Dear Readers, this plant is apparently very common in the south of England but rare in the North, and it’s one of those ‘weeds’ that is everywhere, but unnoticed. Normally it grows alongside streams according to my Harraps Guide to Wildflowers, but this one was growing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in a shady spot. I did notice that they tend to grow in the lower-lying spots, so maybe it’s damp enough for them. It is native to Europe (including the UK), North Africa and Asia as far East as Pakistan, but has been introduced to the coastal areas North America and the west coast of South America, probably in grain and in seeds for cultivation.
The plant is very similar to wood dock (Rumex sanguineus), which is what I would expect to find under the horse chestnuts and ash trees in the cemetery, but in clustered dock the stems project out from the main stem at a wide angle to the stem, and that’s good enough for me, looking at this plant. The stems are also said to be very slightly zig-zag, which they were, though this isn’t captured in the photo. It’s a rule of nature that if there’s a distinguishing feature on a plant, I won’t have photographed it. Why I never take my ID guides into the field is another mystery (maybe because I usually walk with my husband who doesn’t have unlimited patience for my looking at sepals with a hand lens).
Like all docks, clustered dock is edible, but the leaves are said to taste very bitter, especially when the plant is older. However, docks contain a high level of oxalic acid which can cause the aggravation of kidney stones and gout. Even if we shouldn’t eat too much dock, the various species are foodplants for many, many insects, including these Ghost Moths (Hepialus humulii). The caterpillars feed on the roots of dock, and the emerging adults are different colours, as you can see below. The white males ‘lek’ above stands of plants to attract females, hovering in mid-air with their sparkling wings. However, these are a very ancient species, and are completely deaf and so, to avoid being eaten by bats, they display for just 20 minutes every day. I would give several eye-teeth to be around when these exquisite insects are displaying.
Medicinally, an infusion of dock has been used as a blood cleanser and as a treatment for scurvy (the leaves contain Vitamin C). It has also been used to stem bleeding, and a poultice made from the leaves is said to be good for ‘cutaneous eruptions’. What a great description! I imagine that it means boils and warts.
And here is a poem by Rosni Gallagher, originally from Leeds, now living in Scotland, and of Indo-Guyanese and Irish heritage – you can hear her reading her poem here. I think it’s easy to take feeling comfortable in the countryside for granted, though even as a white woman I know that sudden feeling of unease when a man behaving strangely hoves unexpectedly into view. I love how she has noticed the dock leaves turning red, which indeed they already are.
Often, I want to flick shut
I’m sick of anticipating my own othering.
Thank god for places where people aren’t –
The green of the trees has always been a door
To walk through and become whole.
The green sinks into me and the woods beat
With spires of dock leaves,
Deep red, like a hundred bold hearts.
Who dared trick me
Into thinking I was a guest?
Up ahead, the wild silver lake exists
For a brown girl
To crouch beside it and try to catch the frogs.
Photo One by Stefan.lefnaer, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two by By Ben Sale from UK – Ghost Moth pair, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46076336