Dear Readers, this weekend I was at the Bridge Theatre, a new-ish venue founded by Nicholas Hytner, formerly head of the National Theatre. As a venue it had pluses and minuses. Pluses included plentiful ladies toilets (for once) and an auditorium with great sound and excellent sightlines. Downsides included only one hand dryer in each loo, and a cafe with very few tables – most of the seating was on those perching seats which are a trap for the unwary, or those very low three-legged stools that always make me think I should be leaning into the side of a patient, hay-munching Fresian.
However, I digress. We had some time to kill and so I dragged my husband, in the drizzle, through the gardens of Potters Fields. A potter’s field is usually a pauper’s graveyard, and one of my favourite places in the world, Crossbones Graveyard, is nearby. However, this Potters’ Field appears to have been just that – an area where potters settled in the 17th and 18th Century. The gardens have been designed by Piet Oudolf, one of my favourite designers – I love those drifts of prairie-style flowers and grasses. At this time of year, however, it’s mainly brown seedheads and rather sad blooms.
And, as we move into the season of the common cold, it seemed appropriate to concentrate this week on one of the plants most commonly invoked as a cure for the sniffles. Echinacea, or purple coneflower, forms part of so many cold remedies these days that I fear Holland and Barrett would go bust if it was proved not to be effective. The plant comes originally from the grasslands of eastern North America, and was used extensively by Native American peoples, though not particularly as a cold remedy: it was thought to be efficacious for the treatment of wounds, burns and insect bites. The root was chewed to alleviate toothache, and it was taken internally as an analgesic. . A specimen of the plant was sent to Thomas Jefferson by Lewis and Clark in 1805, and it was described as ‘Mad Dog Plant’, with the packing list stating that it was
‘“highly prized by the natives as an efficacious remidy in the Cases of the bite of the rattle Snake or “Mad Dog.”‘
Echinacea was also used by native peoples to treat coughs and sore throats, but this seems to have been something of a sideline.
There have been many studies on the efficacy of echinacea, but the problem has been that they have used different parts of the plant, and often different species (there are ten species of echinacea). However, the conclusion overall from the Cochrane Review, as reported by the BBC Futures team, was that using echinacea might reduce your chance of catching a cold by between 10% and 20% if taken at the first onset of sniffles. I wrote about the common cold a while back, and the one thing that I would advocate is zinc gluconate, taken at the first inkling of a tickly throat. I always have some in the house just in case.
A potential problem with echinacea as a drug is that stimulating the immune system is not always a good thing, particularly for people with auto-immune conditions such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. In the US, the National Institute for Health advises people with these illnesses not to take echinacea. In 2012 the NHS also recommended not using echinacea for children under 12, because of the small risk of a severe allergic reaction.
One thing that echinacea is definitely good for, however, is the bees and the butterflies. The plant is a member of the daisy family, and as such the ‘flower’ is composed of hundreds of tiny plantlets, some forming the petals and others forming the ‘cone’ that the plant is named for, and the flowerheads are long-lived (as those in Potters Fields prove). The flowers attract the Vanessid butterflies (red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells), and many species of bee, especially bumblebees. My Gardening for Wildlife book suggests that the plant needs full sun and well-drained soil, but that it should be kept well-watered in summer. The seed heads may also attract finches and blue tits.
Incidentally, the name ‘echinacea’ comes from the some root as a plant we looked at a few weeks ago, echinops: it means ‘hedgehog’ and refers to the shape of the ‘cone’ in the middle of the flower.
There are many cultivated varieties of echinacea, some of which are trying to persuade the plant to lose its ‘shuttlecock’ appearance – the reflexed petals are seen as being to the detriment of the flower’s appearance. For me, this is one of its strong points – I rather like that pincushion look, and the way that the centre of the bloom is the star of the show. If it had ‘ordinary’ petals, wouldn’t it just look rather like any large single daisy? Stop messing about, people! The plant below is an example of an echinacea where the reflexed petals have been modified. See what you think.
And finally, a poem. This one is rather tangential to our subject (which is not unusual), but I was very taken by it. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz became the lover of (and eventually married) the artist Georgia O’Keefe. He was obsessed by her, and particularly her hands, taking many photos of them. The poet Barbara Rockman imagines a letter from O’Keefe to Stieglitz, in which she explains exactly who she is. I feel as if Rockman has somehow conjured the spirit of O’Keefe in these few lines. See what you think.
By Barbara Rackman from to cleave
October 4 1919
Be calm, Alfred. No,
I am a plain woman. I rinse dishes,
pull weeds, and unleash the dogs on dirt trails.
I sleep in a narrow bed. I rise early.
These are hands that mix paint,
decipher sky. With these hands
I scratch my head at the improbable.
I twist them under my breasts in sleep.
Fisted against my stomach they fly
from my body in dream. Hands
at the tips of wings, Alfred.
How you splayed my fingers,
insisted I caress the absent forelock,
empty sockets, each stone molar,
imagining the horse’s rough tongue.
I want nothing of death, Alfred, nothing
of absence. These elegant hands cup seeds,
cut back echinacea, snip herbs for the sauce.
They tug knotted shirts from a basket, shake them
into light, clamp them to the line with bleached pins.
What can a man know of a woman’s hands?
Photo One by James St John at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/39444960851