Saturday, February 21, 2009

She loves me, she loves me not

The dandelion must be one of the plants most people can recognise and name. For gardeners, it’s a plant to be hated … the archetypal weed. In lawns it lies flat to the ground avoiding any number of passes of the mower, then sends up flower heads, seemingly overnight, just to annoy us.

In flower beds it produces enormously long tap roots that test the abilities of even the most skilled weeder. Removing them is like pulling teeth, except that the root usually breaks just when it feels like it’s going to come out whole. And a few days later, up pop not one but half a dozen fresh shoots to mock the gardener.

But to children the dandelion is a pure delight. Every child knows the ball of fluffy parachutes that make up the dandelion seed head. And most are sure that blowing it will tell them the time of day, or whether “He loves me, he loves me not”, or that it will make their wish come true . It’s the seed heads that give the common name for the plant in a number of countries such as Pusteblume (blow flower) in Germany. But it’s the serrated leaves that provide the origin for the name most of us know – looking like a row of lions teeth or dent de lion in old French.

Ironically, in France, its common name is now pissenlit, and you don’t need a degree in French language to realise that translates as piss in the bed – not such an extraordinary or inappropriate name when you realise that the dandelion has very good diuretic properties.

In fact, the dandelion has a whole host of medicinal properties as the Latin name Taraxicum probably indicates. It’s thought this comes from the Greek words taraxos, meaning disorder, and akos, meaning remedy. Many herbalists regard the dandelion as an effective treatment for liver disease, useful even in such extreme cases as cirrhosis. It cleanses the bloodstream and increases bile production, and is a good remedy for gall bladder problems as well. The herb is also a boon to such other internal organs as the pancreas, kidneys, stomach, and spleen. The dried leaf, taken as a tea, is used as a mild laxative to relieve constipation.

So, how come a plant that’s got so much going for it has such a bad reputation?

It’s even got an extraordinarily beautiful flower.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blogging Jim ... but not as we know it

Blogging, in the sense that most people do it, is contrary to my nature and at odds with most of the writing I've done - or had to do - during my working life. I've always written for an audience I know and understand. That was the essence of writing for the kind of specialist magazines I worked for. Get that wrong and you'd pretty soon be out of a job.

Blogging seemed much more spontaneous and rather random. Firing words off to an unknown audience. Maybe hitting a target ... maybe not. The process worried me.

I wanted to write a blog, but it had to be a blog with rules and a structure. So I turned to plants. They've been a recurring theme throughout my life and whilst I've written for magazines on topics as diverse as caravanning and printing, and outdoor pursuits and town planning, I've always felt happiest writing about plants and on plant related topics.

Blame my parents. They dragged us out on Sunday afternoon walks across what passed for the open countryside in the area between the sprawling industrial waste and housing estates of Wakefield, Dewsbury, Batley and Leeds. We always had our Penguin book of British Wild Flowers with us and we learned what a rich diversity of plants could be found even in such unpromising surroundings.

I don't think it was a 'normal' upbringing in that area. At school when it came to choosing subjects for A level, I said I wanted to do Botany .... and I was the only one. So I did it ... by myself. I couldn't believe how lucky I was. I used to go off for hours "collecting specimens". I had my own area of a lab to do microscope studies and my own windowsill for growing things. And I had a teacher who I used to see for an hour or two a week and the rest of the time I was left to get on with work I was set to do.

I got good marks in the exams and went off to do botany at university. The best I can say about it was that I got a degree. Student politics, beer, parties, writing for the student newspaper and a host of other things all seemed to offer much more excitement than sitting in a lecture room learning about the reproductive structures of liverworts or the biochemical processes involved in photosynthesis.

But the underlying interest in plants never went away. Much later I returned the favour my parents gave me by taking my children out on walks and telling them about the plants - how they worked and some of the stories attached to them. And that's really where this blog has come from. My fascination with the diversity of plants, their place in food, industry, medicine, culture ... and folklore. Why do they have the names they have? ... why do they grow where they do? ... why? ... why?

I'll be looking for some of the answers to those questions, to satisfy my curiosity and, I hope, to stimulate yours. And I'll be looking mainly at the plants I see around me - on our fives acres of rough pasture in Co Clare and in the woods, down the lanes and on the hillsides around us.

It'll be an interesting journey for me. I hope you'll find time to join me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A host of golden celandines

The first Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) to come into flower at Doorus on February 17, 2009

Although Wordsworth's 'Daffodils' is one of the most famous and widely read poems in the English language, daffodils were probably not Wordsworth's favourite flower. He wrote no less than three poems about the tiny Lesser celandine and just one about the more famous daffodils. This is his first poem in praise of the celandine

To the Small Celandine

Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine.

Eyes of some men travel far
For the finding of a star;
Up and down the heavens they go,
Men that keep a mighty rout!
I'm as great as they, I trow,
Since the day I found thee out,
Little flower! - I'll make a stir
Like a great Astronomer.

Modest, yet withal an Elf
Bold, and lavish of thyself,
Since we needs must first have met,
I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
'Twas a face I did not know;
Thou hast now, go where I may,
Fifty greetings in a day.

Ere a leaf is on a bush,
In the time before the Thrush
Has a thought about its nest,
Thou wild come with half a call,
Spreading out thy glossy breast
Like a careless Prodigal;
Telling tales about the sun,
When we've little warmth, or none.

Poets, vain men in their mood!
Travel with the multitude;
Never heed them: I aver
That they all are wanton Wooers;
But the thrifty Cottager,
Who stirs little out of doors,
Joys to spy thee near her home,
Spring is coming, Thou art come!

Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Kindly, unassuming Spirit!
Careless of thy neighbourhood,
Thou dost shew thy pleasant face
On the moor, and in the wood,
In the lane - there's not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But 'tis good enough for thee.

Ill befall the yellow Flowers,
Children of the flaring hours!
Buttercups, that will be seen,
Whether we will see or no;
Others too of lofty mien;
They have done as worldlings do,
Taken praise that should be thine,
Little, humble Celandine!

Prophet of delight and mirth,
Scorned and slighted upon earth!
Herald of a mighty band,
Of a joyous train ensuing,
Singing at my heart's command,
In the lanes my thoughts pursuing,
I will sing, as doth behove,
Hymns in praise of what I love!

The name is probably derived from the Greek chelīdónion meaning swallow said to be so called because it blooms when the swallows return in spring. Actually it blooms much earlier than the swallow returns, but like the swallow it is regarded as a harbinger of spring.

The plant was traditionally called 'pilewort' and was used to treat the painful affliction of piles because a bunch of the fleshy small roots somewhat resembles the condition. Surprisingly Wordsworth didn’t bring that into his poem

It is a member of the buttercup family and is one of the earliest spring wild flowers, and provides nectar and pollen for bumblebees emerging from hibernation. Its flowers react very clearly to weather conditions, opening with the sun and closing whenever rain or colder weather come along.