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.