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, green-flowered plants are so unusual that when I find one, I have to stop to admire it. This plant has popped up in my garden after a long absence, and so I wanted to give it its moment in the spotlight. Lady’s Mantle is such a charmer, with its clouds of tiny flowers and crinkled leaves that grow out from the stem like little fans. In fact, it’s the leaves that give it the link to ‘Our Lady’, as they are thought to resemble her cloak. After a shower the leaves (which are highly water-resistant) hold the drops of water like little jewels, but the plant will also produce the liquid itself in times of high humidity, as explained by Rosamund Richardson in her lovely new book ‘Britain’s Wild Flowers’:
‘The early morning ‘dew’ is there even on dry days, and isn’t dew at all but moisture porduced by the plant itself, exuded by a process called guttation (in conditions of high humidity when water cannot be lost from the leaves as vapour, water is forced out through the breathing pores or stomata in the leaves’.
In cases such as this, the water appears along the edge of the leaves, as in photo one below, and I can add the word ‘guttation’ to my rapidly-expanding list of botanical terms.
Whether the water is made by the plant or arrives via the clouds, the liquid was thought to have magical properties: alchemists used it in their experiments to change base metal into gold (hence Alchemilla) and it was also thought to be an aphrodisiac.
The water can also be used by thirsty butterflies and other invertebrates.
Richardson reports that in France the plant is known as herbe a la vache, because the magic water from the plant is one of the ingredients of a medicine given to sick cows by the elf doctor. It appears therefore that France has a National Elf Service for farm animals.
Unlikely as it seems, lady’s mantle is part of the rose family. This particular species (known as soft lady’s mantle) was introduced to British gardens from the Carpathians in 1874, and was first recorded in the wild in 1948. We have a native Alchemilla, called Alpine Lady’s Mantle, which is restricted to the north of Scotland, and a further 12 native species. Like brambles and dandelions, lady’s mantle is apomictic, which means that it sets seed without fertilisation, and therefore all the plants in a particular area are clones. It is an amazement to me that botanists ever get to the bottom of such things – brambles have an estimated 334 microspecies.
The plant has a long history as an ingredient of lotions for skin complaints, especially for women whose complexions had been ravaged by smallpox or acne. It is also said to be good for wrinkles, so I am looking at the patch in my garden with some interest. It was also used to stem bleeding and for various gynecological preparations, to aid childbirth and to protect from miscarriage. It has hence long been seen as a female plant, and one of its alternative names is ‘woman’s best friend’. Culpeper suggests that it can be used in a cream to reduce the size of ones breasts, and it is also recommended by other herbalists for ‘swollen’ breasts, so I shall leave these suggestions right here for the well-endowed in that department.
The leaves can be eaten in salads when young, and can also provide a green dye for wool. it is a favourite of flower arrangers and, because of its long flowering period and unusual green flowers, Sarah Raven suggests combining it with a daisy like Erigeron (Mexican fleabane) for a very decorative informal border.
The leaves are the foodplant of the caterpillar of the Red Carpet moth (Xanthorhoe decoloraria).
As you know, I like to end my Wednesday Weed with a poem, so here is one by James Inglis Cochrane from his book ‘Sonnets and Miscellaneous Poems’ written in 1853. In it, he decries the loss of knowledge of the properties of plants, and mourns the passing of earlier, quieter, more contemplative times. The notion of a ‘too busy, mammon-loving age’ hits the nail firmly on the head too. He went on to knock up a translation of Homer’s Iliad into English hexameters, and is buried in a cemetery in Edinburgh, where I hope that he found the peace that he seems to crave in his poem.
Our Lady’s Mantle !
When I musing stray In leafy June along the mossy sward,
No flower that blooms more fixes my regard
Than thy green leaf, though simple its array;
For thou to me art as some minstrel’s lay,
Depicting manners of the olden time,
When on Inch Cailliach’s isle the convent chime
Summoned to Vespers at the close of day.
Tis pleasant ‘mid the never-ending strife
Of this too busy, mammon-loving age,
When Nature’s gentler charms so few engage,
To muse at leisure on the quiet life
Of earlier days, when every humble flower
Was known to all, and cherished as a dower.
Britain’s Wildflowers by Rosamund Richardson is a really lovely book, packed with folklore and all manner of interesting information about the plants that surround us.
Photo One (guttation) – By Alek RK https://www.flickr.com/photos/alex-rk/32314184
Photo Two (dewdrops) – By Mom the Barbarian – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1167587
Photo Three (Red Carpet) – By Tocekas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4009546