Tag Archives: Yellow

In a square foot of earth: Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

Agrimony - Agrimonia eupatoria-  in August

Agrimony – Agrimonia eupatoria- in August


I have had this post in mind since early summer, and so what has happened since has driven what I then wanted to say from my mind. I’ll try to remember – here goes.
I’ve seen a few of these yellow spikes in my part of the Midi, all on north-facing banks or in ditches. It’s not that common, and I guess that this is the extreme of its usually more northern and temperate range. It’s not listed in my Mediterranean flower guides. I think of it as a ‘plant on the edge’ – one that just about survives here, but which could vanish if climate or other conditions change.
One feature which may help it is that its seeds are covered in tiny hooks and cling on easily to any passing animal or clothing, ensuring that they are dispersed widely and thus might find the right conditions.
Agrimony plant showing the characteristic deeply-divided pinnate leaves

Agrimony plant showing the characteristic deeply-divided pinnate leaves


Agrimony has long been used as a medicinal plant: legend (and its scientific name) has it that its healing properties were discovered by King Mithridates VI, aka Eupator Dionysius (132-63 BCE), who ruled over Pontus and Armenia Minor in Anatolia, Turkey. He had an eventful life which included spending seven years in the wilderness cultivating an immunity to poisons, which he believed had ended his father’s life, by taking small quantities of them . Maybe that’s how he discovered agrimony – one imagines he might have exclaimed, ’Damn! This one does you good!’
The English and genus name comes from a confusion with a plant the ancient Greeks used to treat eye disorders, called argemon, and which actually resembled a poppy. From the Anglo-Saxons onwards agrimony was used for treating wounds, in a solution called ‘eau d’arquebusade’ (musket-shot water). The leaves added to tea make a spring tonic. There’s much more on healing uses here.
I also wanted to bring to your attention something from a recent article in the Guardian newspaper which bears on how I found this plant, and a recurring theme on this blog (see this, for example, and marvel at Durer’s Large piece of turf). It’s from an interview with the ‘Space oddity’ astronaut Chris Hadfield:

When Chris Hadfield was a child, his teacher took the class to a deserted parking lot, gave them each a piece of string and told them to mark off a square foot of ground and spend the hour studying it. “It was just wild weeds and stuff. I don’t remember a lot of grade six, but I remember that clearly; that if you take the time to notice, there’s a fascinating amount of things happening in one square foot of earth. It taught us appreciation and a little bit of ecology; but it was a real perspective-building thing for me. To recognise the world of wonder that exists in this little square of normal nature. And that same idea carries through to everything. If you notice the minutiae around you, I don’t know how you could ever be bored.”
Interviewed by Emma Brockes, Guardian 26th September 2013 – full version here.

More minutiae to come on this blog. In the meantime, here’s some music I found recently and just loved. It’s got no connection to the plant that I can think of, but if you can think of something, leave a comment. It’s a guitar duo, Birelli Lagrene and Sylvain Luc, and I thought their understanding of each other and their playful improvising spirits were wonderful. The whole hour-long concert’s on youtube too.

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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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Curds at home and away: Galium verum – Lady’s bedstraw, and thistle cheese

This flower produces patches of bright yellow foam along the roadside in June. As usual with plants whose English name includes the word ‘ Lady’ , this is a reference to the mother of Jesus. According to Grigson, Mary’s bedstraw when she gave birth was supposed to contain both this plant and bracken. The latter did not ‘acknowledge the child’ and lost its flowers, while the Galium ‘welcomed the child’ and blossomed on the spot, its flowers having changed from an ordinary white to a brilliant yellow.  Look, I don’t know how a plant is supposed either to fail to acknowledge or to welcome anyone, I’m just reporting this stuff, OK? In any case, the legend seems to me to mark the incredibly bright yellowness of these flowers, and may also derive from the use of the plant in olden days to make mattress stuffing, because of the its honey and hay scented foliage.

 

The yellow ‘foam’ composed of tiny 4-petalled flowers

So why am I writing about this now, four months after I took the photo?  Because I wanted a cheesy theme, and the French name for the plant, Caille-lait jaune, comes from its supposed ability to curdle (cailler) milk. Another name is Gaillet jaune – a mix of the preceding name and the Latin Galium, which in turn comes from the Greek gala, milk. However, just as with any story concerning virgin birth, it’s a good idea to check the facts. Plenty of websites, dictionaries and encyclopedias repeat the milk-curdling assertion, but there’s little evidence of the plant being used in this way, and in France the Appelation d’Origine Controlée regulations for cheese insist on the use of animal rennet. Those who have tested Galium verum on milk have found that it’s not verum or true at all: it has no coagulating properties – the myth is debunked on this French goats’ cheese site. It is said however, that it was used in the making of Cheshire cheese to impart a yellow colour and particular flavour – but this practice may have ceased by the 19th century.

So over to a more reliable story which started with my post about thistles (here). Regular commenter Ceridwen pointed out that thistles were used in the Extremadura region of Spain to curdle milk for cheese. Looking this up as she advised (see for example this web page on thistles) put me on the trail of the Torta del Casar, a sheep milk cheese from Casar de Càceres in Extremadura, a trail which ended in success in Valencia’s Mercat Central a few weeks ago. In fact it seems widely available in Spain – we saw the same cheese in a market in Barcelona too – though perhaps not abroad, since only about 10% of production is exported.

Thistle cheese and thistle stems

The cheese has ‘protected origin’ status since 1999, which means that it must be made in the Casar area, with milk from Merino and Entrefina sheep, whose milk yield is so low it takes the milk of 20 sheep to make a kilo of cheese, and there are now only about ten family dairy  farms producing it.  It has to be matured for at least 60 days, and is soft, protected by a round wooden box. Despite all that, it wasn’t expensive. The recommended way to eat it is to cut off the top like a lid, and scoop out the cheese with bread.  The one we bought was maybe a bit firm for this, but it had a strong, mature salty taste which was quite unique, and went well with a bottle of red wine from the southern Spanish Bobal grape variety. We also found a jar of ‘cardo’ – cooked thistle stems – in the same market. Just some of the reasons why we intend to go back to Valencia.

Instant sheep cheese fondue

When I look something up in a dictionary, I always look around on the page for anything else interesting, and just above ‘GAILLET’ in Le Petit Robert I saw ‘GAILLARD’, meaning sprightly, as in ‘vieillard encore très gaillard’ which is a motto I’ll try to live up to now I’m in my 60s. And for jazz fans, there’s an obvious link : here’s the Slim Gaillard Trio with ‘Dunkin’ Bagels’  – in the coffee, not the cheese, but who cares with a performance that’s as much fun as this.

Coming up soon: Botany epitome. What can that be? Wait and see.

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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

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Torch plant: Foeniculum vulgare – fennel

 

This plant is now at its most abundant in the Midi, filling the roadsides and fallow fields with clouds of yellow umbels at my head height, and filling the air with its aroma. The name in English, French (fenouil) and Occitan (fenolh) comes from the Latin faeniculum, or little hay (faena), perhaps from the shape of the leaves.  I assumed that Le Fenouillèdes,  the region of the Pyrenees just inland from Perpignan, was named for this pant which is abundant there in the hilly garrigue, but the website of the Roussillon area insists it comes from the Latin name pagus fenolletensis, meaning ‘haymaking area’.

All parts of the plant have a strong, sharp tang of aniseed and all can be eaten. I love using the leaves and seeds to stuff fish such as sea bass or bream, or to flavour mussel or potato dishes. I use the seeds a lot with pork dishes too.  The swollen white bulb used as a vegetable comes from a cultivated variety of the same species, F.vulgare var. azoricum or var. dulce (Florence fennel) – some favourite recipes of mine are fennel risotto (I decorated a recent one with the flowers) and fennel fritters.

 

It is a plant with which mankind has kept close company for a very long time. In the first reference of this post to the Olympics, Greek athletes tried to keep slim and allay hunger by eating fennel shoots and seeds – its Greek name, máratho, comes from maraínome, to grow thinner.  Looking at the slender stems, you can see why.  It was associated with longevity, courage, strength and clear sight.

Fennel is also associated with some of the oldest elements in Greek myth and religion. The worship of Dionysus or Bacchus came originally as a fertility cult from Thrace at the dawn of Greek recorded history, but rapidly became associated with the vine and winemaking. I quote a fascinating little book called Herbs, trees and traditions of Cephalonia by Anna-Maria Simpson:

During the Dionysian festivals the attendants of Dionysus, the god of wine, each carried a wand made out of a large fennel stalk topped with a pine cone called a thyrsus.  Fennel was used instead of wood because if, under the influence of wine, they had a quarrel they were unlikely to injure themselves.

Here’s a picture of  a relief of Dionysus bearing a thyrsus.  The fennel bulb, stalk and cone tip clearly also have phallic overtones (compensating for what the sculptor has given him elsewhere in this picture), not surprising in a fertility cult, and were often entwined with ivy and vine shoots – both fast-growing green shoots.  The staff was thrown in the air during Bacchic dances.

The Dionysian ceremonies seemed to have two aspects – the ecstatic revelries with wine, and the later, more sober and spiritual Orphic rituals which had great influence on Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato.  The latter is paraphrased by Bertrand Russell thus: ‘For many are the thyrsus-bearers, but few are the mystics… meaning the true philosophers who will dwell with the gods’.

Reading Richard Mabey’s quotation from The Englishman’s Doctor (1608), I wonder if fennel was carried as a kind of hangover cure:

Of Fennel vertues foure they do recite,

First it hath power some poysons to expell,

Next burning Agues will it put to flight,

The stomack it doth cleanse, and comfort well:

And fourthly, it doth keepe, and cleanse the sight.

 

 

When fennel is mentioned, the plant which may be referred to could sometimes be the giant fennel, or Ferula communis (shown above), a similar but larger plant from the same family, and one  I’ve seen more often in the Aude.  It can grow to 3 metres or more, and has stouter stems which become hard and woody, and which were used in Greece for furniture-making, and also as canes by schoolmasters (Shorter Oxford: ‘Ferula (2) rod, cane or instrument of punishment’) . Apparently the pith inside can burn while leaving the stem untouched – some say this is the origin of the Olympic torch (second and last mention). Legend also has it that when Prometheus stole the divine fire from the gods he hid the ember inside a giant fennel stalk.

This leads me to the strange story of an extinct and semi-mythical plant: Silphium, once so much the dominant product in pre-Roman times of what is now eastern Libya that the stem was featured on most coins from the port of Cyrene, such as this silver coin:

 

 

The exact identity of the plant is now unclear but it seems most likely that it was a species of giant fennel of the genus Ferula. It had been known to the Egyptians and most ancient  cultures as a strong seasoning, and as a medicine – it stimulated abortions.  This was before the days of food labelling.   However, don’t worry now – the plant was harvested to extinction during the Roman era (and this contributed to the decline of Cyrene).

And this is what we did with what Prometheus brought in that fennel stalk – a sort of Dionysian revelry for you with the Ohio Players from 1975.

 

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The Blues: Medicago sativa – lucerne (alfalfa)

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.

 

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Bassics of botany: Verbascum sinuatum and rotundifolium – Mullein

Verbascum flower close up – but which one?

I’ve noticed tall plants with yellow flowers and started taking pictures of them, quickly realising that I might be seeing more than one similar species. This happens often, and thumbing through the flower guides, I’m reminded of the process wikipedia calls ‘disambiguation’: looking for the crucial features which tell you if you’ve got two examples of plant A, or one of A and one of B. The guide I use (see Resources and Links) helpfully puts this sort of  feature in italics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: V. rotundifolium. 

Below:  V. sinuatum (as is photo used at start)

 

 

 

 

So these are the results so far for Verbascum: both plants have a rosette of large leaves at the base, from which rises a tall (60-70cm) flower stem, bearing many yellow flowers which have purple hairy stamens. I’m pretty sure I’ve got V. sinuatum whose key distinguishing features are a branched flower-bearing stem or inflorescence, stamens of equal length, and basal leaves with wavy edges. I’m slightly less confident that another plant is V. rotundifolia, whose key differences are that the inflorescence is a single spike, that two stamens are longer than the other three, and the basal leaves are rounder. Another possible here is V. blattaria: the disambiguation isn’t yet complete. Below: flower of V. rotundifolium showing unequal stamens.

Mullein comes from the French molène, from mou/molle meaning soft, describing the  soft, flabby leaves (Latin mollis – hence to mollify).  Verbascum is a large genus of about 250 species, well- known in gardens because they’re tall, long-lasting, and tolerate dry soil (they tend to have long tap roots). They are mostly biennial – in the first year they grow a flat rosette of leaves, often very large, and the second year a tall flower-spike. I have read that the stems are an indication of any contamination of the soil, which if present makes them crooked.

I’m featuring this flower because, like all the flowers in this ‘Bassics of botany’ series, it was well known in ancient Greece – apparently the tall stems were set alight and carried in funeral processions.  Maybe this habit, or just the appearance,  is recalled in the Occitan names la candela de St Joan, and lo candelièr.

Some mulleins were, and are still, widely used in herbal remedies, especially for asthma, sore throats and lung problems – but paradoxically also in herbal cigarettes. One site insists:  ‘Mullein is a fine medicinal for the lungs, even when you smoke it.’ I wonder if the fleshy lung-shaped leaves make this an example of the Doctrine of Signatures – the idea that plants are divinely marked in shape to show humans their uses?

Anyway, this serves as a link to Hippocrates of Cos (c. 469-399 BCE), the ‘father of medicine’ who established a school on the islandof Cos at the shrine of Asclepius ( see this an entangled bank entry). Hippocrates taught all over Greece, but left no text of his own – we have the writings of those he taught.  He proposed the idea that illness originates in physical causes acting on the body, rather than in supernatural intervention. He advocated passive treatment – bed, rest, care, diet – very like any physician up till about 1800, and his concentration on the physical opened the door for systematic herbalism. His followers codified the famous Hippocratic Oath, sworn by English physicians till the last century, and their texts, known as the Corpus Hippocraticum, contains descriptions of between 300 and 400 medicinal plants as used by Hippocrates, including rosemary,  thyme,  mint, fennel,  caraway,  rose,  cinnamon,  clove,  anise,  frankincense,  myrrh, coriander, garlic, opium,  belladonna,  and mandrake.

I found a mention of using boiled mullein to reduce swelling in a tract on ulcers, attributed to Hippocrates but presumably part of this Corpus. If you’re interested, this tract, which you can find here, is worth reading as an example of the level of detailed observation which went into Hippocratic practice.

That’s enough on him for a botany blog, rather than a Classics lecture.

Music: the bassist Avishai Cohen, former sideman of Chick Corea, and who now leads his own trio.  From the album Continuo (2006), this is the track Nu Nu, featuring also the oud player Amos Hoffman.

Next: Woke up this mornin’ and my pressed flower was gone – back to the blues, and more plant A/plant B angst.

 

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Aristolochia clematitis – birthwort

I’ve passed by this plant many times before and I’ve just registered it as ‘a weed’. I should have looked, and seen it was something strange – a birthwort, cousin to A. rotunda I posted a while ago here, but with smaller flowers and stalked leaves. A plant with a long history: there is a fossil record of this family from the Cretaceous (135-65 million years ago – the dinosaur era). It’s not exclusively southern, but native to most of Europe.  I wonder if it’s what Ceridwen saw in Godstow.

It  likes to be near some water, and I saw it just opposite a stream by the side of a patch of ‘waste ground’ (is there such a thing?) near our vegetable garden in the village.  Some who have followed Chaiselongue’s blog Olives and Atichokes will know that this ground has been bought by our Mairie and sold to a developer: there will be a hundred (!) new houses, and this particular patch will be ‘une espace verte’.  They’ve done well so far in creating a green space – by bulldozing the area, eliminating orchids, wild fennel, broom, valerian, and wild sweet peas, and installing gravel and street lights.  I expect the treated wood planters (with non-native species which will be neglected and die, to be replaced with Coke cans and beer bottles) to arrive next. Will the birthwort at the edge of the area survive?  Why do local councils, developers and politicians hate wild green spaces – that is, Nature, – so much?  Can we stop using the words weed and waste?

PS – I’ve just found some more of these growing through cracks in the concrete by the same stream – a more hopeful image of nature overcoming ‘development’ (photo by Chaiselongue).  Aristolochia is also called pipewort, so I’m glad it grows where we put our hosepipe to siphon water down to the garden! I’m going to write a short piece in Occitan about them for the new twice-yearly Occitan news-sheet.  That should give the developers pause for thought.

PPS – I should remind you all that this plant is poisonous: see the full account here.

So this is a song for plants – and people – not recognised and not properly appreciated:  the old Ray Charles song You don’t know me , played by Patricia Barber.

Coming up next: Almodóvar and botany? What?

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Urospermum dalechampii

This looks like a big dandelion, but it is a lovely lemon-yellow, often with a black centre, and I like it because it brightens up the roadside verges – and because of its historical connections. It’s a member of the Compositae family, which means that the flower head is made up of many ray-florets, tiny flowers with a long strap-like ray at one side. The centre is often black, and the outer florets often reddish-brown on their underneath edges.

A Mediterranean perennial plant, not found to the north of the Ardèche.

The young leaves can be used raw in salads: like dandelion they are quite bitter but a few will jazz up a bland lettuce, or you could follow Jane Grigson’s advice for dandelion leaves and add diced bacon, croutons, and chopped boiled egg.

So, to the history. It’s in the name: Urospermum is from the shape of the seed, but dalechampii is because it was described by the botanist and doctor Jacques Dalechamps (1513-1588) in his Historia generalis plantarum in 1586,

Jacques Dalechamps

which described 2,731 plants, the greatest number of any book then available.  Dalechamps was then practising medicine in Lyon, but had studied at the University ofMontpellier, just 16 years after Nostradamus (Michel de Notredame, 1503-1566) was expelled from there for having been an apothecary, by the very man who was later to become Dalechamps’s teacher: Guillaume Rondelet.  By that time Montpellier had already been a centre for herbal and then medical training for about 500 years: the school became a University in 1289, only  32 years after the Sorbonne.  I’ll be coming back to this topic because of the large number of plants first described byMontpellier graduates.

 

For the music link, back to the colour – it’s the Neville Brothers’ Yellow moon from the 1989 album of the same name. For K, and I hope this brings back some memories of New Orleans.

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