Food For The Birds

Plants (or some plants) were necessary to a degree that we are forgetting.[1]

Chickweed; from the Old English cîcene mete, cîcene-mete chicken food.
Daisy; from the Old English dægeseage (about 1000, in Ælfric’s Glossary), and dæges êage day’s eye, in allusion to closing of petals in the evening, and their opening in the morning.[2]

Days of sunshine days of rain, the week passes and we’re here, again working in the physic garden. We have a routine now, time set aside; this week we’ve concentrated on the areas where Chickweed and Daisy should be growing. Chickweed, most troublesome according to John Hutchinson, but also of considerable economic and biological interest, representing a high stage of evolution. The seeds provide food for small birds nearly all the year round.

Chickweed, unsightly for some, disruptive; Daisy, a familiar flower in the memory, a flower of childhood meadows, but not welcome in the garden. Both are valued here, but no longer where they should be, no doubt casualties of over enthusiastic weeding in the years since the herb garden was established. The planting plan tells us where they should be, so do the small metal plaques growing out of bare soil. So, with hand forks and a small trug, we go for a walk around the Priory grounds, by way of the orchard where we find what we’re looking for, and then back to the Physic garden.

A man, walking through the garden, is surprised that we should think of cultivating rather than weeding out these perennials.
‘Of all things. Can’t get rid of them in our garden, thought of spraying but haven’t, yet.’
‘Good. You shouldn’t spray.’
The conversation turns on weeds and why we might want to eradicate them.
‘Nothing but a Nuisance, why would you want them in the garden, growing over everything’.
It depends on what’s considered a nuisance, an eyesore. We wouldn’t have a herb garden if we agreed with that point of view; most of the plant here being considered too unruly, would overrun the bedding plants, colonise the lawn.
‘And anyway they’re unnecessary now, we can call in at the chemist, can’t we?’
But he thinks we’re doing a fine job tidying this part of the Priory, taking care of our weeds.

Chickweed (Stellaria media); this unassuming plant has a long history. Sir Harry Godwin, in The History of the British Flora states, Stellaria media has been recorded from the Cromer Forest Bed series […]. It is apparent that S. media has been persistently native up to and through the Weichselian glaciation, […] The numerous interglacial records give striking proof of the plant’s capacity to exist here independently of human influence. Troublesome as this plant might be to some, it’s been here at least as long we have, and thrived, been useful too.
Gerard recommends: The leaves of Chickweed boiled in water very soft, adding thereto some hogs grease, the pouder of Fenugreek and Lineseed, and a few roots of Marsh Mallowes, and stamped to form a cataplasm or poultesse, take away the swellings of the leg or any other part. He also states, the leaves boiled in vinegar are good against manginesse of the hands and legs.
James Britten and Robert Holland in their Dictionary of English Plant Names (1886), under the entry for Chickweed, say, the name was formerly applied to many small plants of similar habit, such as the annual species of Veronica […]. 
For Geoffrey Grigson, Chickweed is everywhere, winter green and happy even in the coldest months.

Daisy (Bellis perennis), Wordsworth’s little Cyclops, may be older, or rather the Asteraceae family to which Daisies belong, research into fossil pollen found in Antarctica suggesting that the Asteraceae family is about 80 million years old. The dating of this fossil pollen, together with similar finds in Australia and New Zealand, is helping to show how the Daisy family spread across the world, and the potential influence on the evolution of pollinators. Asteraceae is believed to have played a major role in the diversification and evolution of animals such as bees, hummingbirds and wasps.
For Maude Greave, the Daisy along with Ox-Eye Daisy, had a reputation for healing fresh wounds. Gerard suggests Daisy, which he calls by its English name Bruisewort, as a remedy to, mitigate all kinds of paines. A decoction, made in water and drunke, is good against agues, inflammation of the liver and all other inward parts. The decoction, in ale rather than water, was a common folk remedy for jaundice. Contemporary herbal medicine recommends the Daisy, often as a tincture, or as a tea, for a range of ailments including coughs, colds, and intestinal inflammation.

Geoffery Grigson, in The Englishman’s Flora, explores our relationship with plants, through their own human dossier, those common names that speak eloquently of the role plants have, or at least had, in our daily lives.
Among the local common names Grigson lists for Chickweed, are; Clukenweed, Cluckweed, Clukenwort, in Northumberland, Mischevious Jack, in Somerset. For Daisy; Little Open Star, Little Star, in Somerset, Mary Gowlan, in Northumberland. Naming is knowing, expressing an intimate connection with our immediate environment.
First published in 1955, when many of the local names listed might already have become obsolete, An Englishman’s Flora acts as a record of that passing, and in the process, underscores a loosening of ties with the local and familiar, perhaps inevitable in an increasingly urbanised society. We can remake these connections, through our work in the physic garden, which otherwise will remain, to many, merely a collection of weeds.

[1] Grigson, G. The Englishman’s Flora, London, 1987
[2] Barnhart, K. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, London. 2000

 

chickweed_physic-garden1

 

Another Autumn day

It’s been calm today, a light wind blowing up the valley, but cold with it. Our neighbour across the valley has retrieved their polytunnel, or rather the frame. Looking at the wreckage a few days ago, a casualty of the storms that battered our coast, we thought it had been comprehensively demolished, but the frame looks intact, at least from where we’re standing, and covering can be replaced.

We’ve been working on the garlic bed; open composting with the remnants of earlier crops, and then covering with a layer of seaweed, and today covering with compost from the paths. We lay woodchip every year and find that after a couple of years the wood chip has been trodden into the path, and rotted, making wonderful compost. We dig the paths out, replace with wood chip, start the process again; in a couple of years the compost/path will be ready to spread across beds again.

These are shorter days now; sitting in the shed drinking tea in the fading light is a lovely way to watch the day pass.

allotment_late-afternoon-1

autumn-hedge_allotment

autumn-flower_allotment-1

Work an Eye Salve for a Wen

So the passing days find us here again working in the physic garden, cutting back and clearing, gathering herbs together, making progress. Hypericum, seeded in different parts of the garden; Common Mallow, migrated from the original planting place, and now grouped together in the preferred spot; Solomon’s Seal, congested and in need of thinning out; Herb Robert and Chickweed, considered common weeds, have a place in this garden. As does Elecampane, of ancient medicinal repute, having been described by Dioscorides and Pliny, according to Grieve, and Agrimony, known to the Anglo-Saxons as a vulnerary; all point to an older, more intense awareness of the immediate environment.

The ground we’ve been working today has become compacted over time, turning it over throws up Alexanders and Chicory roots; as with the other herbs, we’re learning to recognise different roots, to name them. There’s a toad population we have to watch out for too; one was nestling in the comfrey we had ‘cleared’. Moving it to the yew hedge wasn’t too much of a problem. And the comfrey patch has been dug over, again.

People wander through the garden, occasionally stop, chat, then leave to visit another part of the Priory, but most of the time we’re left alone. Today people want to talk, which is fine; nothing quite like nattering, in between gardening. We talk about the older medical knowledge these plants represent, how some of these practices are still with us, in the herbal mixtures, tonics, balms, bought from the chemist, or off the web, alongside the antibiotics we consume all too readily. Conversations circle around the same question, posed in different ways; where did this knowledge come from? One man thinks, ‘Maybe they knew something we’ve lost,’ while we talk about treating nettle stings with Dock leaves; shared knowledge, strands of a folk medicine that’s still alive.

Suggestive rather than productive, this garden speaks of a time when people were careful husbandmen [who] out of sheer necessity […] made the greatest possible use of the resources they had available to them; it follows that they had an intense familiarity with the plant and animal life around them. What Stephen Pollington is describing, in the context of medicinal knowledge in Anglo Saxon England, seems nothing but the echo of a memory now, filtered through images of the pastoral idyll; imagined geographies tapping into ever-present anxieties about the pace of change to the environment we inhabit.

This garden owes much to Gerard’s Herball. Although John Gerard was accused of plagiarism when he first published the Herball in 1597, sixty years after the dissolution of Michelham Priory, the book nevertheless proved extremely popular, and has endured. Eleanour Rohde, writing in the 1920s, acknowledges and forgives those criticisms, setting aside, Gerard’s possible duplicity in the never failing charm of the book, noting that it contains Gerard’s own observations as well as a good deal of contemporary folklore. For Rohde, that mixture of medicine and magic which informed Anglo Saxon medical practice, the belief in the efficacy of herbs used as amulets, survives in the Herball, although Gerard does sometimes doubt the efficacy of what he terms, Physick charms, relying instead on his religious faith to cure him of, a most grievous ague […] for these medicines and all other such things did me no good at all.

If Gerard is present in this garden, so are the vernacular traditions embodied in the folklore he drew on, echoes of those older practices to which Rohde and Pollington refer. And while it’s true that magic was a component part of all ancient and medieval medical practices, M. L. Cameron questions the extent to which it played the dominant role in Anglo Saxon medicine, suggesting that sound observation and experience also underpinned that practice. He analyses a remedy, taken from Bald’s Leechbook, a manuscript possibly compiled towards the end of the 9th century, intended to treat the microbial infection that cause styes: Staphylococcus aureus.

Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, both of equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand for nine days in the brass vessel, wring through with a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye: the best leechdom.[1]

Cameron states that the remedy, contains four antibiotic agents, two of them (onion and garlic) especially active against staphylococci, bull’s gall destructive of bacteria generally and the fourth (copper salts) toxic to all cells. […] Applied to a stye, this medicine should have helped to destroy bacteria at the site of the infection and to have prevented the spread of infection to other sites. Nine days allowed the copper salts to form.

In 2015 Freya Harrison conducted an experiment that excited attention in the international press. Harrison, together with Christina Lee, a medieval scholar, and colleagues in the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, at the University of Nottingham, and at the Texas Tech University, USA, reproduced the stye remedy. Substituting cow’s bile for bull’s gall, and glass bottles containing squares of brass sheet instead of the brass vessel specified, after nine days the solution was tested on fragments of skin infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The remedy successfully killed 90 per cent of the bacteria. Vancomycin, the antibiotic generally used against MRSA, killed about the same proportion when it was added to the skin fragments. Harrison, speaking at the Society for General Microbiology Annual Conference in 2015, stated, ‘Our results highlight the untapped potential of pre-modern antibacterial remedies for yielding novel therapeutics.’
This isn’t isolated research, increased antibiotic resistance is an international problem, encouraging researchers to look at the potential of older traditional medicinal practices, and not just in relation to antibiotic resistance. Yung-Chi Cheng, professor of pharmacology at Yale School of Medicine is developing a new cancer treatment based on an ancient Chinese recipe.

The weather changes, clouds gather, we continue working, quietly now that people have wandered off to different parts of the Priory. We collect together Motherwort, Sweet Cicely, thin out Lemon Balm, clear a space for chickweed; someone walking through the garden comments, ‘Its like cultivating weeds, isn’t it?’ Pauses, ‘I like flowers.’ And then she’s gone before we can respond. These plants persist, they grow and spread, become a nuisance to the gardener, are consigned to the compost heap. They colonise roadside verges, field boundaries, are sprayed in an attempt to eradicate what is seen as untidy, a menace. Rampant, unruly, they disrupt the boundaries we draw between nature and culture; weeds, mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It’s curious that it took so long for us to realise that the species they most resemble is us.

Considered disruptive, in this herb garden, Chickweed, Dandelion and Daisy, Herb Robert, cultivated alongside Hypericum, Mallow, Sage and Thyme, suggest another way to engage with the ordinary and the everyday.

[1] Cockayne, O. Leechdom, Wortcunning, and Star Craft of Early England. Vol.II. p35. Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green. London 1865. In a footnote Cockayne suggests uncertainly that Allium oleraceum might be the cropleek known to Saxon leechs. He points out that wisps or styes are called wuns in Devon.

Marigold

A Lichen Covered Bench

Sunlight on lichen. Lunch time, we’re sitting in the shade of the orchard, next to us our old metal teapot, red plastic plates, two chipped enamel cups; remnants of camping holidays, and still useable. Over the last couple of months we’ve sat in various parts of the gardens, but the orchard has become the preferred place; watching the play of sunlight on the lichen covering these bench slats. As with herbs, so Lichens are used in medicinal remedies, having antibiotic properties. Maude Grieve specifies two types; Litmus, Rocella Tinctoria, useful in treating coughs and catarrhs, and Liverwort, Peltigera Canina, as a remedy for liver complaints. But these are not the lichens we share this bench with.

We continue to work our way around the Physic garden, thinning out Marshmallow, Hop, Soapwort, Dyers Madder, moving Hypericum which has migrated over time. The garden’s starting to look more organised. We’ve laid a wood chip path next to the wall, for easier access to the plants as they begin to grow and spread again in the coming year. And as expected, the comfrey has emerged again. From past experience on our allotment, while the young shoots are often quite easy to remove, comfrey is deep rooted, and stubborn with it.

The comfrey we’re dealing with is a relatively modern introduction. Lawrence Hills, in Russian Comfrey, (1953), details its history from an agricultural perspective, beginning in the late 18th. century when Joseph Busch, a nurseryman and gardener, left England to become head gardener for Catherine the Great. He sent back several varieties of Symphytum as garden plants, including the largest, Prickly Comfrey, S. Asperrimum, a native of the Caucasus, and recommended as an ornamental perennial, capable of thriving in any soil.

The possibility that these new introductions might be grown as a fodder crop emerged at much the same time, with Hills citing nurseryman James Grant from Lewisham, as the first to discover the agricultural potential of the imported plant. However, because the plant is propagated vegetatively by division, or root cuttings, it was expensive, and the high price demanded by nurserymen meant only small quantities were bought for agricultural trial, which limited research. Interestingly, he points out that this also accounted for, ‘the quite extraordinary number of clergymen in the history of Comfrey. The country parson with his glebe land, his horse, and his Gilbert-White-like interest in Nature and the Useful Arts, was the most frequent buyer.’ Because of the prohibitive costs, eventually both clergy and farmers began to collect Common Comfrey, S. Officinale, from the wild, which increases its yield when cultivated. Hills suggests that this move was largely responsible for ‘the hybrids, with S. Asperrimum as the pollen parent, which are found in many districts more commonly than the true plant [S. Officinale].’

In about 1870, Henry Doubleday imported a hybrid of S. Officinalle and S. Asperrimum, known as S. x Upplandicum from St. Petersburg. The plant was sent to Doubleday by one of the successors to Joseph Busch. Doubleday, and Thomas Christy, a writer, botanist, and nurseryman, between them named this new variety Russian Comfrey, to distinguish it from the earlier introduction, Prickly Comfrey. This naming was against the background of a proliferation of hybrids and a lack of understanding about their use or which hybrids were being grown, evident in the agricultural press at the time. Although there were a number of others carrying out similar research, Henry Doubleday was the first person to select Comfrey by roguing out to improve stock, as well as methodically recording yields.

While Lawrence Hills’ primary interest and research was in the agricultural potential of Comfrey, it’s medicinal value was also recognised. Referencing a recipe in Gerard’s Herball of 1597 that called for the extracted juice of the plant in wine, to aid internal bleeding, Hills points out that, what ‘Master Gerard was prescribing [was] an 0.06 per cent dose of diureide of glyoxylic acid called ‘Allantoin’ to-day. This is present in both the roots and leaves of this plant, and the agricultural species, and its value as a cell-proliferant in making the edges of wounds grow together, healing sores, and internally for gastric and duodenal ulcers and intestinal irritations causing diarrhoea, is still recognised in pharmacy.’

Joseph Payne, in the first of the Fitzpatrick Lectures of 1903 to the Royal College of Physicians, took as his subject Anglo Saxon medicine. Payne drew attention to the fact that the body of knowledge contained in the surviving Anglo Saxon medical texts, was ‘founded on an empirical knowledge of the virtue of herbs, […] the Anglo Saxons took a keen and genuine interest in the study of plants for medicinal uses. […] Their knowledge of botany was not only much more extensive than has been supposed, but it was original.’

During his lectures, Payne made reference to Comfrey’s reputation as a vulnerary herb in Saxon England and, linking the plant across time, he quoted from personal correspondence with a doctor in Sussex, on the continuing use of the plant in diagnosis, ‘The local modus is to scrape the root and put the scrapings (not unlike a dish of horseradish) on the part alleged to be ‘sprained’. If it adhere there is unquestionable evidence of the sprain; if not there is no sprain whatever, the patient may suppose. As a matter of fact the scraped-wort poultice does harden very notably on a hot inflamed area, and sticks for a considerable time.’

Eleanour Rohde suggests that Anglo Saxon medical texts, written in the vernacular, fell into disrepute after the Norman Conquest. The Old English medical texts may have been abandoned for Latin texts, but it’s interesting to speculate on the extent to which the vernacular knowledge of pre-conquest England continued to exert an influence on the monastic physic garden, and the collection of herbs in the wild, for medicinal uses.

lichen-on-bench

Physic Garden, Michelham Priory

We’ve recently started to volunteer at Michelham Priory, in Sussex, taking on responsibility to restore the Physic Garden. Bounded by the Refectory and an old stone wall which ends abruptly, a gently curving yew hedge completes the garden’s sense of separation from the rest of the grounds. It’s a quiet place to work, peaceful, but also a long term commitment; over the years the planting has become congested and overgrown.
Although there is no archeological, or other evidence, to indicate the presence of a physic garden on the site, it is highly likely, following the general layout of monasteries and priories, that one would have existsed to provide medicinal herbs for everyday use. The present planting, rather than being a working physic garden, is indicative of herbs, both medicinal, and household, in common use during the period when Michelham functioned as a priory.

Working from a copy of the original planting plan, when the garden was established in 1981, we’re finding out what has migrated, or disappeared, as the more vigorous and unruly plants have come to dominate this enclosed space. While we’re familiar with a number of the herbs, this is also a learning process and exciting for that; understanding the conditions that each herb thrives in, as well as beginning to research their medicinal uses; but that’s for later, as, for now, we have some very practical problems to address.

The herbs have been grouped according to their uses: childbirth and children’s diseases; rheumatism, gout and painful joints; household tasks; the heart, lungs and blood disorders. Solomon’s Seal, Herb Robert, and Comfrey, among others, were used to treat wounds and broken bones, but a dense patch of Comfrey now dominates this area and the other plants struggle to compete. It is Symphytum x uplandicum, Russian Comfrey, probably Boking 14, a cultivar developed by Lawrence Hills in the 1950s, not the native species, Common Comfrey Symphytum Officinale, that would have been familiar in a monastic physic garden. Some of its common names: knitbone, knitback, bruise wort, boneset, tell of the medicinal value attributed to this herb.

In A Modern Herbal, Maude Grieves states:
‘Country people cultivated Comfrey in their gardens for its virtue in wound healing, and the many local names of the plant testify to its long reputation as a vulnerary herb – in the Middle Ages it was a famous remedy for broken bones. The very name, Comfrey, is a corruption of con firma, in allusion to the uniting of bones it was thought to effect, and the botanical name Symphytum, is derived from the Greek, symphyo (to unite).’

Given the difficulty in eradicating the Comfrey already in the garden, we now have the opportunity to re-introduce Symphytum officinale alongside Symphytum x uplandicum. Comfrey flowers early, and is one the first food plants for bumble bees, so let’s see what the next few seasons bring as Common Comfrey grows alongside Russian Comfrey and the bees happily forage between them.

For now, the comfrey patch has been cleared as much as possible, and mulched with compost; we’ve also made a comfrey feed by filling an old dustbin with leaves, ramming them down and filling the bin with water. It’s been a few weeks since that was started so we’ll decant the liquid and mulch the brassicas in the kitchen garden with the remaining comfrey sludge. However, even with the most careful of weeding, Comfrey roots are deep and so there’ll be roots left in the ground and no doubt, over the next few weeks, we’ll begin to see shoots appearing in the area we’ve cleared. For now, a sense of order is beginning to emerge.

 

Physic garden [1]