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 hope you will indulge me this week as I write about a plant that is a favourite here in East Finchley, especially in the municipal flower beds outside Budgens and Amy’s Hardware Store. It has all the characteristic survival attributes required for this harsh environment: a resistance to pollution, to insect pests, to drought, to wind, and to being peppered with upended cardboard coffee cups and cigarette butts. Through all this, it flowers majestically, and in a variety of colours too.
There are only ten species of Bergenia in all the world, and they live in a great swathe of land that takes in Afghanistan, the Himalayas and China. I have noticed before that many ‘weeds’ come from the scree slopes and high altitudes of this region (such as buddleia, for example). Drought enhances the leaf colour of Bergenia, and you can often see delightful hues of scarlet and crimson in those big, fleshy, moisture-retaining leaves (which give the plant its vernacular name). It is also known as pigsqueak, because of the noise produced when the leaves rub together, and heart’s leaf bergenia because some romantics think the leaves are heart-y rather than elephant-y. Incidentally, the leaves are also said to be disliked by slugs and snails, which makes them a shoo-in for my garden when I get my act together.
Elephant’s ear is part of the Saxifrage family, a huge conglomeration that includes plants as diverse as astilbes, heuchera, rodgersia (a great waterside plant) and (not surprisingly) saxifrages. Although the stems resemble those of rhubarb, bergenia is not closely related to the variety that we eat, which is a member of the buckwheat family. The leaves have been used as a tea substitute owing to a high proportion of tannin.
Members of the Bergenia genus are known as Kodiya or Pashanbeda in Ayurvedic medicine, and are used particularly for the treatment of kidney diseases. They contain a chemical called Bergenin, and there is some evidence that this can inhibit crystal formation, which may assist with the breaking-up of kidney stones. Bergenin is also said to be useful for bolstering the immune system.
Bergenia was named for the German botanist and doctor Karl August van Bergen back in 1794. He published an enormous book about German flora, but his chief claim to fame seems to have been an essay about the rhinoceros. The title of the work is ‘Oratio de rhinocerote, quam habuit cum tertium deponeret rectoratum‘. I have run this through Google translate, and the closest that it can up with is Rhinocerote address from which it had deposited with a third rectoratum. I am so nervous about what this might possibly mean that I think I will leave it here, though if any classical scholars could assist with what this means I would be most grateful.
Something that I had not thought about was how tactile the leaves of Bergenia are, but my research this week took me to a book called ‘Garden for the Blind‘ by Kelly Fordon, which is a collection of short stories, and gets splendid reviews. In it, the author writes about how one of the characters has been left in the Touch Plants area, which contains:
‘…silky lamb’s ears, sharp agave, cinnamon fern, curly mint, heartleaf bergenia, horehound and tunic flower’.
What a delicious ensemble of plants, varying from the wooliness of the lamb’s ears to the delicious smoothness of the bergenia, and the scent on the fingers of mint and cinnamon fern. There are so many ways to appreciate a species that do not involve the eyes, from the rattling of bamboo canes to the scent of honeysuckle and the taste of lemon balm, but touch is the one that I most often forget.
I remember that when my Nan had pneumonia and was at death’s door, my mother brought her some tulips. My Nan roused enough to reach out and brought the tulips to her lips, for their smoothness and delicious coolness. Children and the very old know that they have a body and (at least) five senses, and often experience the world in a vivid way, unfiltered by the busyness and preconceptions of the rest of us. How good it would be to stop and caress a bergenia leaf, or to really smell the lilac once in a while.
Photo One (bergenia leaf colour) – from Rosehill Gardens https://www.flickr.com/photos/rhgardens/5084544465
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