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, if there is one lesson in life that I should have learned by now, it’s ‘don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today’. When I was in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset last week, I spotted this delightful patch of scarlet pimpernel, every flower open in the sunshine. But, alas, I had milk and rich tea biscuits to buy, and a copy of Woman’s Weekly to pick up, so I hurried past instead of stopping to take a photograph.
For the next three days, the flowers were closed up tight, what with the fog, and the cold, and the afternoon shadows. And so I’m afraid my photos show them in their ‘coy mode’. However, here is what they look like when they’re in full sun. The plant has alternative names like ‘poor man’s weather glass’ and ‘shepherd’s clock’; the flowers are said to open at 8 a.m. and close at about 2 p.m. unless there’s cloudy or damp weather, in which case they may not bother to put in an appearance at all. I don’t blame them. Now that the clocks have gone back and it’s dark before 5 I often feel like huddling under the duvet with a hot chocolate and a good book.This plant is a member of the primrose family (Primulaceae) but as far as I know it’s the only red species. Scarlet seems to be pushing it a bit though – it’s more of an orangey-red. But I am very fond of it – it’s small and unobtrusive, but repays close attention. It’s a plant of arable farmland and seaside environments, such as dunes and cliffs. It is native to the UK and to the whole of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, but has ended up being transported to almost everywhere else in the world, probably with grain crops.
In the Mediterranean area (and, I’ve learned, in some parts of the UK) there is a rather lovely blue form, which gives rise to yet another alternative name, ‘blue-scarlet pimpernel’.
Despite its demure appearance, however, scarlet pimpernel has a fearsome reputation. It is said that it causes gastroenteritis in dogs and horses, rabbits and poultry, and the seed is said to be poisonous to birds. Fortunately, it also apparently has a very acrid and unpleasant taste, and so most animals avoid it. The plant can also be used as an insecticide (which is probably why it developed the toxins in the first place). However, scarlet pimpernel has also been used medicinally, and in Germany it’s known as Gauchheil (‘Fool heal’) and used to be made into a treatment for those who were melancholy or otherwise mentally indisposed.The genus name, Anagallis, comes from the Greek ‘to laugh’, and was said to indicate the mood of someone when their depression was lifted.
Of course, many people unfamiliar with this small red flower will be well aware of the novels of Baroness Orczy, who wrote the first of many books featuring The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1905. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a chivalrous gentleman who, with his band of loyal followers (‘ one to command and nineteen to obey’) worked to rescue French aristocrats who were destined for the guillotine. As you might expect from the name, the Scarlet Pimpernel left a flower at the scene of his rescues, and also used the symbol in his correspondence. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Pimpernel himself, you might be familiar with some of the parodies that his derring-do inspired, such as the Bugs Bunny episode featuring The Scarlet Pumpernickel, or the programme ‘Nob and Nobility’ in the third series of Blackadder that featured the eponymous hero’s disgust with the adulation accorded to the ‘bloody Pimpernel’.
This action-packed series of novels was the inspiration for many films and television series and radio plays, with probably the most famous cinematic version being the 1934 film starring Leslie Howard and and Merle Oberon.
A poem from the novel has passed surreptitiously into common usage:
‘We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.’
You might recognise the first line from The Kinks 1966 song ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’.
Anyhow, enough excitement! Let’s get back to the plant.
It was believed that holding scarlet pimpernel in the hand would confer the gift of second sight, and also that the plant could give protection from enchantment and spells. I imagine that much of what we now see as mental illness might have been seen as the effect of witchcraft or demonic possession in earlier times, and so the plant’s use has remained consistent – if you are not ‘in your right mind’ for whatever reason, scarlet pimpernel seems to have been the go-to remedy.
It was used to make ‘pimpernel water’, which was considered to be a remedy for freckles (though as they are rather delightful I hardly think they need a ‘remedy’), and also for rough and discoloured skin.
In spite of their allegedly acrid flavour and rich collection of toxins, the leaves have been used in salads, especially in Germany and France. They certainly look very toothsome, but I would be a bit careful if I was you.
This blog often leads me to some very interesting places. In the search for art associated with The Scarlet Pimpernel, I discovered the wonderful illustrator Luisa Rivera, who is originally from Chile but is now based in London. She has recently illustrated a Spanish language edition of the novel by Baroness Orczy, and the cover illustration is below. For more of her dreamy, folkloric illustrations, have a look here. I particularly like the lady with the owl, but they are all haunting and original.
And finally, as you might expect, my search for a scarlet pimpernel poem has been somewhat hindered by about five hundred separate references to ‘They seek him here, they seek him there’ etc etc etc ad nauseum. But then, peeping through the rough grassland of the Google ads comes this tiny gem, by the Irish poet Paula Meehan. It’s called ‘Death of a Field’ and I think it’s both deeply poignant and beautifully observed. We need more homes, but let’s not forget what’s lost. To read it, click here. I will be looking out for Paula Meehan in future.
Photo One (Scarlet Pimpernel flowers) by Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two (blue scarlet pimpernel ) by Zachi Evenor, cropped by User:MathKnight – File:Anagallis-arvensis-Horashim2014-Zachi-Evenor.jpg, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39109428
Photo Three (Nob and Nobility) by By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28399167
Photo Four (Film 1934) by https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9780067
Photo Five (Cover illustration from The Scarlet Pimpernel) from http://www.luisarivera.cl/la-pimpinela-escarlata/