Dear Readers, last week I was in Dorset with my parents, and Dad had a horrible chest infection (or maybe a continuation of the one that he’s had for the past six months). In the space of 24 hours he went from being ok to being too weak to stand up unaided. Fortunately the doctor was able to visit, and prescribed him some antibiotics and some steroids, with the proviso that if he wasn’t any better he would be admitted to hospital the next day.
Steroids are miracle drugs, but they are also dangerous for long-term use. For a while Dad was taking them regularly, and by the end of a few months he could barely walk (muscle weakness and pain is a known side-effect). But a short course can have miraculous results. The next day dad was walking about, he had some colour back in his cheeks, and by the day after he was out ‘advising’ the men who had come to fit some new tyres to his car. And so I could at last breathe out (well, it felt as if I’d been holding my breath for 48 hours) and go for a little walk. As I headed towards the shop, I spotted this sprawling, inconspicuous plant. It could easily be mistaken for chickweed, if it wasn’t for its tiny, pale blue flowers and its lobed leaves. It was leaning into the sunshine on every verge and under every hedge. One lone plant had even stationed itself on one of the lovely shale walls in the village. For a moment I mistook it for its close relative, ivy-leaved toadflax.
The flowers of this species are very pale, almost lilac, rather than the deep blue of other speedwells. The stems and leaves are hairy, but the leaves are the distinguishing feature, being wider than long, and with obvious veins. There are about 15 species of speedwell in the UK, but this one is an arcaeophyte, introduced probably with grain from mainland Europe before 1500 BCE. It grows in the nutrient-rich, trampled soils that exist around human habitation and, like all the speedwells, was thought to be lucky for travellers, with the more showy species such as germander speedwell being worn as a buttonhole by those about to set out on a journey.
The genus name ‘Veronica’ comes from St Veronica. She is said to have wiped the blood from the face of Christ, and the handkerchief that she used bore the ‘vera iconica’, the ‘true image’, of his features. There seem to be many folk tales concerning the picking of the plant, which will bring dire consequences: either your mother’s eyes will fall out, your eyes will fall out or birds will come and pluck your eyes out for you. I suspect that the white centre of speedwell species is seen as an ‘eye’ by those of an imaginative disposition, and speedwells often have vernacular names such as ‘blue eyes’.
The plant was at one point so popular as a cure for gout that it was picked almost to extinction in London, where boozing was presumably as much a problem in medieval times as it is these days. Speedwell was prescribed ‘to be taken in the spring for some time, especially by Persons who drink much ale and are in gross habit of body’. A tea made from speedwell is said to be beneficial for pretty much everything, and the plant itself is sometimes added to salads, though the leaves and flowers of this species are so small that I wonder if it would be worth the bother. Probably better to let it alone, to be food for the extremely rare Heath Fritillary’s caterpillar (though in truth it prefers germander speedwell if there’s any available).
One reason for the name ‘speedwell’ is thought to be that the petals fall quickly once the plant is picked. The painting below is by John Everett Millais and is called ‘The Little Speedwell’s Darling Blue (1891-2)’ This is an example of the ‘Fancy Picture’, which was a style that was very popular and lucrative. Millais tried to make the genre more painterly and serious by depicting the compulsory small, attractive child with emblems of mortality, such as flowers or dead birds or bubbles. Here, the infant is musing on a speedwell (admittedly not an ivy-leaved speedwell, but still) and is no doubt waiting for the flower to disintegrate. The whole notion of ephemeral also played nicely into the Victorian love-affair with the death of the young and the beautiful.
And to round off this week, we have none other than Oscar Wilde, grieving for the man who betrayed him ( the title means, roughly ‘Because I have loved too much’. I didn’t know this poem at all, but I rather like it as a description of passion, and I love the last line , although I am not quite sure that I understand it. Is Wilde saying that his love is one of many that has been showered on his lover? Someone enlighten me, please.
Feels not such awful wonder as I felt
Ah! hadst thou liked me less and loved me more,
Yet, though remorse, youth’s white-faced seneschal,
Photo One by By Harald Süpfle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4197344