Dear Readers, I am always so excited when I find a genuinely ‘new’ wild plant to report on, and so I was very pleased when my friend A asked what this was when she spotted it on her walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. This is White Bryony, our only native member of the cucumber family, and apparently later on it will produce some shiny red berries. It is, however, highly poisonous, and can cause deaths in cattle if they munch on the roots – unfortunately the animals seem much attracted to the taste, and even after being poisoned by it they seem to retain a craving for the plant.
The bees seemed to love it, and I think the little white, green-veined flowers are very attractive. I am half tempted to bring some seeds back for the garden, but at the moment the whole place is looking so overgrown that I’m not quite sure where I’d pop it in.
According to The Wildlife Trust’s page on the plant, it used to be passed off as mandrake during the Middle Ages. Mandrake is native to the Mediterranean area, and was highly prized as a narcotic, painkiller and aphrodisiac. Mandrake has roots which are said to look like little people, and the plant was supposed to shriek if pulled out of the ground. Enterprising souls in England used to carve the roots of white bryony into similar shapes, and no doubt sold them for an eye-watering price. The RHS website mentions that the tuber of white bryony can grow to weigh several kilos, so I suspect that would be a lot of little people. Presumably the sellers moved on pretty quickly, however, before the buyers realised how purgative a dose of white bryony can be (it was used medicinally as a laxative at one time, but I suspect the results were rather more explosive than desired). In France, the plant is known as ‘the Devil’s turnip’, which sounds about right.
In France the plant was used to stop or slow down milk production in humans, and Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) mentions that there were many cases of poisoning in weaning mothers as a result.
If applied to the skin as a poultice it can cause delightful reddening and blisters, which were previously thought to draw out poisons, though I suspect that instead such damage might have invited infection. Incidentally, the old word for a poultice was a cataplasm, so I shall be trying to introduce this into a sentence in the next few days at work, just for the hell of it. My reputation for eccentricity must be bolstered occasionally after all.
Incidentally, the ‘white bryony’ found in the USA, where it is widely naturalised, is a different species. Bryonia alba has black berries, not red ones like ‘our’ plant, and has proved to be a most pernicious weed where introduced.
There is a raft of very satisfying folklore around white bryony. Its roots were crushed and put into mouse and rat holes as a way to deter vermin.
The Plant Folklore site reports that:
‘In 1908 a man employed to dig a neglected garden near Stratford upon Avon, cut through a large bryony root with his spade. He called the root ‘mandrake’ and stopped work at once, saying it ‘was awful bad luck’. Before the week was out he fell and broke his neck’.
However, in other circumstances it was considered to bring good fortune:
‘old Fen men digging up roots, selecting those most human in shape washing them carefully and putting in their marks – few of the older generation could read or write. On their visits to the local inn the men took their roots to join others arranged on the taproom mantleshelf ready to be judged in a competition for which entrant paid a small fee. On Saturday night the landlord’s wife would be called in to judge the exhibits, a prize being awarded to the root which most resembled the female figure … After the prize had been awarded the winning roots stayed on the shelf until it was ousted by a finer specimen. Even then it was not discarded, for if it was suspended by the string from the rafters of a sow’s stye it was reckoned that more piglets would be produced. When the root was dry and shrivelled it was placed among the savings kept in an old stocking hidden under the mattress as a guarantee that the hoard would increase’.
Plus, this most acrid and poisonous of roots was considered to be a good tonic for horses, in spite of its deleterious effect on cattle, though in most cases only a pinch of the dried root was used.
Incidentally, the word ‘bryony’ means ‘to sprout, to grow abundantly’.
And now a poem (or two, actually). I can find no poems about the plant, but I have found a new poet – Bryony Littlefair. She is a poet, community centre worker and workshop facilitator living in London, and her pamphlet Giraffe won the Myslexia Pamphlet Prize in 2017. I liked both of these poems. See what you think. The first one, ‘Sunday Mornings’, seems to me to be about learning to be on your own, and to be your own person, separate from your parents, but still a little unformed.
Sunday mornings – Bryony Littlefair
The truth is I’m not sure what I did
those mornings they’d leave, my mother
always in a floral capped-sleeve shirt.
I wish I could say I graffitied the newsagent,
or met with a nicotine-fingered boyfriend,
or learned Bertrand Russell by heart. I didn’t
do any of those things, nor the homework
I’d invented to excuse my godlessness.
Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose
and endangered, like an undone shoelace
or an open rucksack. I’d pace from room
to room, hands tucked up my sleeves.
I’d play snatches on the piano, or make
elaborate little snacks – crackers piled
with quartered grapes and shavings of cheese.
I was like a blunt knife, failing to cut
and apportion the hours. I’d spin
on the office chair, or curl up on patches
of carpet, pretending to be dead.
I might have put on a CD, shaken
my hips to Run DMC, a jerky
figure of eight. I might have filmed myself dancing.
I’d be choosing another colour for my nails
when the key would turn in the lock:
my parents, whole and returned,
having sung their hallelujahs
and walked back through the cool light rain
And here is ‘Giraffe’. There are lines in this that remind me so strongly of starting to feel better after being ill, either physically or mentally, or both. I love the line about bare feet on a slightly damp wooden floor. Plus giraffes are my totem animals, so how could I resist?
Giraffe by Bryony Littlefair
When you feel better from this — and you will — it will be quiet and unremarkable, like walking into the next room. It might sting a little, like warmth leaking into cold-numbed hands. When you feel better, it will be the slow clearing of static from the radio. It will be a film set when the director yells cut! When you feel better, you will take: a plastic spoon for your coffee foam, free chocolates from the gleaming oak reception desk, the bus on sunny days, your own sweet time. When you feel better, it will be like walking barefoot on cool, smooth planks of wood, still damp from last night’s rain. It will be the holy silence when the tap stops dripping. The moment a map finally starts to make sense. When you feel better, you will still suffer, but your sadness will be graspable, roadworthy, have handlebars. When you feel better, you will not always be happy, but when happiness does come, it will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.
Photo One by D arckangel, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two by H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by By Aung – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4459404