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, on this longest night of the year, here is some brightness. There are two yellow-flowered plants that I associate with winter. The first is mahonia, which is in full-bloom in several places in East Finchley at the moment, and which in a recent study was shown to provide early-emerging/over-wintering bumblebees with 69% of their nectar. The second is a plant much favoured here in the County Roads, the winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum).
Winter jasmine is originally from China and Tibet, where it was ‘discovered’ by the Scottish plant hunter,Robert Fortune, in 1843. Fortune worked for the Royal Horticultural Society and is best known for smuggling tea plants out of the country (which was forbidden by the Chinese government) and installing them in Darjeeling in India. He also recorded the details of the silk industry, and brought many species of plants, including azaleas, roses and chrysanthemums, to the West. Fortune often disguised himself as a Chinese merchant during these escapades, but exactly what he looked like sadly isn’t recorded. Any plant with a species name of ‘fortuneai’ is one that Mr Fortune ‘liberated’ from his host country.Once in the UK, winter jasmine remained on China time, flowering from November to March. It is naturalised in France and in some places in the US, and I would not be in the least surprised if it had ‘nipped over the wall’ here in the UK too. The bright yellow flowers appear on the bare stems, giving the plant its species name of nudiflorum (literally, ‘naked flower’).
Unlike many jasmines, winter-flowering jasmine has no scent. This is either a blessing or a disappointment, depending on your view: I find the scent of jasmine in a confined space rather cloying and unpleasant, like being trapped in a cellar with a marzipan giant. The plant can be turned into a hedge or used as a climber: one of my neighbours has encouraged it to do both, as it scrambles up the wall and turns into a hedge once it hits the ground.
In the language of flowers, winter jasmine is said to be a symbol of elegance and grace, It is also the flower of Epiphany, and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the Christian calendar. Because it flowers at a time when not many other plants in bloom, it does catch the eye in a way that it probably wouldn’t in the height of summer, when so many other flowers are competing for attention. I have noticed how much more attention I pay to flowering plants when the days get shorter and any glimpse of life is welcome. Winter jasmine flowers are liked potted sunshine.
In northern India, the bark of winter jasmine has been used as a burn treatment. It is also said to be a diaphoretic, which I have discovered means ‘to cause perspiration’. As someone who has endured five years of hot flushes and night sweats it’s safe to say that I won’t be needing the medicinal benefits of winter jasmine any time soon.
As you know, I like to broaden my ‘Wednesday Weeds’ into any artistic context that the plant might have had, and so I came across this image.
This is an illustration from a series of children’s books called the ‘Dumpy Books’ which were published between 1898 and 1904. Nellie Benson did the illustrations for ‘A Flower Book’ by Eden Coybee, and there are many, many pictures in the style above, including one of a child grasping a (most unlikely) yellow carnation. Depending on your tastes, you might find them charming or slightly disturbing. What is a tiny, underdressed child doing standing under a winter jasmine in December anyhow? There is a touch of late-Victorian coyness about her expression that also worries me. But like all things, we need to take into account the tastes of the time – one has only to read Dickens to know that small, pouting girls with golden curls were all the rage.
Slightly more to my taste is Cicely Mary Barker’s Winter Jasmine Flower Fairy. Note that I said ‘slightly’. I’m more of a Caravaggio and Carpaccio fan myself, as you know. But at least the child here is adequately dressed for the season, and there is a rather fine blue tit. And the infant looks like as if he’s heralding the turn of the year, the moment when the nights start to get shorter. Winter is not yet over: in fact in the Northern Hemisphere the coldest times are yet to occur. But the world is turning its face toward spring, even now.