Dear Readers, it’s always fun to ‘meet’ a new native plant, and so I was very chuffed to come across this wayfaring tree in Camley Natural Park on Saturday. It’s one of those plants that I think I’ve walked past a hundred times, but have only just noticed. It has a kind of dusty, straggly look about it, but close up it reveals many beauties.
At first glance, I thought it was a guelder rose, but the leaves are clearly different, being oval and heavily veined. Plus, where guelder rose has flowers that look like mini-hydrangeas, the wayfaring tree has waxy flowers with a sweet scent, though the jury is out on whether it’s delightful or cloying.
The wayfaring tree was named by the herbalist Gerard, who noticed that it grew alongside the paths on the road from London to Wiltshire and so,if you saw one, you knew you weren’t far from civilisation. Another old name for the plant was ‘hoarwithy’ – hoar meaning ‘silvery-grey’, and referring to the hairs on the underside of the leaves, and ‘withy’ meaning ‘a pliable stem’. The stems of the wayfaring tree were used to tie up bundles of hay and straw, and also to make whip handles, leading to yet another name – ‘twist wood’.
The wood was also used to make arrows: poor old Ötzi, the bronze age man found dead in the Austrian Alps in 1991, had a whole quiver-full of arrows made from the wayfaring tree, but presumably he didn’t get a chance to use them before he was murdered.
The berries are very attractive, shiny red and black, but they are also mildly poisonous, although this doesn’t deter the birds. Waxwings and thrushes will eat the fruit, but as it isn’t their favourite food it will often linger into the winter, so it’s available when everything else is gone.
The berries and in particular the bark contain high levels of tannins, which have been used to treat asthma, sore throats, gingivitis and smoker’s cough, usually as a gargle. In Eastern Europe it has been used to produce a yellow dye, and as an ink.
The wayfaring tree can be found right across Europe and Asia, and here it features in a Japanese print, featuring a rather splendid magpie.
And finally, a poem. Although it isn’t directly about the wayfaring tree, it is about wayfaring, and I can think of several of our leaders for whom this would be most apposite. It’s by Stephen Crane, the American poet best known for the novel The Red Badge of Courage. See what you think….
The wayfarer, by Stephen Crane
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”
Photo One by By Georg Buzin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=109258436