“I know a bank whereon …. take 2.

No – really I do, we were there yesterday again, in Velvet Bottom (who could resist such a place name) – it’s almost as good as Condom in SE France where I once resisted a selfie next to the road sign. Condom is famous for its brandy; a friend once told me that he met someone at a conference who came from thereabouts who told him that the local wine was excellent so long as you boiled it!

I’m not sure how to describe Velvet Bottom because it’s a paradox. From Roman times and again in the 19th century it was ravaged by lead mining and even today the soil is so polluted it has a completely unique flora growing in and amongst the usual – less fussy – suspects. But because I’m not an experienced enough botanist I can’t enlarge much on these rarities unless I happen to bump into one of them when I know that I don’t know what it is – if that’s not too convoluted an explanation.

Velvet Bottom is one of my favourite places on earth, honestly. Aside from the plants there are adders in abundance when the sun shines and it’s quiet in a way that holds you and slows everything down. We see people running down there occasionally and I want to shout out “Hey mate – why don’t you sit down and soak it up for five minutes and forget all about your PB time.”

Because I’m not that experienced a field botanist, I get the lovely bonus of finding and being blown away by quite common plants that I’ve never noticed before. So for instance yesterday we found this common centaury – which in my eyes is far from common and very lovely. Back home I discovered some of its traditional names (Geoffrey Grigson’s “An Englishman’s Flora” lists local names like bloodwort, earthgall, feverfew (confusing because it’s not), gentian, mountain flax and spikenard – all of which demonstrates the brilliance of Latin names which remove all the confusion. Richard Mabey also mentions the name bitterherb – and like everyone else from Culpeper to Mrs Grieve cites its use as a digestive tonic. I wouldn’t know because I don’t have the least inclination to illegally pick a plant that I’ve only just met for the first time. The pleasure, so far as I can see into my own mind, is at least threefold. Firstly there’s the thrill of discovery; but then the aesthetic pleasure at the colour and the structure of the plant and then – perhaps more obscurely – the comfort and pleasure at discovering its usefulness reaching back into history. I could add the fourth very acute pleasure for me of the old names. A few days ago we found a musk mallow on the canalside. The very words musk and mallow conjure up a two word poem, overflowing with associations.

I just used the idea of ‘comfort and pleasure’ to describe what it feels like to know the history of a plant’s name and uses, and since I’ve been casting around for weeks now – looking for the reason that we find nature so comforting, even therapeutic – here’s a suggestion that might help.

I hope I’m not being unfair by describing our western, industrialised and individualised culture as rootless. Perhaps it’s just me that feels alienated and despairing at the direction we’re heading in, but I’m sure I’m not alone. So anything that can function as a kind of mind anchor; that puts me back in touch with the past – is a stabilising influence. It’s not at all the case (as critics often accuse) of wanting to go back to the past; but reconnecting with it contains wisdom and insight that we shouldn’t lose. When I photograph the common centaury and discover its history going back as far as Greece from which it gets its name (it’s properties were said to have been discovered by Chiron the centaur – according to Gerard) – something deep is going on. To behold the plant is to behold the faintest image of countless generations of living beings who have treasured it. We are the issue of those unknown people and they can still speak to us in the names they passed down to us.

In one of my churches we had the oldest communion chalice still in use within the diocese. It was made in the late 1500’s and has survived through all the cataclysmic changes since then – and so when, on a Sunday morning I gave communion to my tiny congregation (on one occasion just a single person) I was always sensitive to the invisible presence of the generations stretching back, who had taken comfort from the same chalice. This isn’t a religious point, by the way, it’s about the reverberations of objects and living forms through time.

But enough reflection! Yesterday we saw any number of small coppers and a single green washed fritillary; loads of common spotted orchids (whose leaves weren’t spotted – I do wish they’d read the textbooks!); yarrow, common bedstraw (if you look towards the top of the second photo from the left you can just see the black, glassy slag left by the Victorian miners); ladies bedstraw and wild thyme. Individually they could hardly be thought of as rare and yet, massed in this post industrial landscape, so scarred and pitted by mining, washing ponds and diverted streams; they amount to a unique flora with its own unmistakable sense of place. Could it be that we also still hear the faint echo of two thousand years of mining through the silence?

Not for purists!

One of the delightful aspects of doing a bit of urban botany is the hazard/opportunity to find members of the brigade of irregulars lurking just about anywhere. Purists, of course, go out armed with a complete set of preconceived ideas of what ought to be growing in a particular habitat and get a bit piqued if they don’t find it. But they get positively tetchy when they find usurpers taking up good wildflower spaces. Some plant lovers are a bit less fussy – I’ve got a copy of J W White’s 1912 Bristol Flora and it’s got loads of ‘foreigners’ in it. He seemed to delight in examining the edges of the railway lines on Bristol docks to see what had fallen off the wagons and – like all good trainspotters – he was going to record it even if it belonged more rightfully in a Reader’s Digest book on flower arranging. I’m absolutely with him in his determination to refuse to be sniffy in the face of the temporary visitor, not least because they must all, necessarily have their story.

I’ve already mentioned the possible corn marigold on North Quay and we went back again to take a closer look and yes I’m sure it’s an out of place and out of season lover of arable crops and sandy acidic soil, neither of which is the case where it landed up – in a coir mat impregnated with wildflower seeds and bought no doubt from a horticultural wholesaler as part of an architect’s idea of what constituted wild. OK I am just a bit cross about that aspect of the story because there were loads of perfectly good and properly naturalised wildflowers there already, but they were plantworld punks, weeds, all of a piece with the graffiti on the 1960’s (and about to be demolished) multi story car park. On the other hand, one golden corn marigold on a grey and damp day cheers you up no end. Whether it deserves a tick or a place in a local flora I leave to the experts, but I rather hope they’ll treat it as a genuine refugee, escaping from the arable fields where it once grew wild in the days before Mecoprop-P and Clopyralid and I rather hope it will carry on bringing a bit of colour to the river bank with its offspring.

The other unexpected flower was the pot marigold near Cleveland House on the Kennet and Avon canal. This one, I’m sure, self seeded off the roof of a moored up narrow boat, or at least that’s the most likely and unvarnished possibility. But being both a romantic and a writer I like to think of its journey on the roof of a narrow boat being tended by someone with an interest in medicinal herbs who, for all I know, reads tarot cards sells calendula cream at the local farmers’ market. Back in the day you’d have found hemp and cereals from the holds of passing barges but there are a surprising number of medicinal herbs alongside the canal whether by accident or design. Bargees had next to no access to official medicine and I have no doubt they became adept at recognising and utilising the plants that grew where they travelled and probably made sure they could be found along the length of the canal network. Many of these plants are promiscuous self-seeders and I greatly enjoy finding them and trying to find out what they were used for. The tradition that was once passed down from (mostly) mother to daughter has all but disappeared now. I think my own mother, born in 1916, must have been among the last generation to know her wildflowers so intimately although she never wrote anything down or even passed her knowledge of their uses on. That’s the way of oral tradition; it can disappear in a generation; driven out in her case by the wartime invention of the antibiotics which she worshipped.

Half a mile apart, it would be so easy to have assumed they were the same species and that’s why it helps to develop the habit of close attention to the details of plants. Like the winter heliotrope that’s in flower at the moment – it could easily be butterbur – except butterbur doesn’t have a perfume; and in a couple of months when the flowers have died back, you might think the leaves are just right for coltsfoot – another medicinal herb, by the way. I’ve attached all of those names to the plants in question but as soon as it flowers, the perfume and the season narrow it down to one candidate. Maybe I’m weird but I find that terribly exciting. “Wait and see” – one of my mother’s favourite comments – is a good rule of thumb when you don’t quite know what a plant is called. Otherwise take a copy of Stace, a ruler and a hand lens and kneel down in the mud for twenty minutes while your long-suffering partner looks on her mobile for a discreet dating agency for botanical widows . I once knew a devoted twitcher who for twenty five years had spent all his holidays up to his waist in Norfolk fens. I asked him once what his wife thought about it and he said he’d never asked her! I bet she’s got a burner phone hidden at the back of the wardrobe.

So my solstice list of plants in flower goes up to fifteen, and sixteen if you add a single grass – cocksfoot. Grass flowers are tiny and can be a bit technical but I promise you this grass was flowering. Grasses, of course, don’t need pollinators at all, their reproductive apparatus is brilliantly simple and effective. But the flowering plants are different and just show that we shouldn’t only be worrying about bees because there are hundreds of pollinating insects, some of them completely specialised, and many of them are in danger from insecticides, pollution and habitat destruction too. I could go on but it’s nearly Christmas.

Below is today’s picture of the latest royal navy patrol boat, cleverly designed to fool French and Spanish trawlers fishing illegally within our proposed 200 mile limits. I think it was built from a design by the present Education Minister. You will probably be impressed by the attachment swivel for the space saving Mark IV 32 degree compass.

First proper frost of the season

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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, IMG_20191109_151823fleecing 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.

Please don’t try this at home

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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.

Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft

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Snake bite, snake pipe, Lazarus bell or Fritillaria meleagris

I’v been dipping into Geoffrey Grigson’s book “The Englishman’s Flora”, and the irresistable words in the heading come from the name of a book he mentions – Cockayne’s  “Leechdoms,Wortcunning and Starcraft of Anglo Saxon England” (1866) – a sentence that, as I read it back to myself, makes me fear I’m treading on sacred ground once occupied by Flann O”Brien and Umberto Eco who loved to make fun of sentences exactly like this one.

But (straightening my roughed-up tie and recovering my hat) what lovely words – “Wortcunning” ,”Leechdoms”, “Starcraft” . I bought Geoffrey Grigson’s book, long out of print, for a couple of pounds from a second hand bookseller entirely on the recommendation in Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” – another one worth getting.

It’s the only book I have that lists all of the folk names of the commonest British plants along with the uses to which they’ve been put. It’s not a medical herbal, not a flora you could identify a plant from, but an erudite and joyful celebration of a whole disappearing culture. Wortcunning is  the loveliest way of expressing the deep knowledge of plants needed to produce a leechdom, or medicinal formula. If you google ‘leechdom’ you’ll find the whole text Grigson is referring to.

These three strange words are enchanting.  Specifically they re-enchant the world of plants and evoke old, and new ways of relating to them.  Language can make familiar things strange and present them to us in a new light altogether. It’s impossible to underestimate the power of playful and inventive words to enlighten our world and it’s not strictly necessary to invent them.  Warcraft games, Tolkein, Alan Garner all do it powerfully but we don’t need to invent new languages  – they’re already there – buried in the folk usages of the past. Waterpepper is botanically known as Persicaria hydropiper but its folk name, ‘arsemart’ tells you a lot more. The two names need each other in order to to flourish.

British wildflowers are all too rapidly becoming the exclusive domain of botanists and ecologists and their folknames and medicinal properties are disappearing from memory while plant taxonomists argue over their DNA. Is this a loss? Well, I can think of a couple of reasons at least why it’s a loss.  The biggest reason is that we can’t protect something if we don’t know it’s there, and so there’s a danger that the argument about the building of a housing estate over the last outpost of a rare plant will sound like a theological dispute in the face of a housing crisis. It’s taken us a very long time to realize – almost too late – that our destructve selfishness in the abuse of the earth is leading to our own destruction. When we lose even the name of a flower, then we lose the flower itself.

Another reason for protecting this heritage is that language is a lot more that a list of words. Our world is constructed in language, and when language is impoverished the world gets smaller. We were walking through Leigh Woods to the West of Bristol many years ago, when a strange man, obviously sleeping rough in the woods, burst out of the scrub and grabbed me by the arm, talking wildly about “coming to see something”. He said “I’ve been living here in the woods for twenty years and I never saw one of these before!”  We followed him – because we’re like that – and he dragged us to see a thorn apple in flower. The privations, discomfort and inner demons that probably kept him there had been blown away for a moment by finding a plant whose capacity to both lift his spirits by simply being there, or do him serious harm if he ate it, showed the dual power of plants.

Is this a hard read? I’m sorry but a blog is not much more than a message in a bottle – I throw it into the sea and maybe a handful of people will read it.

My mother knew many of the flowers by their local names, but then she could predict rain by looking at the sky over “Granny Perrin’s nest”  – a group of tall elm trees behind the cottage she was born in. I don’t remember ever being treated for ear ache with a boiled onion, but even as she administered the latest medicine she would occasionally remember how the ailment had been treated when she was a child, living in the Chilterns.

We have to avoid all that Grigson calls “cross-gartered whimsey” in sentimentalising the past; we have to get it into our heads that the past is not an expensive Sunday night costume drama on the television, just as understanding the natural world is not the same as watching a few episodes of Countryfile. Wortcunning is not the hippy alternative to plant taxonomy, they’re like a divorced couple who really owe it to their children to start talking to each other again. Being learned in plants means embracing the whole of them, their histories, meanings and usages.

And while I’m on the subject of disappearances, whatever happened to that prolific social group of human beings like Geoffrey Grigson and Jane Grigson, vastly learned, filled with curiosity and interested in everything?  Jane Grigson is one of my favourite food writers – and if I could invite myself to any household in history it would be to eat with them. Their daughter Sophie wrote somewhere that it wasn’t impossible to find the bath full of unspeakable bits of meat when she was a child. This brave new world of targets, spreadsheets and reviews doesn’t favour the long life, the full life – lived like the course of a river with its rapids and waterfalls, meanders, watermeadows and estuaries.

Back, however at the Potwell Inn my struggle with the unidentifiable Fumaria was finally rewarded by a confirmatory email from a proper botanist who confimed that (having looked at my photos), in all likelihood my plant is Fumaria muralis. We’re meeting at the allotment on Friday evening to seal the deal.