Dear Readers, candytuft has been a popular garden plant for as long as I can remember – it has a lot of garden variants, many of them pure white, but the ones I have in my windowboxes are palest pink when young. Candytuft is actually a member of the Brassicaceae, or cabbage family, and as with most of these plants there are four petals arranged in a cross-shape (hence the alternative name for the family of ‘crucifers’). The name ‘candytuft’ doesn’t relate to the plant’s sweetness, but to the old name for Heraklion the main city of Crete, Candia. The genus name ‘Iberis’ also emphasizes the Mediterranean connection, with Iberis coming from Iberia, the classicaal name for Spain.
Wild candytuft (Iberis amara) grows all over Europe but its heartland is around the Mediterranean. The wild plant can be found in the UK but is extremely rare, as it lives on the south-facing slopes of chalk downs, a habitat that is becoming increasingly rate. You can tell the plant from its garden cousin because the flowers grow up into little cones and the petals are asymmetric.
All members of the cabbage family have chemicals called glucosinolates, which produce the pungent garlic/radish/mustard smell of many brassicas, and which defend against many insects. However, members of the candytuft family have an additional chemical defence, cucurbitacin, which is more commonly found in cucumbers. Interestingly, this defends against cabbage white butterflies, who are not deterred by the strong flavours of other kinds of brassicas.
Although a member of the cabbage family, Candytuft doesn’t seem to be particularly edible, what with its teeny tiny mustard-flavoured leaves which are hardly worth the gathering. Some people do admire the flowers though, and I’m sure that a few thrown into a salad would brighten things up no end.
Medicinally, the flowers have been used for gastro-intestinal complaints, such as bloating or acid reflux. I note that chemical company Bayer are growing their own candytuft flowers to produce ‘Iberogast’, a herbal treatment for these problems. In Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal (from the 1930s), the plant is said to have been used to treat gout, rheumatism and atrial fibrillation. Presumably the wild plant was much more common then than now.
In the Victorian language of flowers, Candytuft is said to signify ‘indifference’, perhaps because it’s tolerant of a variety of growing conditions. I do wonder how the Victorian lady managed to decipher any bouquet sent to her, and whether spats developed with different posies winging their way backwards and forwards, becoming ever more insulting. For example, a bunch of flowers containing amaranth (pretension and foppery), aspen (lamentation), basil (hatred) and bilberry (treachery) would be a most irritating thing to receive. Maybe the only response would be to buy some very woody plants and throw the whole lot at the sender.
And finally, a poem. Christopher Morley’s ‘Our House’ features lots of things that I would like – the old-fashioned garden, the window seat, the summer house, the banister – but I think a moat is a step too far. See what you think. Morley was a journalist, poet and great fan of Sherlock Holmes, and I find this poem as cozy as an old armchair, and none the worse for it. We don’t need to be challenged all the time, eh.
by Christopher Morley (1890-1957)
IT should be yours, if I could build
The quaint old dwelling I desire,
With books and pictures bravely filled
And chairs beside an open fire,
White-panelled rooms with candles lit-
I lie awake to think of it!
A dial for the sunny hours,
A garden of old-fashioned flowers-
Say marigolds and lavender
And mignonette and fever-few,
And Judas-tree and maidenhair
And candytuft and thyme and rue-
All these for you to wander in.
A Chinese carp (called Mandarin)
Waving a sluggish silver fin
Deep in the moat: so tame he comes
To lip your fingers offering crumbs.
Tall chimneys, like long listening ears,
White shutters, ivy green and thick,
And walls of ruddy Tudor brick
Grown mellow with the passing years.
And windows with small leaded panes,
Broad window-seats for when it rains;
A big blue bowl of pot pourri
And-yes, a Spanish chestnut tree
To coin the autumn’s minted gold.
A summer house for drinking tea-
All these (just think!) for you and me.
A staircase of the old black wood
Cut in the days of Robin Hood,
And banisters worn smooth as glass
Down which your hand will lightly pass;
A piano with pale yellow keys
For wistful twilight melodies,
And dusty bottles in a bin-
All these for you to revel in!
But when? Ah well, until that time
We’ll habit in this house of rhyme.
Photo One by By H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10426344
Photo Two by By Stefan Laarmann – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=947261