In this new unpredictable climate it’s a dubious pleasure to write that this was a typical November day. Not just weatherwise – it was grey, cold and energy sapping – but it was one of those days when you drift listlessly around the allotment sensing a vague smell of decay everywhere and not getting on with anything. There are jobs that really do need doing, the fruit cage is a mess and the blackcurrents and gooseberries need moving to give them more space but …..
It’s my own fault. I couldn’t have picked a worse moment to go off on a Gillyflower adventure. There’s another five weeks of declining day length before we can start to look forward to spring, and so I’ve had my head in the books and fought my way through a vast thicket of botanical misunderstandings (mostly mine) until finally I had a workable understanding of the elusive Gillyflower and the fact that it has more real cousins than is strictly proper, and a few cousins that are not related at all except they smell nice. Then there were three cousins that I thought were different but turned out to be almost brothers and sisters.
When I used to take funerals, I would always try to find out (in as subtle a way as possible) where the landmines were buried. This lot would give a saint a headache and as far as putting your foot in it goes, they are enough to get you hauled up before the bishop for getting the deceased person’s name wrong. So here goes;
any of a number of fragrant flowers, such as the wallflower or white stock
ARCHAIC a clove scented pink or carnation.
noun: clove gillyflower …..
According to Culpeper there are three sorts – the clove gilliflower (notice his different spelling), the stock gilliflower and the winter gilliflower or wallflower – but the single reference to ‘stock gilliflowers’ seems to suggest he was just using the name as an adjective for scented.
Gerard cites ‘clove gillyflowers’, ‘pinks or wilde gillyflowers’, and ‘sweet williams’ but rates them all as scented herbs without medicinal virues.
But what we are really talking about here are two different families of plants united by their usefulness as perfumes.
Some of them are pinks, sweet williams and carnations which are Dianthus and the others are wallflowers and stocks which are Brassicas.
As far as Shakespeare was concerned the gillyflower was a carnation. None of them appear to have any proven medicinal qualities except cheering you up from the safe distance of a vase, so chasing around the countryside with your copy of Culpeper in hand looking for a cure for your bewildered mind is likely to leave you as confused as you were when you started. The answer is to take an aspirin or, if you prefer, a nice glass of wine, pull the curtains and order seeds for some scented flowers for cutting next year and – if you can’t remember what they’re all called you can wave a languid arm in their general direction and call them gillyflowers. Your friends will admire your scholarship.
Years ago I went to see our doctor with a painfully arthritic big toe. He was a lovely man and probably didn’t much care for those situations where there was absolutely nothing he could do, and he said “It’s hallux rigidus”. I was a bit disappointed – not so much to be suffering from a ‘real’ disease with a name – but because hallux rigidus is latin for “stiff toe”. And so I said – ” well I know that – it’s why I came to see you” and it was clear that we were both trapped in our respective discomfort zones but speaking in different languages.
Latin is an incredibly useful language that the overwhelming majority of us don’t get to learn at school. Unless you go to a public (US Private) school in the UK you’re very unlikely to know any. I didn’t get any Latin at all until I was almost forty and at theolological college, so although I’m familiar with Latin and Greek I’m a million miles away from any expertise, and that’s why I get cross when I feel Latin is being used to lock me out of the conversation. Latin binomial names can be incredibly useful for distinguishing between similar related plants – especially when getting them right really matters like, for instance in foraging when confusing sweet cicily with hemlock or hemlock water dropwort roots with wlld parsnips. But let’s be clear, it isn’t the latin that’s going to save your life, it’s the skill of patient attention to detail that comes from knowing the family tree down to the remotest second cousin – and that’s always in Latin. English local names for plants can be incredibly poetic and can point you in the direction of possible uses but – sadly – they’re also very local, so in Derbyshire cow parsley was once known locally as cicily, and an incautious Gloucestershire cook who tried to sweeten their rhubarb with cow parsley would be in for a disappintment.
I have to warn you that this is where I go into full-on obsessive mode – in fact I didn’t post yesterday because the very small amount of time I wasn’t wheelbarrowing leaves and wood chip on the allotment and cooking was spent getting overexcited about plant names. This all started, if you remember, with catching out a modern version of Culpeper’s Herbal in repeating a spelling error in the original book. I speculated that this was just bad proof reading on Culpeper’s part coupled with a printer’s error.
Then I managed to find the incredibly useful “The Old English Herbals” by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde on the Project Gutenberg site. I found there a quotation from W Coles’ 1656 book “The Art Of Simpling” in which he passes this judgement on Culpeper:
“Culpeper,” he says, “(a man now dead and therefore I shall speak of him as modestly as I can, for were he alive I should be more straight with him), was a man very ignorant in the forme of Simples. Many Books indeed he hath tumbled over, and transcribed as much out of them as he thought would serve his turne (though many times he were therein mistaken) but added very little of his own.” He even comments on the fact that either Culpeper or his Printer cannot spell aright—“sure he or the Printer had not learned to spell.”
Thank you very much! – I’ll take that as a vindication, but it makes me wonder whether Culpeper’s herbal was an early example of the coffee table book; owned and displayed, read for its wonderful picture of the times and his descriptions of much loved plants but rarely actually used as a medicinal herbal. It’s certainly the case that it’s still constantly being reprinted and cited in modern books.
I know I’m being a bit of an old curmudgeon , but words really do matter – and getting them wrong leads everyone astray. In the midst of my daydreaming I went off on a brief excursus on the gillyflower. Where does the name come from? It usually refers to the clove pink – one of the Diathus family, but several other flowers are also known as gillyflowers – so what was going on? Someone suggested it relates to the French month ‘Juillet’ – but another of the so-caled gillyflowers, the wallflower, has finished flowering by July and indeed Culpeper refers to the wallflower as the ‘winter gillyflower’. Geofffrey Grigson suggests it comes from the French (and Spanish) word for clove – ‘girofle’, which led me to a delightful shuddering stop because not only do I love the perfume of the wallflower but I also associate it with a particular teenage memory which I’ve no intention of sharing except to say that the smell of wallflowers reminds me of one special evening. I don’t think I’ve ever associated that perfume with cloves but my goodness I’m eager to do the research in the spring.
Then on television, the night before last, we were watching Rick Stein’s new programme on French cooking and he remarked in passing that coq au vin was sometimes flavoured with blueberries – which are known in France as Myrtle. I didn’t need a 17th century book to help on that blooper, because we once ate a delicious coq au vin in an auberge in Puy de Dome (which, incidentally was the source of the first printed recipe for the dish in the early 1900’s) and it was flavoured with myrtle – which is ‘myrte’ in French. Blueberry is known as ‘myrtille’ . I don’t doubt that myrtille is used in French cooking where it grows in the high country, but myrte is very different, quite austere and memorable.
Anyway being addicted to lists as you may recall, I’ve started a new one with the aim of running as many of Culpeper’s plants down to their current Latin names as I can, and then finding them. But today we’re bashing the galleries again with friends. We went to a student show on Tuesday and it was pretty terrible. My instincts are that there’s nowhere near enough challenge in undergraduate teaching these days and I talked to our teacher son about it. But he said that the kind of heavyweight challenge that I was talking about would be regarded as abusive in today’s teaching setting. I suppose he’s right, but raising the self-critical faculties would save an awful lot of bad art. It takes courage and resilience to be an artist.
I love to wake up like we did today and see white frost on the green outside, but this morning it was especially good to see the excited loop drawn on the grass by a dog released from its lead. Who says a line can’t express joy! It’s no less pleasurable to be prepared for frost, and I say so having not been up to the allotment to look for myself. “Possibly” says my inner pessimist – ” all your seedlings are dead”. “Oh do go away”, I think, “and bother someone else”.
We’ve fleeced and cloched all the vulnerable plants, and garlic especially is supposed to positively relish a few days of hard frost – so bring it on, I think. On the other hand it’s worth wondering what the balance of good practice might be in relation to sheeting, fleecing and mulching. Creating a warm dry environment under black plastic sheets is a great help to slugs as well as more friendly pests – (just peel the sheet back and look for yourself), so maybe we should be encouraging foxes (on our plot they don’t need much encouragement), badgers who love a fat slug, and hedgehogs as well as toads who equally don’t mind if they do. Oh and don’t forget the birds. I know that those who sell garden supplies would have us think that only an architect designed and artisan produced bee hotel will be suitable, but insects prefer to choose their own overwintering spots. Every year at this time we have an invasion of ladybirds who creep into the flat and take up their winter quarters in the corners of our ceilings. I took this photograph in the hall, ten minutes ago. I suppose we could spray them with insecticide, but in the spring we’ll be hoping for them to arrive as the aphids get going. I prefer to see our guests as free biological control breeding colonies. I’m not so keen on the frass, but that comes off with a wipe anyway.
A bit of botanical history
In a quick update on my Tutsan research, I checked back on the transcribed edition of Culpeper’s Herbal and found that in the 1649 edition the plant was indeed described as ‘Tustan’, but Culpeper wrote that it was no longer much used. It doesn’t seem to appear at all in Gerard a century earlier. There’s a clue in the indispensible “Englishman’s Flora” when Grigson states that Tutsan had been mistaken in a medieval herbal for another herb altogether, mentioned by Pliny. He goes on to say that by Gerard’s time the misidentification had been corrected and this must have led to its decline, although Culpeper still lists a number of uses. But the 1649 edition is also full of typos – there are dozens if not hundreds listed at the end of the Project Gutenberg edition so perhaps it was a Friday afternoon in November when a short sighted printer with no botanical knowledge at all dropped two pieces of moveable type into the wrong place in a frame and no-one noticed. Why am I so interested in this? Well I spent half my life grappling with understanding and interpreting ancient texts, and old habits die hard.
Some tougher stuff on herbal medicine
And while I’m on the subject of honest errors, I notice in the newspapers another routine round of attacks by conventional medicine on the dangers of herbal medicines. Let’s be clear, I’m not a gimlet eyed anti vaxxer and I have more reasons than most to be grateful for modern drugs – I take four different drugs every day and without them there’s a signficant chance I’d be in much poorer health than I am. I have my annual flu jab and so it goes on. So thank you to the NHS, I’m a fan. But in his day, Culpeper battled with the Royal College of Surgeons – he wrote this in 1649 as he translated the (Latin) Pharmacoepia Londinensis into the English common tongue, facing the same challenged as did Myles Coverdale and many others in translating the Bible (in 1535) so that any ploughboy might read it.
” The liberty of our Common Wealth …… is most infringed by three sorts of men, Priests, Physitians, Lawyers”.
Well he would say that wouldn’t he? – he fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War and was a thoroughgoing Puritan radical. He got a serious chest wound which may have been a subsidiary cause of his death from TB at the age of only 39. He could see that many poor people simply couldn’t afford to pay for credentialed physicians and so he gave them what they needed – reliable access to self care. He was always careful to note where a misidentification could be dangerous, and there’s no sense of anything but close observation and attention to detail in his book – but it was a book written in the 17th century translating another put together in the 16th from manuscripts that went back to the first century and using experience gathered from Egyptian, Roman and Greek sources. It can’t be understood without serious study: which is a long way of saying that attacks on herbal medicine that come from a simple 21st century superficial reading of ancient texts suffer from exactly the same flaws as do the attacks by anti-vaxxers on modern scientific medicine – they’re often fuelled and inflamed by a complete failure to understand what the other is really doing.
Undoubtedly herbal medicine can be dangerous and can cause unexpected interactions with conventional medicines. Undoubtedly we could do with better training and more regulation of expensive raw materials, bearing in mind that fake Viagra and illegal steroids are hardly ‘better’ than fake Ginseng or any other herb. Conventional medicine too has its downside. I found some research by the Universities of Sheffield, York and Manchester published on 23rd February 2018 on the subject of prescription errors: it found that in the UK there were:
237 million medication errors each year
An estimated 712 deaths
Were a contributory factor to between 17,000 and 22,000 deaths
Cost £98.5 million per year to remedy
I tried to find equivalent data for herbal and oriental medicines but it seems that there is very little detailed research and a lot of untested anecdotal evidence floating around. Could this be a clash of ideologies just like the battles of the 16th and 17th centuries? The only way to find out is to do the comparative research on a level playing field. How many times have I heard it said that “there’s no evidence” that a certain treatment works when the reason there is no evidence is because no-one had ever done any research to find any. That’s a politicians trick!
Meanwhile I’ll continue to pick my sceptical way between the opposing sides and use the best informed opinions when it comes to choosing the right therapy. A few weeks ago we had a meal with a GP and a cancer specialist consultant. I asked in all innocence (ho ho) whether their patients ever asked them about complementary therapies. “All the time” was the response and the conversation was immediately doused with a bucketful of cold silence.
The brain of sparrows being eaten, provokes lust exceedingly
I mentioned a couple of days ago that I’d got hold of a rather disappointing edition of Culpeper’s Herbal. It wasn’t an absolute stinker, but it had been heavily edited with much of the archaic language translated rather than transcribed, and it was missing hundreds of pages of the kind that I quoted above. It wasn’t that I was particularly searching for aphrodisiacs (well I would say that, I suppose), but that I stumbled on it when a chapter entitled “parts of living things and excrements” caught my eye as I scrolled through. The edition, by the way, is an online transcription as part of the Gutenberg Project – free and massively useful.
The thing is, Culpeper can only be understood within its own context, and without that – the astrology, the doctrine of signatures, the battles he was having with the authorities – it boils down to a very strange mixture of bad ideas like eating sparrows’ brains. But within the pages there’s the beginnnings of a revolution. Just as Luther’s translation of the Bible changed the churches for ever, so the translation of these remedies into the common tongue changed the course of medicine and probably changed the distribution and cultivation of wildflowers for ever. Imagine any cottage garden and it’s a fair bet that some at least of the plants will be the distant offspring of medicinal herbs, and I think I read somewhere recently that something like 40% of our current prescription drugs are derived from plant material. Yet another reason for fighting against unnecessary extinctions, and remember that not all useful drug yielding plants are found in the Amazon rain forest – some are undoubtedly living outside our front doors – if we could but see them.
Plants are wonderful synthesisers of compounds utterly beyond the reach of science, and the clues as to where to look won’t be found within the pages of a translation forged in the culture of the 21st century, but with a sympathetic reading of the way things seemed to the apothecaries of the past within their own culture and at that time. Sadly, for all its great strengths, science tends to lack humility in the face of very old ideas.
Anyway, enough of that. Tonight promises a hard frost and so this afternoon we were up at the allotment with fleece and cloches to protect our vulnerable plants.