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, some plants seem much too exotic for a damp north London wood, and so finding tutsan growing amidst the pendulous sedge is always a real surprise. In spite of appearances, tutsan is a native plant, though the fact that lots of people grow it as a garden plant can cause much confusion. It is normally a plant of woods in the west of England but has certainly become established in Coldfall Wood, where it starts to flower a month or so after the Marsh Marigold has finished.
.The berries of tutsan start off like little apples, but over time they become black, and are much favoured by birds. There is some debate about whether the fruit is poisonous to humans, or simply inedible. The fuzzy flowers remind me of a close relative, the Rose of Sharon (Hypericum calycinum) which has a positive firework display of stamens, and which is another popular garden plant.
The name ‘Tutsan’ is thought to come from the French phrase toute saine, which literally means ‘all-healthy’. This is thought to be a reference to its healing powers: Culpeper considered it good for sciatica and gout, and to aid the healing of burns, with the leaves being used for all of these purposes. He also thought it good for the healing of wounds:the plant
“stays all the bleedings of wounds, if either the green herb be bruised, or the powder of the dry be applied thereto”.
The Portuguese also used it as a diuretic, and as a treatment for jaundice.
The antiseptic properties of the leaves were also used as a cheese preservative: according to the author of ‘The Domestic Encyclopedia’ (1802), A.F.M. Willich, tutsan leaves
‘have from experience been found to possess considerable antiseptic properties. They ought, however, to be employed only when moderately dry, in which state they should be placed upon, or at the sides of the cheese, in an airy situation.”
Other names include Sweet Amber (for the pretty yellow flowers) and, in Wales, Dail y Beiblau, or Bible Leaves, as the sweet-smelling leaves were used as bookmarks in the Bible that every household would have.
Richard Mabey describes the dried leaves as having ‘an evocative, fugitive scent, reminiscent of cigar boxes and candied fruit’ (Flora Britannica), and says that they were being used as Bible markers in parts of Somerset up to the Second World War.
As it is so well-behaved in its native range, I was surprised to find that, in Australia and New Zealand, Tutsan is considered a noxious weed. I suppose that, as is so often the case, a plant that has lots of creatures to munch upon it at home will go a bit berserk when it isn’t to the taste of woodland marsupials and forest birds. In New Zealand a moth and a small beetle have been approved as agents of biological control: the caterpillars of the moth, a British native ( Lathronympha strigana), feeds on the leaves of all Hypericum species, so hopefully there aren’t any in New Zealand that the country wants to preserve.
The beetle is a member of the Chrysolina genus, which also includes the lovely but voracious rosemary beetle, though from the pictures on the website, the species chosen is a rather rotund little black chap, whose larvae make short work of the berries. To see why such controls might be needed, have a look at the photos from the New Zealand Environmental Protection Agency here. The damper climate of New Zealand seems to have enabled tutsan to move out of the forests and onto the hillsides, where it has morphed into a triffid.I was able to find several mentions of tutsan as a healing plant in literature. The Tudor poet Michael Drayton (1563 – 1631) includes the plant amongst a positively stellar cast of medicinal plants in his celebration of the British Isles, The Poly-Olbion. No, I’d never heard of it either, but Samuel Johnson liked it enough to include it in a collection of early poets. Here, our hero is gathering herbs to cure a migraine (megrim):
And in some open place that to the sun doth lie,
He fumitory gets, and eye-bright for the eye;
The yarrow, wherewithal he stops the wound-made gore;
The healing tutsan then, and plantane for a sore
And hard by them again he holy vervaine finds
Which he about his head that has the megrim binds.
In some ways, tutsan seems to me to be a plant that we’ve forgotten about. We’ve heard of yarrow and eye-bright, plantain and vervaine (verbena) but I bet that not in one in a hundred could identify wild tutsan (including me before I started this blog). And yet, another of its names is ‘balm of the wounded warrior’, and there is a legend that the berries sprang from the blood of dead Vikings. Maybe it’s time that we paid it a bit more attention.
Photo One (Rose of Sharon) – By JJ Harrison (firstname.lastname@example.org) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5523268
Photo Two (Flowers and Berries) – By Nova – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2576968
Photo Three (Flowers, berries, raindrops) – By Eric Hunt (https://www.flickr.com/photos/39312862@N00/38762639/)
Photo Four (Moth) – By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20886829
Photo Five (Berries) – ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons