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, this week my plant of choice is one that I have never attempted to grow, though I have admired it in many a front garden. This is Pieris japonica, known as Pieris here in the UK, but with the delightful names Japanese fetterbush or Japanese andromeda in the US (to find out why, read on!). There are seven species in the Pieris genus, and they have a wide distribution through the mountainous areas of eastern North America, eastern and southern Asia and Cuba, though it is the japonica species (which, as the name suggests, comes from Japan, Taiwan and eastern China) that is the most widely seen here. The plant is a member of the Ericaceae or heather family, and its liking for acid soil is one reason for my not attempting it in the claggy, clay-based soil of London, though I suppose I could try one in a pot.
The close relationship to heather is clearer when the buds open and become little bells. You can see why yet another name for the plant is ‘lily-of-the-valley shrub’. And apparently the chains of flowers were a reminder of the fetters that bound Andromeda to the rock in Greek mythology until she was rescued by Perseus, hence the American names for the plant.
The new spring foliage is often a different colour from the older leaves, and the plant is evergreen, making it a good choice for year-round interest in a small garden.
For some delightful close-ups of Pieris japonica, have a look at the Microscopy UK page for the plant here, which is full of wonders.
Although not native to the UK, Pieris has become the foodplant of a subtle but elegant moth known as the engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia). Incidentally, ‘engrailed’ means ‘to have semi-circular indentations along the edge’.
Pieris is said to be a good plant for those plagued by visits from hungry deer ( I should be so lucky!), and this may be because all parts of the plant are said to be toxic to animals and to people. The plant has been implicated in ‘mummification of the fetus’ in goats , and honey made from the nectar of the plant can be poisonous (such honey is known as ‘mad honey’, and the same results can be produced when the nectar comes from rhodondendrons).
Apparently the plant features as a poison in the TV series ‘Breaking Bad’, but as I haven’t seen it I can only call upon those who have to see if they remember an appearance. By the strange synchronicity that often attends this blog, I went to see a production of ‘Network’ at the National Theatre yesterday, starring none other than Bryan Cranston, the star of ‘Breaking Bad’. I’d give the show as a whole 3.5/5, but Cranston was outstanding, and it’s worth going just for him (if you can get tickets at this late stage).
Anyhoo, back to Pieris japonica.
As you might expect, there are few recipes that include pieris, and few medicinal uses that I could find, though the plant is apparently used as a pesticide and a parasiticide in its native Japan. However, in the course of researching this post I found a very interesting blog called ‘The Hospice Gardener‘, by a delightful man called Jim Nicholson. He was very much cheered up by a Pieris japonica back in April, and who can blame him? There is so much love in a garden like this, and I’m sure that it brings solace to many, many people. Sometimes a plant’s beauty is more than enough.
It was certainly enough for the people of Japan, for Pieris japonica features in many poems. In 985, a group of Japanese gentlemen were admiring the blossoming Pieris (translated here as Andromeda) and decided to write Wakas (poems of thirty-one syllables designed to capture a moment of fleeting beauty). The event is captured in The Art of Japanese Gardens, by Sandra Kuck.
The first poem was by Otomo no Yaka-Mochi:
The pond water reflects
Even the shadows of blooming Andromeda-
Let me take it carefully
In my sleeve.
Another was by Ikako no Mabito, who wrote:
Under the rocks
The transparent pond water
Has become the bright colour
Of young Andromeda leaves.
Must these things die?
And finally, Prince Mikata no Ohogime conjures up another inhabitant of the garden:
In this, your island
Home of the mandarin duck
I see today also
I don’t know about you, but I can almost see this garden, the red leaves and white flowers of the Pieris reflected in the water and a mandarin duck passing by at a stately pace. There is something about a plant in total harmony with its surroundings, growing in its native land, that feels somehow profoundly right and congruent, like a meadow full of buttercups and ox-eye daisies here in the UK, or a bluebell wood. It’s wonderful that we can pick and choose from plants that are native to other places in the world, and certainly some of them help to prolong the season for our birds and insects, but there is something so special about a natural and complex ecosystem, its parts in harmony with one another. As we all know, however, our climate is changing, and it will be interesting (and probably terrifying) to see how our native habitats change with it. I suspect that it will be the adaptable creatures and plants that survive, and the treasures that thrive in narrow, specific niches that will be lost. Let us hope against hope that the peoples of the world will wake up in time to mitigate at least the worst effects of our presence on this planet.
Photo One by By First Light at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61727760
Photo Two by By Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60112350
Photo Three by By ©entomart, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=806463
Photo Four by By Buiobuione – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64085253