Wednesday Weed – Hemp Agrimony Revisited

Honeybee on Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)

Dear Readers, I haven’t written about hemp agrimony since 2016, and so I thought that it needed a few more minutes in the limelight. These are the same plants that I planted in 2010, and they are still going strong twelve years later. Every year I cut them back in the autumn, and every spring they burst forth again without any bother or nonsense. This year I’ve put in a circular plant support so they’re not quite as flopsy-bunny as they’ve been in previous years, but they are still a little shaggy and unkempt, rather like me. No wonder I love them, and I’m not the only one. The honeybees pop over from the nearby allotments for a feed, especially as the lavender has gone over now, but it is also popular with all manner of little hoverflies, bees and wasps, including this rather intriguing visitor from Sunday afternoon.

Nomada sp. bee

You might think that the little critter in the photo above was a tiny wasp, but in fact it’s a bee, and a rather sneaky one at that. Nomad bees don’t build nests of their own, but are cleptoparasites – the females creep into the nest of another species of bee and lays her egg on the wall. When the larva hatches out, it kills the host’s larva and feasts on it and the provisions of pollen and other materials that the mother bee has so lovingly gathered. Normally the host species is some kind of mining bee, and the range of the nomad bee is very closely attuned to that of the intended target, so I shall have to keep my eyes open and see what mining bees are about. One other delightful thing about hemp agrimony is that the flowers are at eye level so I don’t even have to bend over to see all the drama. You might remember me spotting the spider below last year – she was hanging around trying to catch a bee or moth, or even a butterfly – today I spotted a comma, a blue butterfly and a large white all popping in to feed.

Candy-striped spider ((Enoplognatha ovata)

So, hemp agrimony definitely punches above its weight when it comes to invertebrate interest, and, as I have one plant in the sun, one in the shade and one in semi-shade it extends the flowering season to about six weeks.

I included some of the plant’s medicinal and folkloric uses in the original post below, but having a quick look at the Plantlore website, it seems that even as recently as the 1920s/30s, a poultice of the leaves was used to cure a fisherman whose arm was otherwise likely to be amputated. The person who had heard the story of the fisherman was, in his teens, much afflicted by boils on his neck and arms, and his parents remembered that the plant concerned was hemp agrimony. The youngster jumped on his bike and found a stand of the plants, and took some of them – sure enough, a poultice made from the leaves drew out the pus from his infection, and he was cured. He writes about how, whenever he sees hemp agrimony he regards it with ‘admiration and gratitude’, which is exactly how I feel about it, and about so many of the plants that I’ve grown to love through writing the Wednesday Weed.

And, as I didn’t include a poem in my original post, here’s a new one, by Matt Howard. He was born in Norfolk, and works as a nature conservationist and organiser of environmental and arts events. I think I would have known that Howard was a close observer of the world around him just from reading this poem, with its understanding of the interwoven lives of humans, plants and animals. See what you think. Howard’s website about his latest project, described as ‘ an innovative international poetry translation project that will map the poetry of nature and place across borders’ is here.

Reed sweet-grass by Matt Howard

 

A quarter acre of it, mowed
down the low meadow for the clearing.
Frost and stubble among the rides.
Dominant and too coarse to bale,
a day’s work, with rake and fork.

 

An aesthetic of summer justified
by muscle memory in February,
slung from hip, back, shoulder and wrist –
the idea of the nectar-rich; marsh orchid,
ragged robin, hemp agrimony

 

and what it all might mean. High talk,
but none of it bluff or bluster;
hard-pronged, our true vernacular sworn
and sweated by the good tonnage we heap,
taller than a big man. Purposeful.

 

The stack will grow warm as a body inside;
a hibernacula of predator and prey:
grass snake and her leathery eggs,
tunnelings for vole and shrew,
all bedfellows of the rat, three feet down.

 

Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)

Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)

Dear Readers, I wonder if there was ever a plant quite as ramshackle-looking as Hemp Agrimony when it’s past its prime. The flower heads looks as if they are in need of a good comb, and when the seeds come the overall effect is of a gigantic thistle with bedhead. But if we look at the photograph above, we can see a hoverfly who is in no way put off by the general air of untidiness. For, of all the flowers that has self-seeded around my pond, Hemp Agrimony is among the most popular.

IMG_4270Like many plants whose blossom is made up of numerous small flowers, Hemp Agrimony’s nectar can be easily accessed by the more non-specialised pollinators, such as flies and hoverflies. And the multiplicity of blooms means that there is a lot of food in one place. Honeybees also have a great fondness for the plant, and when it’s sunny the bees drift drowsily over the dirty-pink flowers, which Richard Mabey  compared to ‘whipped strawberry mousse’ in his book Flora Britannica.

IMG_4291Hemp Agrimony is a member of the Asteraceae, or Daisy family. You might expect that it has some psychotropic properties, what with it having the species name cannabinum, but this simply refers to the shape of the leaves. This doesn’t stop the occasional perfectly innocent Hemp Agrimony seedling being impounded of course, because botanical knowledge is not necessarily the first thing that they teach at Police Academy. Richard Mabey  mentions that young Horse Chestnut trees have been taken into custody because their leaves also have a strange resemblance to the true Cannabis plant, at least if you’ve never seen one of the latter.

IMG_4278Hemp Agrimony is a native plant in the UK, and like so many plants that have been here for a while, it has some interesting folklore. One alternative name for the plant is ‘Holy Rope’ – the leaves of Hemp, which this plant resembles, were used to make rope, and it was believed that such a rope was used to bind Christ before his crucifixion. A more day-to-day belief was that if bread was placed on a bed of Hemp Agrimony leaves, it wouldn’t go mouldy. The plant has also been used medicinally, especially in the Netherlands where it was for jaundice, as a blood-purifier and as a cure for scurvy. It is said to be toxic, however, and it has been noticed that the iron-stomached goat is the only creature that will eat it.

IMG_4271Hemp Agrimony likes damp, shady places, and so is very at home beside the pond in my north-facing garden. It’s a perennial too, so all it needs is some cutting back to stop it becoming too much of an eyesore. I put the hollow stems beside the shed, where they will hopefully be used by hibernating insects. And next year, without any bother at all, it will be back as a late summer feast for pollinators. I am very happy to live with its wayward habit and general shagginess when the reward is such an abundance of insects and other invertebrates.

Resources this week include: Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey

The Plant Lives website

The A Modern Herbal website

 

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