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, what a sweet and delicate plant this is. I usually see it in the hedgerows of the West Country, when I go to visit my parents or my aunt Hilary, but it puts in an occasional appearance in the woodier areas of St Pancras and Islington cemetery as well. I love the way that the petals seem to be paired like bunny ears (very appropriate for just after Easter), and the flamboyant yellow stamen. Who would have thought that this plant is closely related to the much more modest chickweed? The Carophyllaceae family also contains red campion and a variety of other sea spurreys, mouse-ears and sandworts. Each flower is a miracle of construction, and the smaller blooms are well worth a look with a magnifying glass or hand lens.
For such a demure looking plant, greater stitchwort has a number of peculiarities. Its species name, holostea, means ‘entire bone’, and refers to its brittle stems, which have given it vernacular names such as snapcrackers and snapdragons. Even more impressively, it apparently fires off its seeds with an audible pop, leading to names such as ‘pop-gun’. The elegant blooms, perfect for popping into a lapel, gave it the name ‘poor man’s buttonhole’.
There are a variety of explanations for the name stitchwort. One is that the plant was used as a herbal remedy for the kind of stitch that you get when you run rather too vigorously for the bus. The herbalist Gerard mentions that it was drunk with wine along with ‘powder of acorns’ for just this kind of ailment. However, in some parts of the country the flower has yet another name, ‘addersmeat’, and it has been pointed out that ‘stich’ is German for sting – the plant was thought to be efficacious against the bite of venomous reptiles.
Whatever you are gathering your stitchwort for, bear in mind that it is also a thunder flower, thought to bring on storms if picked. So you might want to consider how quickly you can run with your stitch.
By the way, the website gardenherbs.org has a charm which can be chanted in the event of being afflicted:
‘In the days of the old Saxon leechdoms it was customary against a stitch to make the sign of the cross, and to sing three times over the part:
“Longinus miles lance?inxit dominum:
Restet sanguis, et recedat dolor!”
“The spear of Longinus, the soldier, pierced our Savior’s side:
May the blood, therefore, quicken: and the pain no longer abide!“‘
So now you know what to do next time you’re doubled-up.
‘Mate! It’s like eating grass!’
So there. Maybe it’s better floated in a gin and tonic, or even left as a nectar plant for one of its biggest fans, the wood white butterfly (Leptidea sinapsis), a rare and dainty insect. Spotting a bed of greater stitchwort with some of these creatures flitting above it would be a treat indeed.And to round off, here’s an evocative poem by Michael Longley, one of my very favourite poets.
The Ice Cream Man
Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.
You can hear Michael Longley read his poem here
Photo One (Wood White butterfly) – By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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