Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Herb-Robert (named after a medieval monk who used it as part of his medicine chest) is a kind of geranium or cranesbill, pretty enough to be included in the Royal Horticultural Society’s list of plants to buy. It is a low-growing, delicate plant, with a mass of small five-petalled pink flowers. As it matures, the stems turn deepest scarlet, which may give rise to one of its many vernacular names, Red Robin. It is a native of the UK, and is yet another urban plant that, in other habitats, prefers shingle and poor soil.
In the US, it is known as Stinky Bob, for a reason that will become apparent as soon as you pick off a leaf and rub it between your fingers. The smell has been described, variously, as ‘mousy’, and ‘like rubber tyres’. I lean towards the second interpretation personally, and if you have never had the Herb-Robert perfume experience, I recommend it – once you have smelt that very particular odour, you will never forget it.
As I surveyed the information available on the internet, two things became apparent. Firstly, this plant has become something of an invasive nuisance in Australia and North America, to which it was no doubt introduced by homesick English gardeners. In Washington State, for example, it is classified as a ‘noxious and invasive weed’. There are reports of trials of herbicides applied with a ‘CO2-pressurized backpack sprayer with a 5 -nozzle boom’. Not surprisingly, the Herb-Robert mortality rate was reported as ‘100%’. No mention is made of any other plants or creatures unfortunate enough to have been sharing the space.
Secondly, Herb-Robert tea is often cited as a cure for everything from cancer to Parkinson’s Disease. Traditionally, Herb-Robert was used to cure toothache and nosebleeds, and the leaves, rubbed on the skin, are said to deter mosquitoes. The crushed leaves are also used as a way of keeping deer and rabbits away from crops. However, there are stories, from all over the world, of people using this plant to treat tumours. The scientific reason given is that Herb-Robert is a good source of organic Germanium, an element which helps the oxygen uptake in the body. The American Cancer Society suggests that there is no evidence to support this, and that Germanium can be toxic, though they do say that the levels in plants are not normally high enough to cause any harm.
As in all things, this is not a clear-cut situation. Maybe using Herb-Robert could be dangerous: the chemicals in plants are just as ‘real’ as the ones that are used in chemotherapy. Just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean that it will be less efficacious, or less toxic, than something that comes out of a hospital syringe. But so many of the substances that we now use as medicines came originally from plants: aspirin from the willow and digitalis from foxgloves are just two examples. Plus, there is now so much money tied up in the drugs industry that the thought of people using something cheap and uncontrolled to treat themselves may well give the corporate world a collective nervous breakdown. Who is to say that there is not something in this little pink plant which is efficacious? It certainly made me look at it with a new curiosity and respect.