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, today I took a walk to Muswell Hill Playing Fields, which are on the edge of Coldfall Wood. Earlier this year, there were several areas which turned into quagmire, the claggy mud coming up to the top of the dog-walkers’ wellington boots. As a result, the council sent in some heavy machinery to dig out the worst areas and replace the soil. Well, I have no idea exactly what they replaced it with, but both areas are now three feet deep in a very impressive selection of ‘weeds’. At the head of the rush are great stands of Annual Mercury and Redshank and some Pale Persicaria, plus some Scented Mayweed , but there are also some very fine Spear-leaved Orache (Atriplex prostrata).
This is an annual, native plant, a member of the Amaranthaceae family which includes Goosefoots, Oraches and many seaside plants. Spear-leaved Oraches are often found on the strand-line on beaches and on seawalls – like many other members of their family, they have a very high tolerance for salt. But they are also found on disturbed soil, and you don’t get much more disturbed than completely replaced.
To distinguish Spear-leaved Orache from the many other members of the family (which includes the edible plants Good King Henry and Fat Hen), have a look at the leaves in the photo above. If the ‘spear’ shape is has a completely flat bottom edge, so that it looks rather like a triangle, you are most likely looking at a Spear-leaved Orache. Apparently the whole plant can turn red in autumn, so I will make sure to check.
The meaning of the word ‘Orache’ comes from the same root as the plant’s Latin family name, Atriplex, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary the meaning of both words is unknown. However, in A Modern Herbal, the word is said to be a corruption of Aurum, which means gold, and in this context referred to the use of the seeds, boiled with wine, to cure yellow jaundice. The plant is also said to be a cure for gout.
Let’s return to this question of salt for a moment. Whilst some members of the Orache/Goosefoot family are merely salt-tolerant, others are halophyles, which means that they positively enjoy salty environments. Amongst them are the Glassworts, better known to us as Samphires.These are specialised plants, with thick, spongy leaves which retain water against the harsh winds and exposed conditions of coastal areas. And the leaves also absorb salt. I remember being on a field trip to the Thames estuary back when I was a youngster, and biting into the toothsome green stems of some samphire that we found. This was long before it had become a fashionable accompaniment to fish in West End restaurants, and I was amazed, town child that I was, that something so delicious could just be picked from the side of a path. Of course, as one of my readers pointed out a while back, ‘weeds’ are not only often good food in their own right, they are also the ancestors of so many of the plants that we eat these days – without wild carrot, and wild turnip, without wild strawberries and raspberries, we would not have the familiar fruit and vegetables in our greengrocers and supermarkets.
What is interesting to me is that even Spear-leaved Orache, which is not as well-adapted to coastal conditions as other members of the family, will change its habit if it finds itself beside the seaside. Here in North London, it grows erect, but on the seashore it will collapse and grow outwards instead of up, a much better adaptation to windy places. Plus, its leaves can become much fleshier, to help it to retain water. It is astonishing to me how variable some plants can be, and how over a few generations they can change themselves to be successful, taking advantage of whatever is happening. Anyone who doubts the reality of evolution should probably experiment by harvesting some Spear-leaved Orache seeds from a single plant, and planting some in their garden and some at the seaside, It would be interesting to see how long it would take them to start to differentiate.