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 have long grown purple loosestrife in my pond – its cerise flowers provide a welcome jolt of colour at the end of the summer, plus the bees love it. But this week, I spotted some in the newly-landscaped boating pond on Hampstead Heath, and so I decided that this interesting plant needed its ‘moment in the sun’.
It is a native plant, and as such has developed a whole range of relationships with other members of the ecosystem. In the UK, the leaves are eaten by the larvae of the golden and black-margined loosestrife beetles (Galerucella calmariensis and Galerucella pusilla).
The roots are munched upon by the loosestrife root weevil (Hylobius transversovittatus), who is eating a leaf in the photo, just to prove its adaptability.
And as if this was not enough, the flowers are eaten by the larvae of the loosestrife flower weevil (Nanophyes marmoratus) a most delightful little furry chap. I must admit to having a great fondness for weevils, with their ‘trunks’ and the way that their antennae stick out from the sides of their ‘noses’. And this is even allowing for the tremendous damage that vine weevils have occasionally done to my container plants.What I think all this proves is that no plant is an island – the relationships between a flower and the creatures that feed on it can be extraordinarily complex. Indeed, all the insects mentioned above have been used as biological controls in places such as Canada and the USA, where the plant has reached pest proportions, squeezing out all manner of native plants. The advantage of the insects mentioned above is that they are so specialised that they prefer purple loosestrife even to other plants in the same family, so (in theory) there is no danger that they’ll go rogue.
In the UK, purple loosestrife is largely kept under control by its insect companions, and so it forms part of a tapestry of plants (except where it is outcompeted by newcomers like Himalayan Balsam, but that’s another story).
Let’s take a brief moment to admire its beauty. Plants of the Lythrum family include the pomegranate and the crape myrtle. What distinguishes all these plants is that the petals often appear crumpled, as if someone had scrunched them up.
In the autumn, the leaves turn bright red, adding a last blaze of colour.
‘Loosestrife’ is a literal translation of the Greek name for the plant. It has long been believed to have a calming effect: in classical times, it was believed that ‘if placed on the yoke of inharmonious oxen, it will restrain their quarrelling’ (thanks to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica for this titbit). The name of the family, Lythrum, means ‘blood’, and ‘salicaria’ means ‘willow-like’, referring to the leaves. Individual plants have a very elegant, attenuated appearance.
In the area around the Caspian Sea, the roots of purple loosestrife were used to tan leather, and it can also dye the hair blonde. The flowers produce a red dye with which to colour confectionary, and the leafy shoots have been eaten as a vegetable. For those with an abundance of the plant, here is a recipe for Creamy Braised Purple Loosestrife and Mushroom Risotto. I note that it requires 2 litres of rabbit, quail or chicken stock, but I’m sure vegetable stock would do the trick.
Purple loosestrife also has a long and distinguished history as a medicinal plant, particularly in the treatment of diarrhoea and dysentery, and as an eye-wash. It is also said to be just the thing should you have a bout of the quinsy. I am fascinated by some of these older diseases: whilst my grandmother would probably have known what quinsy was, I had no idea, so off I went to do some research, and it turns out that when he was a child, my younger brother had a bout of this disease. Quinsy is a particularly nasty complication of tonsillitis, when an abscess forms between a tonsil and the back of the throat. If the abscess grows large enough, it can even affect breathing. I suspect that these days these things are picked up more quickly, but I can imagine how, in the days before antibiotics, something like this could fatal. As purple loosestrife seems to have a mild anti-bacterial effect, it might be that gargling with it was efficacious.
Purple loosestrife features in John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia floating downriver towards her watery end. If you look at the right-hand side of the picture, you can clearly see a fine stand of purple loosestrife.
The justification for their inclusion is that ‘long-purples’ are mentioned in Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet:
Now, some botanists have suggested that the ‘long purples’ are not purple loosestrife at all, but early-flowering orchids, which also like damp, boggy places, and which like all orchids have tubers that resemble testicles. This would explain the ‘grosser name’ apparently given by those ‘liberal shepherds’. How interesting that the word ‘liberal’ in Shakespeare’s time meant ‘licentious, promiscuous and coarse’ (thank you to the Shakespeare’s Words website), in addition to its current meanings. Words slip and slide from one definition to another over time in a most interesting way. As usual, I digress.
As to which plant Shakespeare was actually referring to, I doubt that we will ever know for sure.
Incidentally, Millais’ painting originally included a water vole paddling along beside Ophelia, a delightful addition even if it did rather distract from the tragic nature of the scene. Even without the water vole, it received a most mixed reception when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852, with one critic saying that it reminded them of ‘a dairymaid in a frolic’. Ruskin went even further, objecting to the Surrey location, and saying:
‘Why the mischief should you not paint pure nature, and not that rascally wirefenced garden-rolled-nursery-maid’s paradise?’
Ah well. Suffice it to say that these days the Pre-Raphaelites are back in fashion, and the painting, exhibited at Tate Britain, is worth at least £30m.The model, Elizabeth Siddons, caught a shocking cold through being immersed in a bath for several days. The water was originally heated with oil lamps, but Millais was so engrossed in his painting that he didn’t notice, and presumably poor Lizzie was too in awe to mention that she was getting hypothermia (she was only 19). Her father attempted to sue Millais for £50 for medical expenses, but eventually settled for ‘a lower sum’.
And, as you know, I like to end my piece with some poetry, and here is a most interesting piece by the travel writer Robert Byron . I would add that I would wish this for all children, not just sons. I would also add that I disagree with some of it, as you’ll see from my comments at the end. As an added ‘bonus’ (depending on your Royalist or Republican tendencies) you can hear the Prince of Wales read it here.
All These I Learnt
by Robert Byron
If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit. He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs’ mercury, wood-sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot. He shall see the marshes gold with flags and kingcups and find shepherd’s purse on a slag-heap. He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels, blood-pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut and tattered oak-plumes. He shall know orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves. He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions. He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat’s beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady’s bedstraw and lady’s slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills – dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven. In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample veitches, and savour the virgin turf. He shall know grasses, timothy and wag-wanton, and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog. By the river he shall know pink willow-herb and purple spikes of loosestrife, and the sweetshop smell of water-mint where the rat dives silently from its hole. He shall know the velvet leaves and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein, recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore-hound, yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel. In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws and bryony. At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.
He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange-tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows. He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides. He shall see that family of capitalists, peacock, painted lady, red admiral and the tortoiseshells, uncurl their trunks to suck blood from bruised plums, while the purple emperor and white admiral glut themselves on the bowels of a rabbit. He shall know the jagged comma, printed with a white c, the manx-tailed iridescent hair-streaks, and the skippers demure as charwomen on Monday morning. He shall run to the glint of silver on a chalk-hill blue – glint of a breeze on water beneath an open sky – and shall follow the brown explorers, meadow brown, brown argus, speckled wood and ringlet. He shall see death and revolution in the burnet moth, black and red, crawling from a house of yellow talc tied half-way up a tall grass. He shall know more rational moths, who like the night, the gaudy tigers, cream-spot and scarlet, and the red and yellow underwings. He shall hear the humming-bird hawk moth arrive like an air-raid on the garden at dusk, and know the other hawks, pink sleek-bodied elephant, poplar, lime, and death’s head. He shall count the pinions of the plume moths, and find the large emerald waiting in the rain-dewed grass.
All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost. They were my own discoveries. They taught me to look at the world with my own eyes and with attention. They gave me a first content with the universe. Town-dwellers lack this intimate content, but my son shall have it!
To finish, much as I like the piece above, I would add that ‘demure’ is not a word that I associate with charwomen on any day of the week, nor indeed with women, full-stop. I should add that I once had a blind date with a chap with no visible social graces or interesting conversation and who had forgotten to bring his wallet when the time came to pay the bill. As we were leaving, he gave me a quizzical look and said ‘I don’t think we should meet again. I thought you’d be more demure’.
If I’d been any less demure he’d have been flat on his back on the pavement, seeing stars, but the best I could manage was ‘Suits me fine’.
Oh, and incidentally, I don’t agree that town-dweller lacks ‘intimate content’ either. I think it’s all in the attention, and the patience, and the willingness to learn, wherever you live.
Photo One (Beetle larva) – By Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Archive, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Bugwood.org – http://www.forestryimages.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=0022078 http://www.forestryimages.org/images/768×512/0022078.jpg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14325447
Photo Two (Weevil) – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=263339
Photo Three (Flower weevil) – By Siga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four (Cooper Marsh) – By Saffron Blaze – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15287781
Photo Five (autumn) CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2317448