Nature 2019 June

Keep Off The Grass

…and don’t try that cure for Haemorroids!

As a child when we visited my grandparents house in Pinner, if it had rained earlier that day we were always greeted with a neat little sign on the edge of the lawn which read — KEEP OFF THE GRASS — and we were prohibited from walking on the neatly coiffured lawn, let alone be allowed to play cricket. There was a time, long before coming to live in these parts, when many, many hours were spent by us removing the slightest of undulations in our lawn, or use some garden string to trim the edges into geometrically pleasing shapes. Then there was the application of moss-killer, reseeding bare patches or Spring and Autumn feeds, plus some occasional rolling, spiking addition of sand, and of course the frequent mowing. Anything but the approved variety of grass was hunted down and removed.

Since moving to these villages having recovered the back yard from beneath a tumbled down brick farm building early attempts to create a green sward were attempted but before long it was obvious we could not compete with nature so these days frankly I don’t know why we continue to call the patch of green behind the house a ‘lawn’! Instead, it’s become home to a bespoke ecosystem comprising any floral wildlife willing to venture from the wilderness beyond to set-up home next to our home. No chance any of these invaders would be deterred by a Keep Off The Grass sign!

One of the earliest pioneers was some of the seventeen species of native clovers. Clovers come with a ready-made two-for one offer. Aside from the herb on its roots are nodules which host bacteria. This symbiotic relationship enables the clover to benefit from the nitrogen ‘fixed’ by the microbe from the air surrounding the soil, whilst the clover supplies nutrients needed by the bacteria. Each clover inflorescence comprises a dozen or more long-necked florets. Lightly scented nectar no-doubt draws a wide variety of insects but only long-tongued flies, butterflies, moths and, bees have the necessary equipment; specialised mouth-parts, to reach the nectarines at the base of the flower, a tube composed of fused petals. Solitary Bumblebees are the most visible and frequent of all the visitors. When not cut-off in its prime by the mower and allowed to grow to full height Red Clover is a stand out legume against a verdant lawn with tufts of purple/ pink/ rouge flowers, which deserves closer attention. White clover has a creeping habit, distinguishing it, out of season, from its red cousin. The leaves of White Clover also contain a nasty shock be it a predatory insect or a ruminant, as they produce the poison, prussic acid. A near relative of the clovers is the diminutive yellow-flowered Lesser Trefoil which can venture from pasture to the yard. Legend has it that it was the plant that St Patrick employed as a visual aid to promote the trinity to the Irish.

Synonymous with the literally perennial struggle between gardeners and weeds is the Dandelion. Big cats are known for possessing teeth which once attached to the neck of their quarry, can hold on tenaciously until their prey becomes unresponsive and suffocates. The leaves of this plant known in French as the ‘dent de lion’ provide the origin of its common English name. But this eponymous name also fits with this plant’s capacity, once it has quickly taken hold and possessed a territory, to hold on tenaciously. Over the centuries the Dandelion has attracted the attention of poets and playwrights. Shakespeare regaled them in his play Cymbeline as ‘Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney–sweepers come to dust.’ In Keat’s romantic poem Story of Rimini ‘The long soft rustle of a maiden’s gown, Fanning away the dandelion’s down.’ Meanwhile, as the essence of the Dandelion is a medically proven natural diuretic it is not surprising the plant also goes by such names as: ‘Pee-a-bed’ or ‘Jack-piss-the-bed’. With an inflorescence comprising up to 200 individual flowers, rapid dispersal is ensured, whilst a long but brittle taproot also makes it difficult to irradiate. Once, during times of famine, dandelions were foraged for food. During World War Two the root could be roasted to make a very bitter coffee. (I remember trying this having read it in Richard Mabey’s ‘Food For Free’.) Today, the leaves are used as a hip ingredient for salads.

Unlike the two previous examples that aren’t shy of making a show, some inhabitants use stealth to invade. One such is Chickweed, which can rapidly spread at ground level winding through the base of grass stems and in part for this reason is characteristically very tough to eradicate. The beauty is in the detail with Chickweed. As its Latin name Stellaria suggests, and a hand-lens will show, the flowers look like little (twinkling) stars. As the name suggests they are a favourite with poultry but are also a tasty salad for humans.

A group of varied blue-flowered plants some tall, some diminutive, are the Speedwells. The one I have found inveigling its way from the adjacent wilderness via the flowerbed and into the lawn is the Germander Speedwell with the delightful Latin name Veronica chamaedrys. Whereas the name ‘speedwell’ has been associated with the possession of healing powers or of proffering good luck to travellers who chose to wear it. ‘Veronica’ suggests a possible religious association with St Veronica who the Bible records wiped the face of Christ whilst he was carrying the cross which has resulted in the colloquial name ‘Eye of the Child Jesus’. In the eighteenth century a tea was made from an infusion of speedwell.

Without the attribution of Sir Percy Blakeney, the fictional English spy during the French Revolutionary period with the code name ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, the plant would perhaps not have received the same extent of recognition and affection. Despite the distinctive flowers there is little on offer to attract insects. Its most interesting feature is the habit of the flowers to only open on sunny days from 8 am and close by 3 pm. By remaining closed when rain is due has given it the appellation ‘poor man’s weatherglass’ and ‘shepherd’s sundial’. As a medicinal plant it was said to cure madness!

My final selection is Selfheal. A low-lying, closely-packed herb whose purpled-headed flower spikes can be seen poking through the grass. Its name is derived from the notion that a balm made by mixing with animal fat could treat cuts and prevent wounds festering. Its Latin name Prunella comes from the German for sore throat. Whereas an English regional name is ‘hook-heal’ which is closely associated with a belief stemming from the similarity of the hook-like appearance of the flower’s lower lip which resembled a sickle or billhook used by farmers and woodsmen who were prone to frequent cuts and laceration injuries.

The association between a plant and a cure for an ailment caused by a tool resembling in this case a flower is along the same lines as The Doctrine of Signatures. This Doctrine was a philosophy that had become widespread in the 15th century through the activities of apothecaries and herbalists. Their belief was that herbs could treat ailments associated with parts of the body which the shape or colour of a flower or leaf resembled. In fact this philosophy had been first developed by the Ancient Greeks in the first century AD. However, these principles were lost when the Greek and Roman Empires fell and Europe entered the ‘Dark Ages’. These ideas remained lost and forgotten for many centuries until rediscovered when Arab manuscripts of Greek texts were found and translated by scholars into Latin and eventually into other European languages, including English. More by coincidence than for any scientific reason, very occasionally there was a health benefit in taking a preparation of one of these herbs. However, in the vast majority of cases despite what the pseudoscience preached by Homeopathy might suggest there are no associated remedies, and in some cases the assumed associations often caused death or serious illness. However this has not resulted in the names originally assigned to such plants being forgotten. If anything they have persisted to the present day. So to mention just a few whose connections with body parts are obvious: Eyebright, Lungwort, Toothwort, Spleenwort, Liverwort, Woundwort. Others are less obvious or obscure such as the much heralded St John’s Wort which has pores which resemble those of the skin, Milk thistle for nursing mothers, and walnuts which resemble the convolutions of the brain.

And to end at the end, Lesser Celandine also know as Pilewort was at one time used as a cure for Haemorroids!