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, it has been snowing a blizzard here in East Finchley today (and for more on this, and some unexpected visitors, have a look at the blog on Saturday). So, I am looking through my photos for a Wednesday Weed, and realise that this evergreen New Zealand native has not yet been featured. There is a magnificent bush in the front garden of one of the houses at the end of my road, and I would estimate that it’s in flower for ten months of the year. It is a boon to early-rising bumblebee queens, hoverflies and honeybees, and even on a warm November day there will be insects buzzing about.
In Greek mythology, Hebe was the goddess of youth, and Canova made a rather fine marble statue of her, which is currently in the Hermitage Museum. Hebe dispensed the ambrosia of eternal youth to the gods, hence the jug and cup, and I wonder if the nectar-rich flowers of the plant inspired the name. Why the woman in the statue is carrying a jug up by her ear, and why she seems to have forgotten her blouse I will leave for you to judge. Hebe was the daughter of Zeus and Hera, and in some legends Hera became pregnant after eating a wild lettuce sandwich, so take care when feasting on any unidentified brassicas, ladies. Later, Hebe became the wife of Hercules after he had defeated Geras, the personification of old age, and become an immortal god himself. These ideas about being ‘forever young’ have a long pedigree. Personally I think that youth, while lovely at the time, is somewhat overrated – give me wisdom and experience any time.
Hebe is also often shown with an eagle, which, in the way of the Classical gods, is the form taken by her father Zeus.
There are between 90-100 species of Hebe,(which is a member of the Veronica family) and all of them (except one which lives only on the island of Rapa Nui) can be found in New Zealand, which has unique and fascinating floral, invertebrate and bird populations. The Hebes vary from trees up to 7 metres tall to little sprawling shrubs, and they can be found everywhere from alpine to coastal regions. On islands, sometimes a particular group of organisms will proliferate, taking advantages of niches that are normally taken by very different kinds of species: think of the varied lemurs of Madagascar, for example. Hebes have taken advantage of their geographical isolation, and now gardeners are taking advantage too. They come in shades of white, blue and purple, all excellent colours for attracting pollinating insects.Hebes are resilient souls: they are resistant to salt-laden sea breezes, and so are sometimes planted as hedges in the coastal regions of the south-west of England and Australia. However ,the larger plants are only half-hardy, and won’t survive prolonged freezing. On the other hand, I have several in pots in my garden that have shrugged off a few sub-zero nights, so it may depend on how exposed they are.
As you might expect, a plant that is so varied and wide-spread has many uses in its native country. In New Zealand Hebe stricta is known as Koromiko and the unopened leaves and buds were chewed as a cure for dysentery by the Maori people. Dried leaves were apparently sent to New Zealand soldiers during both World Wars as a cure for stomach problems. The plant is said to contain a chemical that reduces peristalsis: this would combat the water loss that is the real killer in diseases such as cholera and dysentery. However, as diarrhoea is the body’s way of ridding itself of the toxins created by the bacteria, the use of the plant would need to be coupled with something that would attack the problem at source. I’m always slightly alarmed when people use drugs such as Immodium as a ‘cure’ for diarrhoea, when what they do is stop the need to go to the toilet without tackling the bugs that are causing the problem in the first place. I remember someone taking them like sweeties on one of my more exotic trips, and being unable to go to the toilet for a week as a result, so be warned…
There is a rather lovely children’s song in the Maori language called ‘Koromiko’, which you can hear here. The lyrics in English are as follows:
Koromiko, Karaka, Tī Kouka
The trees of the forest
Tarata, Ngaio, Tōtara
The trees of the forest
Look at the flowers
Look at the leaves
This one is different from that one
They all differ, they all differ.
The Karaka is the New Zealand Laurel tree, and is endemic to that country. The Ti Kouka is the cabbage tree or cordyline, a popular pot plant in the UK. The Tarata is the lemonwood (Pittosporum eugenioides) and a very fine plant it is too.
The Ngaio is also called the mousehole tree (Myoporum laetum) and the New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh was named for the plant.
And, finally, the Totara is a magnificent tree that grows only in New Zealand.
All this has made me very eager to pack a bag and head for the Antipodes. What a magnificent and varied flora.
It occurs to me that I’ve had Hebes in my garden for years without knowing about their cultural importance in New Zealand (or indeed that they even came from that country). Our gardens can be such rich sources of interest and wonder. My patch is a veritable United Nations of plants, all getting along and providing nectar and food for my invertebrate and ornithological visitors. If only all humans could be as good natured and useful.
But, back to the Hebe.
And to round up the post today, I present to you a poem that fairly drips homesickness. The poet, Dora Wilcox, was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, but spent the years leading up to and including the First World War in London, where she obviously didn’t feel at home. Later, she lived in Sydney Australia. Wilcox died in 1953, having won an award for a poem commemorating the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament in 1927. While it is undoubtedly not the best poem I have ever featured here (I find it rather mannered and in need of a good editor), it does have a sense of poignant yearning that I find rather appealing. See what you think.
When I look out on London’s teeming streets,
On grim grey houses, and on leaden skies,
My courage fails me, and my heart grows sick,
And I remember that fair heritage
Barter’d by me for what your London gives.
This is not Nature’s city: I am kin
To whatsoever is of free and wild,
And here I pine between these narrow walls,
And London’s smoke hides all the stars from me,
Light from mine eyes, and Heaven from my heart.
For in an island of those Southern seas
That lie behind me, guarded by the Cross
That looks all night from out our splendid skies,
I know a valley opening to the East.
There, hour by hour, the lazy tide creeps in
Upon the sands I shall not pace again —
Save in a dream, — and, hour by hour, the tide
Creeps lazily out, and I behold it not,
Nor the young moon slow sinking to her rest
Behind the hills; nor yet the dead white trees
Glimmering in the starlight: they are ghosts
Of what has been, and shall be never more.
No, never more!
Nor shall I hear again
The wind that rises at the dead of night
Suddenly, and sweeps inward from the sea,
Rustling the tussock, nor the wekas’ wail
Echoing at evening from the tawny hills.
In that deserted garden that I lov’d
Day after day, my flowers drop unseen;
And as your Summer slips away in tears,
Spring wakes our lovely Lady of the Bush,
The Kowhai, and she hastes to wrap herself
All in a mantle wrought of living gold;
Then come the birds, who are her worshippers,
To hover round her; tuis swift of wing,
And bell-birds flashing sudden in the sun,
Carolling: Ah! what English nightingale,
Heard in the stillness of a summer eve,
From out the shadow of historic elms,
Sings sweeter than our Bell-bird of the Bush?
And Spring is here: now the Veronica,
Our Koromiko, whitens on the cliff,
The honey-sweet Manuka buds, and bursts
In bloom, and the divine Convolvulus,
Most fair and frail of all our forest flowers,
Stars every covert, running riotous.
O quiet valley, opening to the East,
How far from this thy peacefulness am I!
Ah me, how far! and far this stream of Life
From thy clear creek fast falling to the sea!
Yet let me not lament that these things are
In that lov’d country I shall see no more;
All that has been is mine inviolate,
Lock’d in the secret book of memory.
And though I change, my valley knows no change.
And when I look on London’s teeming streets,
On grim grey houses, and on leaden skies,
When speech seems but the babble of a crowd,
And music fails me, and my lamp of life
Burns low, and Art, my mistress, turns from me, —
Then do I pass beyond the Gate of Dreams
Into my kingdom, walking unconstrained
By ways familiar under Southern skies;
Nor unaccompanied; the dear dumb things
I lov’d once, have their immortality.
There too is all fulfilment of desire:
In this the valley of my Paradise
I find again lost ideals, dreams too fair
For lasting; there I meet once more mine own
Whom Death has stolen, or Life estranged from me, —
And thither, with the coming of the dark,
Thou comest, and the night is full of stars.
Dora Wilcox (1873-1953)
Photo One (Hebe albicans) by By Alan Pascoe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=881878
Photo Four (Tarata) by By Rudolph89 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15773056
Photo Five (Ngaio flower) by By Avenue – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13534790
Photo Six (Rhubarb and Custard) by https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/320219/Hebe-Rhubarb-and-Custard/