Apologies to those of you who saw this when I posted it a day early yesterday, it’s been one of those weeks!
Dear Readers, I hope that you’ll forgive me for revisiting another ‘weed’, this one from 2014. Whenever I go back to Islington, I am astonished at how much Gallant Soldier there is growing in the tree pits and popping up from cracks, but until recently I had never seen it in East Finchley, even though it’s just a few miles up the road. Then, I noticed that it was living happily in some plant pots outside the Turkish restaurant, and I fully expect it to take up residence at any minute.
I have been doing a bit of extra research on this rather inconspicuous little weed, mainly in my copy of ‘Alien Plants’ by Stace and Crawley. The authors add a little more to the story of the plant’s name (see below) – they believe that ‘Gallant Soldier’ did come from the name of the discoverer, Mariano Galinsoga, but add that a close relative of the plant, which is rather hairier, has picked up the epithet ‘Shaggy Soldier’. Indeed, I shall have to check the next patch of the plant that I come across, as the shaggy version is apparently now commoner than the gallant one.
Stace and Crawley also point out that Gallant Soldier is one of the few well-documented cases of plants from collections escaping into the wild. It escaped from, of all places, Kew Gardens in 1861, and by 1863 it had naturalised on the pavements and wasteland of an area from Richmond to East Sheen. Gradually it advanced, until it is now found across London, and in other spots in the south of the country. However the ‘soldiers’, both Shaggy and Gallant, appear to have done no harm to native flora, being rather discreet in habit and fond of ‘low value’ areas like wasteland (though with the house prices in Islington it’s difficult to argue that there is anything ‘low’ about their values).
When I wrote this original post, I wasn’t looking for poems, but as I idly paged through the interwebs looking for ‘gallant soldier’ verse, this leapt out of me, though it is a bit tangential. When I think about the state of things, this doesn’t seem so far from the truth, though the ‘angry and defrauded young’ have been joined by a chorus of those who’ve died through the mishandling of Covid, cuts to health services and benefits and sheer poverty.
A Dead Statesman
by Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)
I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
Anyway! Back to Gallant Soldier. Here’s the piece that I wrote back in 2014.
I am rather excited about this little plant. I discovered it drooping rather sadly from the bottom of a wall in North London, and was intrigued when I discovered that it had the enigmatic name of ‘Gallant Soldier’. It’s nothing much to look at – a small, greenish daisy with five petals and a rather straggly, dangly habit – but it is a world traveller, an escape artist, a component of a South American stew and a potential drug for high-blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Not bad for such an inconspicuous ‘weed’.
Gallant-Soldier was originally taken to Europe from the Andean regions of Peru, by a Spanish botanist called Mariano Martinez Galinsoga, hence the plant’s Latin name, and its eventual English corruption to ‘Gallant Soldier’. Richard Mabey thinks that ‘Gallant Soldier’ may be an example of typical London sarcasm – there is nothing martial or upstanding about this diffident little plant. On the other hand, as we shall see, it has ‘marched’ unobtrusively across most of the planet, setting up home everywhere from the USA to Africa.
The plant lived inoffensively enough in the Madrid Botanical Gardens for many years, and a speciman was then taken to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in 1796.
In Colombia, the plant is called Guascas, and is used in a rather delicious stew called Ajiaco Bogotano. This features chicken and no fewer than three types of potatoes. As a lover and connoisseur of potatoes myself (like most Cockneys) this sounds delicious, especially as there are small yellow potatoes, floury white potatoes and a few blue potatoes thrown in for colour. As a vegetarian, though, I would probably skip the chicken. Then, a few handfuls of Gallant-Soldier are thrown on top to give what is described as ‘a unique flavour’. Colombian ex-patriots can buy Guascas dried, but this is said to be a poor substitute for the delicious fresh herb. I find it so interesting how, again and again, a plant can be a ‘weed’ in one country, and an invaluable resource in another. As we have become more detached from the plants around us, we have become less curious about what properties they may have, and even what they may taste like.
On the other hand, the plant is said to be poisonous to goats.
The plant has since spread to Africa and to North America. In Tanzania, Malawi and other areas it is planted amongst the crops to act as an alternative host for pests and viruses. However, it maintains its meek and humble reputation here too: in Malawi, its name is ‘Mwamuna aligone’, which means ‘my husband is sleeping’ (Richard Mabey, Plants Britannica).
In 2007, a study at the University of Kwa-Zulu in Durban, South Africa, investigated a number of plants for their properties as ACE inhibitors – plants that reduce hypertension. Gallant-Soldier was found to help improve blood flow, and to also be helpful in cases of hyperglycaemia, along with other common herbs such as Wild Garlic and Fat Hen. Herbalists have always known that there are a whole range of useful plants growing around us, but we have forgotten so much of the lore of our grandparents. Sometimes, it seems as if science is ‘discovering’ things that have been known by observant ‘ordinary’ people for centuries.