There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,

I think I blame my mother for possessing so much plant wisdom, and Henry Williamson for fanning the flames. I only say this because today as I was quite literally rooting around in search of a rhizome in the car park today so I could nail down my unexpected finding of a Hoary ragwort – Jacobaea erucifolia next to the fire escape, I suddenly realized why I was there. “It’s the names, you fool” – I thought. “You’re in love with the names”. Since I was there in the rain, on my knees, digging gently with my penknife so as not to damage the plant, the neighbours may well have though me barking mad but in fact I was rolling the names around in my head – ragwort, ragweed, stinking willie, devildums, dog stalk, mares fart, muggert – among dozens listed by Geoffrey Grigson in”The Englishman’s Flora” – an excellent book which can be read by women too! It was also the plant used by fairies for getting about because broomsticks were much too big which, I suppose, would have been well known to William Shakespeare who knew his plants and their uses very well.

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:

William Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream

But it was Williamson who got me going; so much so that after I’d read “Tarka” and all the others when I was still very young, I ordered up all 27 (I think) books of his “Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” – which I read avidly until I realized that he held some political views that would have made him a Mosleyite fascist. It was the end of the affair for me, but half the time – I excuse myself here – it was his extraordinary knowledge of nature that captivated me. The only thing that held me back was that when I read the plant names I had never seen them and wouldn’t recognise them if I did. I had become enchanted by the names; seriously and fatally compromised by the words themselves.

Weed of the day: Field Bindweed – Convolvulus arvensis

Then there was Shakespeare with his woodbine, oxlips, eglantine and all the rest. I would gaze out of the window during English lessons, rehearsing the names in my head like a rosary, knowing that my destiny was supposed to be engineering and all I really wanted to do was understand those words. At the time I wouldn’t have known a botanist from a chimney sweep. My mother’s knowledge of plants was organic – it wasn’t a subject, it was a culture, a history, an upbringing in the Chilterns where, she once told me that the first time she saw a flush toilet she was afraid to use it because she’d only ever seen an earth closet before that.

I bought my first flora “Wildflowers of the Wayside and Woodland” published by Frederick Warne some time before I was 20 and I still have it. The story ought to proceed along the usual tramlines but it doesn’t. Wildflowers were pushed to the edges and we met occasionally during holidays; but slowly as I got older there was more time and I could afford better books – many better books, and it was always there lurking in the shadows. I’m in awe of the field botanists who’ve made a profession of it; in awe of their capacity to recognise plants and remember their latin names – but I think I’ve got the best deal in the end because I spent my career studying what it means to be human, and occasionally getting my waders full in the process. So the plants and small creatures have become redemptive in their way. Even when I work out something that’s absolutely blindingly obvious to the experts, to me it’s a moment of illumination and re-enchantment. A holiday romance revived and, more often than not, a literary experience as well. Of course the irony is that the more I find out the more complicated it all becomes. I’ve written about grass and today I did some more practice identifications but the highlight was discovering that the ragwort in the car park behind the flats was neither of the alternatives I was considering but a third type altogether. As Paul Valery once said – “A difficulty is a light. An insurmountable difficulty is a sun”.

Today the sky was iron grey and it was drizzling but we were both eager to be out so we went off in search of Browne’s Folly a(n) SSSI and nature reserve up a tiny lane that’s exceptionally tricky to find. And so, to get back to the beginning before the bell goes, there’s wild thyme growing there …. and Bath asparagus and loads of other things that most people probably wouldn’t get worked up about but how could you not be bowled over by the pale blue of a field scabious and there’s a patch of grassland there that just shouts orchid! Oh and an abandoned stone mine with bats. It was slippery with mud and Madame was less than thrilled with some exposed bits of path, but the view from the top was tremendous. The folly is a Bath stone tower built during a slack economic period as a highly visible advert for the quarry. I peeped inside and there was a stairway leading in a spiral to the top but no handrail so after a couple of flights my courage failed me and I climbed back down clinging to the wall.

Back home, we resolved to go back for a serious plant hunt, and then we went to the allotment; pruned the autumn raspberries back and tied them in before harvesting some food for the weekend. A lousy weather day completely redeemed by nature, mud and all. And tomorrow there are a couple more raised beds that require our attention.

My stiff toe and other spelling mistakes


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.