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, wherever there is a shady patch of woodland in London, you are pretty much sure to find this plant advancing enthusiastically among the tree roots. It is often planted in ‘impossible’ garden sites, where the soil is too heavy, or the shade too dense, and before long it will be peeping under the fence and looking hopefully at the more enticing spaces in your neighbour’s patch. What a bold adventurer it is, unwilling to be contained, and so subtle when not in flower that you are unlikely to notice it until you have a substantial patch.
The flowers of the Greater Periwinkle are naturally a most delicious lilac-blue, with five petals and an upside-down pentagon in the middle. It has evergreen foliage, and the buds are twisted like screwed-up handkerchiefs before unfurling like ballerinas. The name ‘Vinca’ comes from the Latin vincire, meaning ‘to bind’, but although this plant is a vine it is a creeper and sprawler rather than a true strangler like bindweed. En masse, the flowers look very dynamic to me, like a mass of little revolving windmills.Greater Periwinkle was first recorded in the UK in 1597, and is originally from the Mediterranean. However, by 1650 it was seen in the wild, and has not looked back since. Needless to say, it is classified as a noxious weed in the USA, Australia and New Zealand.
Why the name periwinkle though? Periwinkle is a shade of lilac-blue, but I suspect this may have been named for the plant, rather than the other way around. Certainly, even in Chaucer’s time the plant was known as the Perwynke.
Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, suggests that because the Periwinkle was used for making funereal and celebratory wreathes, it might have given its name to the Periwig. The wreathes, which resembled the twining habit of the plant, may have reminded people of the complex ‘periwigs’ worn by fashionable folk in Charles II’s time, and by judges and barristers to this day. I leave it to you to imagine what the wreathes must have looked like if the splendid wig below is anything to go by.
On the Plantlives website, Sue Eland tells us that in Britain convicted criminals wore garlands of Greater Periwinkle on their way to the gallows, and in Wales it was said that if you dug up a plant which was growing on a grave, you should be prepared to be haunted by the occupant. It has the vernacular name of ‘Sorcerer’s Violet’, for its use as a love philtre, and also its use in exorcism. In Germany, it is known as the ‘flower of immortality’.
The Poison Garden website reports how, in the 16th Century book ‘the boke of secretes of Albertus Magnus of the vertues of Herbes, Stones and certaine beastes’, Greater Periwinkle can be used to produce love between a man and his wife. As the remedy involves powdering the plant, mixing it with leeks and earthworms and adding it to food, I suspect that couples counselling may be more pleasant, if not as efficacious.
Furthermore, Poison Garden reports that the plant is said by the Apuleius Platonicus to be the first plant to choose to:
‘…combat sickness brought on by the Devil, protect against snakes and other wild beasts as well as being an antidote to many poisons. If you carry it with you, you will be prosperous and well received by strangers.’
Greater Periwinkle has been used in herbal medicine as an astringent, and for afflictions that involve ‘unnatural’ bleeding, such as piles, nose bleeds and painful/heavy periods.
I was very happy to see this plant in flower in the garden outside the Whittington Hospital where my mother was staying a few weeks ago. It seems to combine both diffidence and vigour, an unusual combination, and it reminded me of the persistence and resilience of living things, even in the unlikely surroundings of a north London hospital, right on a main road, on a blustery January day.
Update on Mum
For those readers who have been following the saga of my Mum’s stay in hospital, I’m pleased to report that she’s home in Dorset and getting better every day! We have carers coming in three times a day at the moment, but I suspect if I don’t watch it Mum will soon be making tea for them instead of the other way round. Thanks to all of you for your support through the past few weeks, it meant a lot to me and to Mum to know that so many folk were rooting for her.
Photo One – “Vinca major NS” by JJ Harrison (firstname.lastname@example.org) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg#/media/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg
Photo Two – Forest & Kim Starr [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three – “Vinca major NS” by JJ Harrison (email@example.com) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg#/media/File:Vinca_major_NS.jpg