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…..
Dear Readers, this is a plant that most people would automatically think of as a ‘weed’. I found it growing at the base of a tree on my road in north London, and recognised it by the black blotches in the middle of the leaves (‘maculosa’ means ‘spotted’), and by the little hairs on the ochrea. I love learning new botanical words, and so I am glad to share with you that the ochrea is the tube that surrounds the stem where the new leaves emerge.
Some of the stems are red, hence the common name for the plant. This is a native perennial and a member of the same family as Japanese Knotweed (the Polygonaceae). It is rarely found far from human activity, and seems to flourish on our footpaths, by the sides of canals, and on cultivated land. It is said to hate lime, and to prefer acid peaty soils, but the one growing on the London clay that I saw seemed to be doing well regardless of what my plant book says.
So, what uses have been made of this inoffensive little plant? It is said to be good for treating rheumatism and, although not native to the US, the Iroquois tribe soon discovered its properties and used concoctions of Redshank for joint pain. They also rubbed the plant on their horses because it was believed to keep flies at bay. The Cherokee used it to treat pain and some urinary complaints, and, closer to home, it has also been used as a source of a yellow dye. In Ukrainian medicine, the plant is used for haemorrhoids and uterine bleeding, and also for colitis. It seems to me to punch above its weight in terms of benefits to humankind. So why, I wondered, does the plant have the alternative name of Useless? I found the answer on the ever-informative Plant Lives website. Here is what the author, Sue Eland, has to say:
‘In Christian lore one of the popular legends tells how Christ’s blood fell on the leaves of the plant as it grew at the foot of the Cross and this caused the dark triangular marks on the leaves. Another accounts for this marking by a very sad little story in which it was described how the Virgin Mary habitually prepared a special ointment from redshank and could not find any of the plant when she needed it. Later she came across some when her need was no longer urgent and in her annoyance not only relegated redshank to the status of a weed but also left an impression of her finger on the leaf. It was said that from then on the plant was the only one for which there was no use.’
I do wonder if this story was also the source of another alternative name for Redshank, which is Lady’s Thumb.
Redshank is said to be edible, but bland. However, it is a rich source of vitamins and minerals, as most wild plants are. There are apparently reports that eating it can cause photosensitivity (i.e. a tendency to burn in even moderate sunlight), and as it contains oxalic acid, like all the rest of its family, I would beware if you have a tendency to kidney stones. I personally won’t be picking any Redshank from my road, where the bottoms of the trees are regularly sprayed with weedkiller and visited by dogs, but in case you fancy a recipe, here is one from the rather wonderful Eatweeds website: Redshank and aubergine spring rolls. Bon Appetit!