern’s turbine hall.


I watched, anxious that one might become so angry he would push the other off – particularly because in Lifelines Rose uses the metaphor of a cliff to describe reductionism (the idea that biology can be reduced to biochemistry, that to chemistry, and then that to physics) and imagines that Dawkins has wandered off this cliff.   Luckily Rose doesn’t try to demonstrate to Dawkins the literal truth of this image, and in fact what we get is peaceful coexistence between scientists.

To conclude by returning to the political dimension: Rose was brought up in a Jewish family, but says he became an atheist at the age of 8. He has interpreted the application of Marxist ideas to biology, and came to controversial prominence recently by calling for an academic boycott of Israel, arguing that Israeli universities discriminated against Israeli Palestinians and collaborated with the Israeli Army.

* The phrase was coined by Khruschev, the leader of the USSR after Stalin, during a visit to Britain in 1956.  He said: ‘You do not like Communism.   We do not like capitalism.   There is only one way out – peaceful co-existence’. This was before the Cuban crisis – probably not the first example of the gap between words and deeds of politicians.

The music: I thought longer and harder about this than usual. I’ve decided on a track from the remarkable album Blue Camel, by the oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. He was born and brought up in Beirut, then went to Germany and now lives in France. The musicians on the album include the Anglo-Canadian Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Americans Charlie Mariano on sax and Steve Swallow on bass, and Puerto Rican Milton Cardona on congas, among others. It’s a really successful fusion, all players in touch with both their reflective and swinging sides: musical coexistence. I recommend the whole album, but here’s one of the more upbeat, jazzier numbers, Tsarka.

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Appearances can be deceptive: Eryngium campestre (field eryngo)


So this is another thistle in the garrigue, right? Wrong. It’s not a member of the thistle family at all – they’re with daisies, cornflowers and chicory in the family Asteraceae (used to be called Compositae), and Eryngium is, like fennel,  in the family Apiaceae (used to be Umbelliferae).  One clue is in the repeated branching of the stem into umbels (stalks or rays branching off from one point), and  another is in the stamens, which are not fused together as in thistles, if you look closely.


One name for this in French is the ‘herbe aux cent têtes’, due to the umbels, another is  chardon roulant, rolling thistle, and the similar l’èrba rotla means the same in Occitan.  Why? Because although the plant is a perennial, the stem can break off when it dries and blow in the wind to scatter seeds elsewhere.  But normally, the hooked seeds are dispersed by furry animals – it relies on mammals to spread.  Another characteristic is its long root system of up to 5 metres, which, like its leathery and spiny leaves ,is an adaptation to dry conditions. The root is also often  parasitised by a fungus, Pleurotus eryngii, which produces edible mushrooms, or by the parasitic flower Orobanche.   So it’s not just a solitary thistle in the wilderness, but a whole ecosystem.


Pleurotus eryngii

It’s that kind of shift in view which characterises the work of one of my favourite writers on natural history, Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). A New Yorker who became Professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard, he is best known for his long series of monthly essays which appeared under the heading ‘This view of life’ in Natural  History magazine, and which he collected in many books. He wrote little on botany but his overall approach to the history of life on earth offers much to those seeking to understand plants, and to those who appreciate good  prose style.  At their best his essays are at the same time intricate and clear, profound and entertaining, personal and research-based.  In his collection Bully for Brontosaurus he distinguishes two sorts of nature writing: the Franciscan (after the saint) which produces a kind of nature poetry, and the Galilean which takes a ‘delight in nature’s intellectual problems’. He put himself firmly in the latter group.


Stephen Jay Gould

His relevance to botany? His consistent desire to understand how evolution works, rather than being satisfied with the formula ‘If it exists, it must be adaptive’. With the biologist  Richard Lewontin, he coined the term ‘spandrel’ in evolutionary theory, after the triangular gaps between arches he noticed in St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice: a feature which might have no function or evolutionary advantage, but might arise as a consequence of other structures (arches and a dome, in the case of St Mark’s).  Male nipples might be one example, existing only as a developmental relic of the necessary female equivalent, as he explained in his essay ‘Male nipples and clitoral ripples’. A botanical parallel might be some colours in flowers which are not visible to the insects the flowers attract (insects detect more ultraviolet than we do).

He appreciated just how plain weird many living things are, often resulting more from contingency or ‘happenstance’ than adaptation or design. Why else does the fern Ophioglossum reticulatum need 630 pairs of chromosomes (that’s right, 1,260 per cell)? As he explained in the essay ‘The ant and the plant’, some polyploidy or doubling of chromosomes can encourage variation, but in this fern the mechanism has gone beserk.


Ophioglossum reticulatum – Adder’s tongue fern

He realised that evolution was not a gradual process of accumulating small variations as Darwin had proposed, but sometimes ran very fast,  producing radical changes, while at other times there were long periods of stasis: the theory known as ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (proposed by Gould and Niles Eldredge in 1972). This remains a major explanatory hypothesis for animal evolution, though it may play a smaller, if still significant, part in the evolution of plants.  To illustrate his style, when objectors called his theory ‘evolution by jerks’, he replied that gradualism was ‘evolution by creeps’.

I also admire Gould for the breadth of his interests and for his awareness of the social context of science. He understood how religious beliefs had hindered the interpretation of fossils, for example, and this is a major theme of his fascinating book Wonderful Life. He was a committed campaigner against creationism and its attempted inroads into American education. He knew that science cannot be ‘value-free’ and his book The Mismeasure of Man is a passionate but also scientific explanation of why the concept of IQ testing is flawed and inherently racist. Does this apply to plants? Of course. Just as the word ‘intelligent’ can be a useful adjective, but can also parade as an objective phenomenon to be studied and measured scientifically, so too a plant can seem a biological organism to be described and understood as an individual, though it never exists on its own. To the farmer, Eryngium campestre is an invasive weed, to the mushroom hunter it’s just the food source for what he wants to collect, to an animal it’s an annoying burr, to the botanist a good example of a xerophyte adapted to dry conditions.  And plant, fungus, animal, climate and soil (maybe even botanist) are all developing together in an evolving ecosystem. In another example of putting genetics in context, Gould’s colleague Lewontin campaigned against genetically modified crops, seeing them as an advantage to agribusiness rather than to the farmer or consumer.

Gould and Lewontin were both members of what was known as the ‘radical science movement’, together with the American psychologist Leon Kamin and the British biologist Steven Rose.  There’ll be more of their radicalism to come in future posts, including reference to their 1984 manifesto Not in our genes, and Rose’s stimulating book Lifelines.

On to some music, and the radical poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron with one of his earliest and most influential songs, The revolution will not be televised, from his first album, Small talk at 125th and Lenox. Yes, radicals, revolution and rolling thistle – you were there before me.  But there’s another parallel. The song gets its power from the two ways of looking: our familiar and comfortable trappings of life suddenly seem ridiculous when the streets erupt.




Filed under Uncategorized

And the botany medal goes to….

I gather there’s a festival going on in East London of running, jumping and throwing things.  And for the first time this year, throwing matches apparently, as well as spears and balls and plates.  As part of the build-up, I heard a World Service broadcast from Spitalfields Market which reminded me of the great English herbalist and revolutionary Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54), who in 1640 set up his practice in Red Lion House just east of that market, and at that time in open country.*

Above, Culpeper surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac, and Red Lion House.

The British press has been full of aspiring athletes struggling against adversity, but how many compare with Culpeper for bad luck? His clergyman father died just days before Nicholas was born, the family thus losing a substantial inheritance.  Secretly in love with a young woman whose family opposed their relationship, he arranged to meet her in Lewes and elope to the continent: her coach was struck by lightning en route and she died.  The griefstruck Nicholas’s tryst being discovered, he lost his place and funding to study medicine at Cambridge.  Six of his seven children died before he did. Though working as a field medic rather than in the front line in the English Civil War (on the Parliamentary side), he was seriously wounded in the chest and never fully recovered, dying at the age of  38.

These experiences and his Puritan background made Culpeper a revolutionary. Not able to take a medical degree, he had to fight against the established power of the physicians and apothecaries who used their specialised knowledge and command of Latin to maintain a monopoly and charge the fees to go with it.  Culpeper established his herbal practice outside the City of London to escape some of their regulation and to treat the newly arrived poorer workers of the capital, charging low or no fees. He described the Royal College of Physicians in these words:

They are bloodsuckers, true vampires, have learned little since Hippocrates; use blood-letting for ailments above the midriff and purging for those below. They evacuate and revulse their patients until they faint. Black Hellebor, this poisonous stuff, is a favourite laxative. It is surprising that they are so popular and that some patients recover. My own poor patients would not endure this taxing and costly treatment. The victims of physicians only survive since they are from the rich and robust stock, the plethoric, red-skinned residents of Cheapside, Westminster and St James.

After the success of the Parliamentary side in the Civil War (for which he raised a troop of 60 men), the Court of the Star Chamber was abolished and for the first time he could publish the main works of medicine, such as the London Pharmacopoeia, in English without fear of prosecution. He also made his own knowledge available to all: his Complete Herbal (1640) was the first herbal in English which used the English terms for hundreds of common plants, gave clear and full descriptions, and avoided expensive and rare imported herbs.  For those who are interested, there’s a good short biography here.

However, I take issue with some elements of this bio and many others, which tend to the alternative side of health practice.  Why? Firstly, because they tend to be uncritical of Culpeper’s almost complete reliance on astrology, with which he was obsessed, to classify, diagnose and treat illness. In the Complete Herbal he writes: ‘Such as are astrologers (and indeed none else are fit to make physicians) such I advise…..’

Secondly, because they skate over the fact that many of his ‘medicinal herbs’ are in fact poisonous – it is unfortunate to say the least that many of his reprinted works have no addenda to point out the dangers of aconite, hemlock and nightshade, for example. The poison garden website is a good reference to check simple trust in naïve herbalism. The edition Culpeper’s colour herbal  (ed David Potter, Foulsham, 1983) is an honourable exception, with any risks clearly pointed out.

 Thirdly, because there are some common errors which tend to spread through the web: that he was born in Spitalfields, for example (he was in fact born in Surrey).

So, just to put you on your guard, here’s one of the poisonous plants from Culpeper’s herbal: white henbane, or Hyoscyamus albus, which I found growing in the street just round the corner from my house. To his credit, Culpeper does say of the Common Henbane (H. niger) that  it should ‘never be taken inwardly’, and his description is full of adjectives such as dark, ill, greyish, hollow, deadish, heavy, offensive, so you should get the message. And it’s in the name: ‘henbane’ means ‘hen killer’, the poultry connection perhaps because as a casual plant, it often arrives by seed on bare hen-scratched ground.  Culpeper suggests its external use for swollen testicles, lice, headaches,  deafness and worms in the ear among other things.  If you are an astrologist, you’ll want to know that it’s ‘under the domination of Saturn’.

* As far as I can tell, neither his house nor the pub next door – yes, the Red Lion – nor the address (Red Lion Street) still exist, being buried under the development of Commercial Street. Any Londoner who knows better is invited to correct me.

As for music, I guess this could well be one of the ‘bassics of botany’ series, so here is not only a great bass player but one of the most politically committed: Charlie Haden leading his Liberation Music Orchestra:

Coming up next: To be honest, I don’t know because I haven’t decided yet. But it will be soon. And it may feature a plant which has many forms: wild, culinary, giant and mythical.


Filed under Hyoscyamus