Dear Readers, I thought that the Bog Bean that I mentioned yesterday deserved a few moments of attention. This is a native plant, though not a bean (the leaves apparently look a bit like those of the broad bean), and the genus name comes from the Greek for ‘disclosing flower’ as the flowers open sequentially along the stem. I love the pink buds, and the ‘hairy’ flowers are apparently unique, though I imagine that this must surely have something to do with whatever creature originally pollinated them. Fossil seeds of bog bean have been found in the Carpathian Mountains, and they date back to the middle Miocene (about 16 million years ago), so this is a plant that co-existed with giant sloths, three-toed horses and ‘bone-crushing dogs’. The plant is related to the water lily, though not closely – it’s the only plant in its genus.
Bog bean is also known as ‘bog hop’ in Northern England and some parts of Europe, and has been used to flavour beer and schnapps. It is the County Flower of Renfrewshire. Apparently there are chemicals in the leaves which can attract cats in the same way that catnip does, though as this is a plant of ponds and other wet places that seems somewhat ironic.
The plant has been used extensively for medicinal purposes, especially in Ireland and parts of Scotland. The leaves are boiled to make a medicine for arthritis and rheumatism, congestion, indigestion, constipation, blackheads and boils. There’s a pool in Bute, Scotland, known as The Pool of Healing because the bog bean grows there. In Chinese medicine the plant is used as a cure for insomnia.
In Devon, children were said to say this rhyme if they had to pass through a dark passage or dangerous place. ‘Biddy Bene’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘biddan‘, meaning to entreat or pray. I rather like the notion that the goose and the fox were the things that children were afraid of.
Buckee, Buckee, biddy Bene,
Is the way now fair and clean?
Is the goose ygone to nest,
And the fox ygone to rest?
Shall I come away?’
And of course, this is a plant of the bog lands, the most underrated and undervalued of habitats in spite of their role in capturing carbon and preserving all manner of delicate plants and rare insects. There is nothing as evocative, or as tricksy, as a bog, as anyone who has ever tried to cross one will know. Only those who really know the lie of the land can navigate a bog without wet socks, or worse. And so, I was delighted to find this poem by Irish poet Eileen Casey. If you would like to hear more of her work, there’s a short film here, which I highly recommend.
Treasure by Eileen Casey
Dappled light pleats lilac shadings.
Blue meshes with pink; bog weathered
morning enters its stride. Colour
sharpens as light deepens. Spider webs
drape lacy antimacassars across purple
heathers, yellow flowered asphodel.
Early frost begins to thaw, burgeons
sphagnum’s already swollen hoard.
Dew glistens pearly frogspawn,
dragonflies hover close-by. Skylarks
rise with meadow pipits and willow
warblers or stall over a bog-bean pool.
Man and beast leave traces in their wake.
A thumbprint traced in buried bog butter.
A psalter creased by righteous devotion.
Elk bone fragments. Bodies. Stabs of bog
shadow struggle with bog memory;
sacrificial wounds. We glimpse survival
in russet-edged leaves, mauve bruises
ruffled onto moss.
Bog is like a treasure filled galleon,
centuries deep. Imperial measure in peat.
We lose sight how, even inconsequential
elements become more than their sum of parts.
Faithful to its seasons, bog keeps track.
Photo One by peupleloup, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two by Sally from https://www.geograph.org.uk/more.php?id=4042853