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, I am often surprised by what ‘pops up’ in the gardens of East Finchley. White comfrey is not a rare plant, but this individual, leaning through the fence of my friend A’s garden, is the only one that I’ve come across in my half-mile ‘territory’, and it has no friends nearby. Where do these plants come from? Has it been lurking in the soil for ages, just waiting for its chance? Or did the seed (described rather rudely in my Harraps Guide to Wildflowers as being ‘dull, with minute warts’ ) blow in from some distance? Which ever is the case, there it stands, as lonely as a cloud.
I have talked about Common Comfrey and Creeping Comfrey in previous posts, and as you might have gathered, I have rather a ‘thing’ for the whole Boraginaceae, a group that includes everything from lungwort to forget-me-nots. Who could resist these plants, with their plentiful food for bees and their varied medicinal uses? Clive Stace describes white comfrey as being ‘surely the most beautiful of it’s genus’, and notes that it is well distributed due to its ‘persistent roots and fertile nutlets’. Who could resist a plant with fertile nutlets, I ask myself, it sounds like just the thing for a vegetarian brunch, maybe with some fried tomatoes and mushrooms.However, some of the sites that I have looked at that sell white comfrey refer to it ‘not spreading, but gently self-seeding’, which could be weasel words in my view: I suspect that once you have one white comfrey, you might find yourself with nutlets to spare.
And in case you wondered, each comfrey flower has four nutlets (seeds), which are heart-shaped and dark-brown in colour.
White comfrey (also known as ‘soft comfrey’) was introduced into cultivation in this country in 1752, and was found in the wild by 1849. It comes originally from north western Turkey, Russia and the Causcasus. White Comfrey can be told from common comfrey by its snowy white flowers (those of common comfrey are creamy-coloured). The flowers discolour rather quickly, unfortunately, as in the plant above.
Symphytum, the genus name for comfrey, and the name comfrey itself (from the Latin verb confevere), both mean ‘to grow together’, a reference to the plant’s long use in poultices for fractured and broken bones – an old country name for the plant is ‘knit-bone’. However, as far as I can ascertain, white comfrey is not one of the species best suited for medicinal work – for that, we need common comfrey. It’s a case of a rather ‘weedier’ plant having the edge when it comes to healing.As you know, I like to weave in some poetry when possible for my Wednesday Weeds, and this week it’s the turn of Walter de la Mare. I was brought up with some of his poetry for children, and although some of it now makes my teeth ache, I rather like this one, both for its pun on the word ‘weeds’ and for the contented present life of the widow. I would love to make a garden like this one.
A Widow’s Weeds
A poor old Widow in her weeds
Sowed her garden with wild-flower seeds;
Not too shallow, and not too deep,
And down came April — drip — drip — drip.
Up shone May, like gold, and soon
Green as an arbour grew leafy June.
And now all summer she sits and sews
Where willow herb, comfrey, bugloss blows,
Teasle and pansy, meadowsweet,
Campion, toadflax, and rough hawksbit;
Brown bee orchis, and Peals of Bells;
Clover, burnet, and thyme she smells;
Like Oberon’s meadows her garden is
Drowsy from dawn to dusk with bees.
Weeps she never, but sometimes sighs,
And peeps at her garden with bright brown eyes;
And all she has is all she needs–
A poor Old Widow in her weeds.
Well, not exactly a poor old widow, but a fine example of mourning dress nonetheless. And the phrase ‘widow’s weeds’ got me thinking. Is there any etymological relationship between the weeds of a widow, and the weeds that pop up here every Wednesday?
Well, sadly, no. ‘Weeds’ as in ‘Widow’s Weeds’ comes from the Old English word waed, meaning garment. It was first recorded in 888, but by 1297 it referred to the clothing of a particular kind of occupation or station in life: you could talk about a priest’s ‘weeds’ or a beggar’s ‘weeds’ for example. By 1595 it is used only for the dark mourning clothing of widows, and this is the only sense in English in which we still use the phrase.
‘Weed’ as in ‘plant’ comes from Old English ‘weod’, meaning herb or grass, and only later becoming pejorative.
I sometimes think we should restore the old habit of mourning clothing, because it provided some indication that the person wearing them might be feeling vulnerable, and I like to think that people would behave accordingly. I do remember, however, my mother remarking that when she was wearing black after her mother died back in the 1970’s, some idiot still told her to ‘smile’ when she walked past. I believe she ‘cleaned him’ as they say these days. Don’t get me started on blokes who believe they should have dominion over women’s faces as well as everything else.And talking of my mother reminds me that, when I was a child, she used to recite the poetry that she had learned by heart to me. She had many favourites, but since we were talking about Walter de la Mare earlier, I shall share with you a rather eerie poem, which still makes a little shiver run down my back.
“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
Photo Two (white comfrey plate) – By Denis.prévôt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three (Queen Victoria) – by Lisby (https://www.flickr.com/photos/60861613@N00/14504797801)