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…..
I am rather excited about this little plant. I discovered it drooping rather sadly from the bottom of a wall in North London, and was intrigued when I discovered that it had the enigmatic name of ‘Gallant Soldier’. It’s nothing much to look at – a small, greenish daisy with five petals and a rather straggly, dangly habit – but it is a world traveller, an escape artist, a component of a South American stew and a potential drug for high-blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Not bad for such an inconspicuous ‘weed’.
Gallant-Soldier was originally taken to Europe from the Andean regions of Peru, by a Spanish botanist called Mariano Martinez Galinsoga, hence the plant’s Latin name, and its eventual English corruption to ‘Gallant Soldier’. Richard Mabey thinks that ‘Gallant Soldier’ may be an example of typical London sarcasm – there is nothing martial or upstanding about this diffident little plant. On the other hand, as we shall see, it has ‘marched’ unobtrusively across most of the planet, setting up home everywhere from the USA to Africa.
The plant lived inoffensively enough in the Madrid Botanical Gardens for many years, and a speciman was then taken to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in 1796.
Gallant-Soldier is another of those adaptable mountain plants that we’ve noticed before in the Wednesday Weed, and, sure enough, by 1863 it had broken out of captivity, and had naturalised on the pavements and wasteland of an area from Richmond to East Sheen. Gradually it advanced, until it is now found across London, and in other spots in the south of the country.
In Colombia, the plant is called Guascas, and is used in a rather delicious stew called Ajiaco Bogotano. This features chicken and no fewer than three types of potatoes. As a lover and connoisseur of potatoes myself (like most Cockneys) this sounds delicious, especially as there are small yellow potatoes, floury white potatoes and a few blue potatoes thrown in for colour. As a vegetarian, though, I would probably skip the chicken. Then, a few handfuls of Gallant-Soldier are thrown on top to give what is described as ‘a unique flavour’. Colombian ex-patriots can buy Guascas dried, but this is said to be a poor substitute for the delicious fresh herb. I find it so interesting how, again and again, a plant can be a ‘weed’ in one country, and an invaluable resource in another. As we have become more detached from the plants around us, we have become less curious about what properties they may have, and even what they may taste like.
On the other hand, the plant is said to be poisonous to goats.
The plant has since spread to Africa and to North America. In Tanzania, Malawi and other areas it is planted amongst the crops to act as an alternative host for pests and viruses. However, it maintains its meek and humble reputation here too: in Malawi, its name is ‘Mwamuna aligone’, which means ‘my husband is sleeping’ (Richard Mabey, Plants Britannica).
In 2007, a study at the University of Kwa-Zulu in Durban, South Africa, investigated a number of plants for their properties as ACE inhibitors – plants that reduce hypertension. Gallant-Soldier was found to help improve blood flow, and to also be helpful in cases of hyperglycaemia, along with other common herbs such as Wild Garlic and Fat Hen. Herbalists have always known that there are a whole range of useful plants growing around us, but we have forgotten so much of the lore of our grandparents. Sometimes, it seems as if science is ‘discovering’ things that have been known by observant ‘ordinary’ people for centuries.