Dear Readers, what a quiet and inoffensive plant Figwort is! I have it growing in my pond, but I first spotted it at East Finchley Station, growing alongside a drainage ditch where there was also lots of horsetail. It certainly attracts the bees, even when not in full bloom – the flowers seem perfectly bumblebee adapted.
Herbalists thought that the plants resembled a human throat, and so they were used medicinally for tonsillitis and all kinds of ailments related to this part of the body. In particular the plant was used to treat scrofula, a form of tuberculosis that led to enlargement of the neck (hence the plant’s genus name). Long term readers might remember the Doctrine of Signatures, a belief that a plant would indicate what it was useful for by its shape, colour or scent, as if a ‘clue’ had been planted by God when the Garden of Eden was created.
Figwort is in the same family as the Buddleia and Great Mullein (the Scrophulariaceae), though you’d be hard put to notice any obvious similarities. If we’re looking at just the figworts there are over 200 species spread across the Northern Hemisphere, and telling them apart can be somewhat challenging. Are the plants in my pond Common Figwort or Water Figwort (Scrofularia auriculata) for example? I hope the latter, because otherwise I’ve been drenching my plants rather more than they’d like.
Figworts are eaten by the caterpillars of the Mullein moth, and I would be very delighted to see one.
The caterpillars of the Six-striped Rustic moth (Xestia sexstrigata) also feed on figworts. The adult is subtly beautiful.
The jury is out concerning the plant’s edibility by humans, however. It’s said to have a foetid smell (I haven’t noticed any such problems with my plants), but in addition to the medicinal uses mentioned above, the plant has been used as an antihelmentic, which means that it’s poisonous to intestinal worms at the very least. In Mrs Grieves ‘A Modern Herbal’, she mentions that the root was used to feed the populace during the 13 month Siege of Rochelle, but that the taste is so appalling that it would only ever be considered a famine food.
Mrs Grieve also mentions that Common Figwort was considered a lucky herb in both Ireland and Wales (where it was known as Deilen Ddu (‘good leaf’). The Medieval herbalist Gerard says that people used to wear the plant around their necks to keep themselves in good health. Furthermore, the plant was a treatment for rabies (hydrophobia), the patient being required to take:
‘every morning while fasting a slice of bread and butter on which the powdered knots of the roots had been spread and eating it up with two tumblers of fresh spring water. Then let the patient be well clad in woollen garments and made to take a long, fast walk until in a profuse perspiration, the treatment being continued for seven days.’
And finally, a poem. This is by John Lindley, who was the poet laureate for Cheshire in 2004, and it’s inspired by the Sandstone Ridge in that county. It is about a very specific place, but it is so full of hope that I thought I’d share today. We could all do with some inspiration, I’m sure.
Stone by Stepping Stone (John Lindley)
From ‘landfill’ to ‘lapwing’
requires more than a dip in the alphabet,
more than just a leap of faith
yet it begins
and it begins not letter by letter
but hedge by fattening hedge.
It begins as small as a bird table
and grows as wide as a field, as long as a ridge.
It begins amongst foxgloves and figwort,
in a morning of meadowsweet
and though no wild boar witness it
it is noted by hairstreak and peregrine,
by badger and owl.
It begins stone by stepping stone
and who would have thought such stones
could be engineered and sown?
Who would have thought
they could be dreamt, mapped and moulded
into more than fancy, more than symbol?
Still, it begins. From Frodsham to Bulkeley Hill.
From corridor to green corridor
a land found and refashioned
reclaims itself and swells until each corridor
is no longer measured by the wing span of a hawk
but by the circumference of its flight.
Born of a glacial shift –
a sandstone ridge,
red raw with promise,
skirts hill fort and castle.
A raven hunches like age
against the gathering mist.
Put an ear to the earth,
hear a seed splitting with new life.
Cast an eye to the hills,
see elms able again to stretch and touch fingers.
Woodland and heathland –
all are a heartland
and it is a heart that beats from Beacon Hill
to Bickerton and beyond.
It is a heart thought still,
jumpstarted by other hearts:
by landlord and farmer,
by owner and tenant,
by craftsman and labourer,
by the you and me we call a community.
It is a heart that drums
in the small frame of newt,
the slick casing of otter,
the sensual hide of deer
and grows louder,
like the echo of those lost skylarks
who went with the grassland
but now sing of recovery, sing of return.
Photo One © Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Photo Two by By Bobr267 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61678532
Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons