Spring Cleaning

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Synonyms: Goosegrass. Barweed. Hedgeheriff. Hayriffe. Eriffe. Grip Grass. Hayruff. Catchweed. Scratweed. Mutton Chops. Robin-run-in-the-Grass. Loveman. Goosebill. Everlasting Friendship.
(A Modern Herbal. Maude Grieve)

An insistent rattle echoes across the green, between the moat and the physic garden; a woodpecker, battering the bark of an old oak bordering the moat.
The garden is growing again after the winter months; Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is emerging, and needs thinning, to stop it dominating ground shared with Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum); Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is growing vigorously; Elecampane (Inula helenium) shoots disturb the soil; and Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is already colonising part of the wood chip path laid around the perimeter of the garden.

We’ve been transplanting herbs, and weeding; Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), and Cleavers (Galium aparine), considered invasive weeds, as are most of the plants in this garden. Small, bounded by a yew hedge and an old stone wall, limited space encourages the need to be selective, to exclude the more vigorous plants, including Cleavers, because of its extremely unruly habit. It can be a troublesome plant, clinging to clothing, but playful too. It’s very familiarity prompted Edward Step to include aparine in Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1930), and for another reason: The rambling botanist, when playfully inclined, detaches a yard-length from the hedge, and deftly throwing it against his unconscious companions back, causes a hundred hooks to catch in the warp or weft of his coat.

Following Cleavers’ spreading habit is fascinating; it’s specific name aparine, is derived from the Greek aparo, to seize, a characteristic Theophrastus observed in the 2nd century BCE. Pliny the Elder, and Dioscorides, both writing in the 1st century CE mention this characteristic, as well as its medicinal value; Pliny specifies the seedto neutralize the venom of serpents, being taken in doses of one drachma, in wine: it is useful also for the bite of the phalangium; Dioscorides recommends the whole plantseed, stalks and leaves […] juiced (taken as a drink with wine) to help those bitten by harvest spiders and snakes; both recommend drops of the juice to cure earache. Dioscorides also prescribes the pounded herb, mixed with swines’ grease, as a remedy for scrofulous tumors. Pliny mentions: The leaves, applied topically, arrest haemorrhage from wounds. Contemporaries, but with no evidence to suggest they met or corresponded, it seems possible that, in their separate commentaries, they were drawing on common knowledge, as well as observation.

Continuity and change; knowledge travels, manuscripts are annotated, translated, commentaries written. The printed English Herbals, from the 16th century onwards, rely heavily on these classical authors, while registering changes and developments too, in a broader European context. Eleanor Rohde suggests that English herbalists owed a great deal to Europe, particularly the herbalists of the Netherlands, Rembert Dodeons amongst them; but knowledge is shared. William Turner, in The Names of Herbes (1548), includes Cleavers ability to, scoureth away and dryeth, perhaps a reference to what had become its general use in treating skin diseases. Something Rembert Dodeons acknowledges, in A Newe Herball, or, Historie of plants, translated from the French by Henrie Lyte (1586), when, in the entry for Cleavers, he quotes William Turner (1551): pound with hogges grease, it dissolveth and consumeth the disease of the knecke, called the Kinges evil, and all hard kernels and wennes wheresoever they be, if it be layed thereto, as Turner writes.
Gerard, in his Herball (1636), simply quotes from the classical authors, adding to the herbs vertues what may be a folk remedy: Women do usually make pottage of Clevers with a little mutton and Otemeal, to cause lanknesse and keep them from fatnesse.
William Coles, writing in the 17th century repeats the standard medicinal uses of Cleavers, adding; A handful of Cleavers boiled in a quart of Ale, with a little paired liquorice, and some currants to the one halfe, and then strained, may be successfully drunk morning and evening for the cough, and removing phlegm from the stomack. He also writes of its common use as a ‘spring drink’, fitting the body for the season that followes, by purging away those excrementitious dregs, which winter hath bred in them.
Benjamin Barton and Thomas Castle, writing in the 19th century, refer to its use, among country people for scorbutic complaints. In the preface to The British Flora Medica (1845), they state their intention: to furnish an accurate description of all the medicinal plants indigenous to Britain [and] the estimation in which they were held by the greatest and most skilful of the old physicians. For this they claim a degree of originality, as far as the term will apply to publications whose chief value consists […] in affording a record of the experience of the past (their emphasis).
Older knowledge informing current use; with Cleavers it was its value as an external application in the treatment of cancer; the herb’s cleansing capabilities, already noted by William Turner, to scoureth away and dryeth, accompanied by internal treatment, either the juice, or a decoction of the herb for which they provide a recipe.

Aparine has a place in current herbal practice, it’s healing properties still very much valued; but it will remain outside this herb garden, or at least that’s the idea. Look again, that patch of ground we’ve weeded, leave it a few days and no doubt the Goosegrass will emerge, and left to its own devices, will be weaving its way across the beds, covering, enveloping, clinging; an invitation to play.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

Spring Tasks

We planted our potato tubers over the Easter weekend – traditionally, potatoes are planted out on Good Friday. Easter is the last Christian festival to be governed by the moon – Easter Sunday takes place on the 1st Sunday after the 1st full moon to occur after the Spring Equinox – hence why it moves each year. So, planting root crops on a waning moon fits with the tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday. We were taking a bit of a risk, with the freezing weather right through Easter, so we’ve covered all the beds with builders’ bags to protect from frost and to warm the soil when the sun eventually shines.

covered potato beds

We’ve also been spring cleaning, tidying beds, covering paths with wood chip, terracing and creating new beds up the hillside, space neglected up to now. The back of the allotment is almost ready to begin laying foundations for another shed – we have old fencing ready and are on the look out for sheds on Freecycle. Better to find a shed that needs work doing to it than buy an expensive and flimsy shed from a DIY chain.

Our fruit cages all collapsed under heavy snow about 4 years ago and we were not able to rebuild them. We’ve now cleared most of that area and reorganised our fruit bushes, but tackling these neglected areas has uncovered some invasive and persistent weeds that we’ve not seen before. Over the past couple of years we’ve been invaded by a variety of Hogweed, and now find that we have a major task to dig out their large fleshy root systems.

hogweed [2]

We’ve done some searching to find out about this plant and discovered it’s a biennial:  apparently, Hogweed likes chalky soil, and we garden on chalk, in some places it’s only inches from the surface. Hogweed also seems to prefer perennial fruit crops, perhaps why we found it predominately amongst our neglected fruit bushes. ‘Based on the seed characters, Hogweed seed should persist for less than 5 years and does not form a persistent seedbank’: this tells us about the seeds, but it doesn’t tell us how long the plant is likely to last on our allotment. However, there is some indication that regularly cutting back should  ‘decrease its frequency’, which suggests it becomes weakened, over time.  But, we’re getting there, and will keep looking for seedlings and getting them out of the ground before they get too big. Although we should be grateful it isn’t Gaint Hogweed, only Common Hogweed.  Weeds, after all, are our own creations, plants out of place, obstructions in our cultivation plans.

 

Seaweed weaves its magic

During the winter months we’ve been regularly collecting seaweed & putting it directly on our raised beds; one of the beds had been used for sweetcorn & dwarf french beans, & undersown with trefoil & clover. I spot weeded perennial weeds & spread seaweed on top of less persistent weeds & the green manure to a depth of approximately 4″/10cm. The seaweed will rot down over the winter & prevent weed seeds from germinating. However, not all the beds have been covered, just those we’re planning to use for this year’s potato crop. We aren’t adding seaweed to the beds that had a layer last year.

This year we’re extending the hedge up both sides of the plot to form a much-needed windbreak & need to dig trenches before planting out; the soil thins & becomes more chalky as you move up the hill so the soil needs some encouragement to hold water – seaweed is ideal as the alginates help develop soil crumb by glueing the particles together. Continue reading