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…..
Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)
Dear readers, when I was photographing Trailing Bellflower last week, I found this elegant plant growing amongst the nettles in a mysterious lane that the developers seemed to have overlooked. The long, graceful stems are surmounted by delicate yellow flowers, which seem to balance like trapeze artists.
This is Nipplewort, a native British plant which grows in disturbed land of all kinds. I hadn’t noticed it in East Finchley before, but of course, so many of the Wednesday Weeds were invisible to me before I got my plant-spotting eyes into focus.
The leaves of Nipplewort can be eaten in salads and, along with Chickweed and Shepherd’s Purse, it forms part of the Japanese Festival of Seven Herbs (Nanakusa-no-sekku), where a porridge of fresh, local plants is eaten on January 7th.Nipplewort got its name from the shape of its closed buds.
There was, in medieval times, a belief that God indicated how a plant should be used by creating a specific ‘sign’ encoded in its leaves or flowers. Hence, Eyebright, which is said to resemble an eye, was used for treating styes and eye infections. This idea is known as the Doctrine of Signatures – the idea that each plant had a signature that could be read by a herbalist. Because of the resemblance of its buds to nipples, Nipplewort has been used as a treatment for breast ulcers, cracked nipples and for drying up milk.
I suspect that , although the ‘signature’ was said to come from God, the idea is much more ancient than that, dating back to pre-Christian times, when there was no need for a divine intercessor as the plants could speak directly to us, if we had ears to here.
It seems somehow appropriate that, on this sunny late autumn day, I was looking at a plant that was associated with motherhood. As I took these photos I had no idea that a cloud of troubles was forming overhead, or that by the end of the week I would be sitting at a hospital bed, holding my mother’s hand as she recovers from a stroke which has damaged her eyesight. But it gives me great comfort to think back to that patch of bright yellow flowers, the buzzing of bees in the ivy above, the Trailing Bellflower peeping from under the fence. It reminds me that everything is always in flux, blooming and falling fallow, and that I am part of that process. I need to bow with the wind, to drink in the sunshine, to accept the dark times and to let go of the delusion that I can control anything important.
Nipplewort (Carl Axel Magnus Lindman [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)