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’s been a while since I’ve featured a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) here on the Wednesday Weed, so it’s my great pleasure to introduce aubretia, a rockery plant that whizzes away into the wild faster than Wily Coyote. It is in the top thirty alien plants found in the wild in both Berkshire and East Sutherland (according to Clive Stace’s magisterial ‘Alien Plants’) though not in London, where I suspect there is too much competition from other ferocious plants. At any rate, the four petals form the typical cruciform pattern of the family (hence the alternative family name of Crucifers) and I always think that the white stamen in the centre of the plant look like tiny sharp teeth.
As far as everyone at the garden centre is concerned, the plant’s name is pronounced ‘Awbreesha’. A quick look at its actual Latin name (Aubrieta) suggests that it should probably have been called, and pronounced ‘Awbree-eta’. Ho hum. Many Latin names become easier-to-pronounce common names – take ‘Chicory’ instead of Cichorium, for example. No wonder scientists stick to Latin names.
Aubretia was introduced to the UK as a rock-garden plant in 1710 , but as it loves thin soil and can tolerate a wide range of pH and light conditions it is ideally placed to survive in the tiny pockets of soil in old walls or even between paving stones.We have noticed this before with other mountain plants, from buddleia to yellow corydalis. ‘Our’ aubretia comes originally from south-eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the plant below is growing wild in the mountains of Tartej, Lebanon, where it’s known as purple rock-cress.
This pretty perennial is named for Claude Aubriet (1651/1665 – 1742), a French flower botanical illustrator who produced a prodigious number of drawings, not just of plants but also of animals. He was probably the first illustrator to travel to the Middle East to record the plants found there (in 1700). As far as we know, he never travelled to the New World, so the illustrations of monarch butterflies below are probably from the collection at the Natural History Museum in Paris.
Aubretia is a rather old-fashioned plant, and one that has somewhat fallen out of favour. However, it has much to recommend it. It flowers for a long period, cascades down walls and fences that you might want to cover up and, most important of all, it is beloved by pollinators. They provide important early nectar for bumblebees and solitary bees, and for butterflies such as small tortoiseshells which will be emerging from hibernation in April and May, and for such early-flying species as orange-tips and brimstones. I’m sure that the pollinators of Creighton Avenue, where I found this patch of plants, will be very happy when they take to the wing and discover that there’s some food on offer.
As noted previously, aubretia is a member of the cabbage family, and it looks a bit mustard-y to me. However, I can find no mention of anyone eating it. Nor can I find any reference to it being poisonous. If anyone nibbles on a leaf do tell me, otherwise I might have to try it next time I see some. Save me from myself, gentle readers! On the Plant Lore website, a reader recalls how his father told him that any plant with ‘the sign of the cross’ on it would do him no harm, a reference to the crucifix-shaped flowers, so let’s hope that’s true. On the other hand, on the same site, another reader explains that she knew someone who would never have any ‘cross’ flowers in the house (presumably their shape rather than their temperament) because of their association with the crucifixion. I always find family superstitions intriguing – how does one group of people come to one conclusion about a plant and another come to the exact opposite view? Is it all down to temperament, I wonder – maybe some folk are eternally optimistic, and some others see doom everywhere.
And now, to my poem for this week. How I love this poem, which is by the Scottish poet Helen B Cruikshank, who died in 1975. Having been somewhat thwarted in her early life and becoming a civil servant, she returned to poetry in her later years. I love that the poem echoes the magpie theme of Saturday’s post, and I suspect that it holds true for any kind of creativity, not just poetry.
ONE ASPECT OF A POET by Helen B Cruikshank
I sometimes think
That elusive bird, the Poet,
Is like the bower bird of the South
That adorns his territory with
Coloured scraps of salvage,
Bottle tops, pebbles, rags of pyjama cloth,
And exotic petals of vivid hue –
Garnered from near and far;
Or our homelier blackbird
Weaving into his nest
Discarded bits of Cellophane,
A note thrown away by the milkman
Or silver paper from a chocolate bar,
Along with native grass, and aubretia
Torn from the rockery;
Or the twinkling bluetit, using
Ravelled-out wool from a girl’s jumper,
Or combings of hair –
Once in the Highlands, I saw
An exquisite nest in a niche of a bridge
Cosily lined with sheep-wool and deer-hair,
Where the tiny scrap of sizzling energy
Had built the cradle for his multiple brood.
So, from his magpie collection of
Facts and ideas,
Garnered, remembered, or
Filched from all quarters,
The poet fashions his lines.
And we, walking on earth-borne feet
Marvel at the grace and scope of his skill,
His soaring flight, his protean imagination,
And look and listen, indulgent,
As did Dylan’s Milk Wood pastor
When naughty Polly Garter sang
As she scrubbed;
And like him we say
As we pause, then pass on,
Thank God for Song.
Photo One by By Eli+ – I (Eli+) created this work entirely by myself., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15706040