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, last week I went on a birdwatching day organised by the Field Studies Council in Regent’s Park, and as is my wont I got there early. So, I sat in the Rose Garden and, although the roses are mere twigs at this time of year, I became very intrigued by the euphorbias. They seem to launch themselves from their woody stems like rockets.
Well, first things first. The Euphorbiaceae is a huge family of plants which vary from trees to shrubs to succulents to ‘herbs’ like our plant, and many are known as spurges. The sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) is a very common UK plant of wasteland and pavements, which featured as a Wednesday Weed several years ago. ‘True’ euphorbias have a milky, poisonous sap (which is why it’s important to wear gloves and to avoid rubbing your eyes (or indeed any delicate parts)) if you’re working with the plant. Incidentally, the colourful Crotons (those houseplants with leathery, multi-coloured leaves) are also members of the family, but their sap is said to be innocuous.
That poisonous sap has long been used for the treatment of warts, skin tags and other ‘skin excrescences’, and some species of euphorbia are under investigation as a treatment for herpes, so there you go. The name ‘spurge’ is from the same Latin root as ‘purge’, implying that the toxic properties of the plant might have been used to cause vomiting, and the genus Euphorbia is named for the Greek physician Euphorbus (50 BC – 23 AD) who considered the plant to be useful as a laxative.
It is also said that throwing a sack of chopped-up euphorbia into a pond will kill all the fish without poisoning their flesh. This seems like a very lazy way to go fishing to me. I am also sure that my frogs would not approve.
Now, back to that strange flower. It’s known as a cyathium, and is a kind of ‘false flower’. The cup at the bottom contains a single central female flower which is stalked and looks rather like a pea (see photo below) and several male flowers ranged around it, plus some crescent-shaped nectaries. The things that look like petals are actually bracts, or specialised leaves which support and protect the inconspicuous reproductive parts. All in all, it makes for a very unusual structure, but one which appears to be both attractive (the bracts retain their colour for a long time) and effective for the plant (Mediterranean spurge is a notorious self-seeder).
As you might expect from its name, Mediterranean spurge is a plant of hot, dry places (this subspecies is found from Southern France all the way to Anatolia). It is drought and salinity tolerant, and although in its native range it often grows a long way from the sea, it sounds to me like an ideal seaside-garden plant. I do however note that it is not fond of breezy weather, so maybe this is the catch. If any of you are fortunate enough to have such a thing, do let me know what your experience is!
Now, finally I am indebted to the wonderful Squirrelbasket blog for finding this poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Admittedly, it’s about the woodspurge (Euphorbia amaglyoides), but the Mediterranean woodspurge also has ‘a cup of three’, and I think the poem hits on some truths about grieving – that our minds may cling to something that we’ve seen in nature as a kind of lifeline, and also the way that our senses can be heightened to a painful extent.
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind’s will,–
I sat now, for the wind was still.
Between my knees my forehead was,–
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.
My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.
From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me,–
The woodspurge has a cup of three.
Photo One by By Karl Thomas Moore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60359378