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, there is a ‘wild’ burial site in the cemetery, close to where I feed the foxes. I love this as an idea – I can think of no nicer place to be interred,. One area has been roped off, and it’s full of ox-eye daisies, grasses, speedwell and the pink flowers of red campion. However, it’s not plain sailing all the way, and it’s clear that there’s more work to be done on some of the other parts of area. Here, for example, are some of the docks. Many of them are so enormous that they actually look down on me, like triffids who are just waiting to pull their roots up before they take over the world.
This is the problem for anyone who tries to set up a wildlife meadow. In ‘real life’, these would be mowed regularly, to gather in the hay and to prevent the perennials (like the docks and sow thistles and bindweed) from setting seed. If this is neglected, within a year or two what you have is not a meadow, but scrub, and all the biodiversity disappears. On the other hand, I did see this very splendid red dock weevil, but I think he will need lots of little friends to cope with the sheer volume of dock leaves.
Anyhow, back to the red campion. This is a native plant, and a member of the Caryophyllaceae, the same family that includes chickweeds, stitchworts and pinks. The petals are very deeply notched, and the flowers always look to me like gears from a child’s model engine.
The Latin species name ‘dioica’ indicates that, as with annual mercury, the male and female plants are separate. The male flowers have ten stamen (though some might be buried within the capsule of the plant at any given time), and the female plants have 5 style (which look like little white hooks). The seed capsule has ten strongly down-curved teeth on the edge. I am currently doing the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Identiplant course, for which I had to find ten plants and record how many were male and how many female. In my little sample, there were nine males and one female, which makes me wonder a little about whether there is something in the seed mixes used for ‘meadows’ which favours one sex over another, though I have no idea why this should be.
The genus name, Silene, comes from the Greek god Silenus, who was always drunk, and is often depicted swaying atop a long-suffering donkey. Now, the name Silenus is said to come from the Greek word for saliva, implying that Silenus was not only drunk, but drooling. What a delightful picture! However, the link with the Red Campion is that the female flower is said to produce a foam which helps to capture pollen from visiting insects. I have not seen a bloom doing this, but will keep an eye open and see if I can capture such behaviour on camera if I notice it.
Just to complicate matters, red campion contains a substance called saponin, which has been used in soap-making – indeed another member of the family, Soapwort, has historically been used for just this purpose. Maybe this is another reason for the ‘Silene’ Latin genus name.
Red campion has a variety of alternative names, but one that I like is ‘Bachelor’s Buttons’, referring to the way that the plant was worn as a buttonhole by eligible males. However, it was also said to be one of the flowers that children should not pick, as it was associated with the death of parents – on the Plant Lore website, one person reports that the plant was known to them as ‘mother-and-father-die’. On the Isle of Man, red campion is said to be beloved by the fairies, and so it shouldn’t be picked by humans. The plant is also said to be efficacious in the unlikely event (in the UK at any rate) of being threatened by a scorpion: all you have to do it grab a handy red campion and hurl it at the offending arachnid and he or she will scuttle away. Never let it be said that you don’t learn useful things in the Wednesday Weed.
Medicinally, the flowers of red campion have been taken in a glass of wine as a treatment for kidney and liver complaints and internal bleeding. The crushed seeds are also said to be efficacious against snakebite, but on the Plant Lore website mentioned above, one lady, from Wales, said that her grandmother was convinced that a snake would come into the house if she brought a posy of the flowers, so it appears that you can’t win.
You might expect that such a bright-faced spring flower would attract the attention of poets, and you would not be wrong. Mary Howitt (1799 – 1888) was the author of ‘The Spider and the Fly’ (parodied by Lewis Carroll in ‘Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland’ as ‘The Lobster Quadrille). She was a most prolific writer, creating over 180 books, and wrote many poems for children. Among them was ‘Summer Woods’ (you can read the whole poem here, and a fine evocation of the joys of the great outdoors it is too).
There are many things to love about Mary Howitt, who had a most full and adventurous life, including relocating to Scandinavia (where she learned Swedish and Danish and proceeded to translate Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales), being friends with the Wordsworths and Charles Dickens, and meeting the Pope. She was never separated from her husband William, and The Times had this to say about them:
‘Their friends used jokingly to call them William and Mary, and to maintain that they had been crowned together like their royal prototypes. Nothing that either of them wrote will live, but they were so industrious, so disinterested, so amiable, so devoted to the work of spreading good and innocent literature, that their names ought not to disappear unmourned.’
When I read about the lives of Victorians, I am amazed by the fullness of their lives, and the variety of things that they got up to. However, it would be a mistake to think of them as exceptional. Every person, if listened to in a sympathetic way and asked the right questions, seems to have had an extraordinary life. We rarely think of our lives as in any way unusual, but if we stop to consider the experiences that we’ve had, the people that we’ve met and loved and influenced, the place that we have in our community and in our family, we might be surprised at the richness and complexity of our existence, the extent of our interconnectedness. In a world that seems to view other living things, including human beings, as expendable, it’s worth remembering how precious every single one of us is. Every single one of us.