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…..
When I first decided to write the Wednesday Weed, I must confess that I had not given much thought to what would happen in winter, when very few plants are flowering, and many have disappeared altogether. Today, I walked around Coldfall Wood with a heavy heart, looking at the Brambles and the Ivy that I have already written about, and wondering what I would find that would be interesting. In some desperation, I slipped along the muddy path into the Cemetery and realised that there was enough inspiration here for the whole of the winter and beyond.
Tumbling over one of the gravestones was a shrub of Sweetbriar (Rosa rubiginosa). It had no flowers, and barely any foliage, and yet the hips were characteristic – they have very long sepals (the dangly bits at the bottom of the fruit), and when viewed from below, the hips look a little like a cone-headed alien parachuting to the ground.According to Harrap’s Wild Flowers, there are glands on the stems and leaves which give off a ‘delicious apple-and-cinnamon scent’. How I wished I’d thought to test this out! I will make a return visit soon to see if the plant retains its perfume this late in the year.
Sweetbriar flowers in June and July, and its blossoms are much pinker than those of the commoner Dog Rose.Sweetbriar is the Eglantine of Shakespeare and other early poets, who often contrasted its sweetness with the sharpness of its thorns, as in this poem by Richard Herrick (1591 – 1674).
The Bleeding Hand
From this bleeding hand of mine,
Take this sprig of Eglantine:
Which, though sweet unto your smell,
Yet the fretful briar will tell,
He who plucks the sweets, shall prove
Many thorns to be in love.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, the plant is all drowsy seductiveness:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.”
The one thing that slightly concerns me about finding Sweetbriar in the cemetery is that it shouldn’t really be here. It tends to be a plant of chalky soils, and is not common anywhere. So, could it be that it was planted by a mourner, wanting to honour a loved one by surrounding them with its scent and its pretty flowers? Whatever the reason, its bright hips have brought back a lot of memories for me this morning, and have reminded me that although there is not the abundance of plant activity in autumn and winter that there is in the warmer seasons, there is still lots to observe, if I take the time to notice.