Plant Of The Month: October

pellitory-crackThis may sound a perverse choice, given all the possibilities, not least autumn-flowering bulbs and corms (and even ivy, the flowers of which are still attracting bees and butterflies), but here goes, anyway.

Yet another crux of botanical nomenclature has arisen in my life, in the context of cracks between the paving stones in my garden. I have Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican daisy, Mexican fleabane – I wonder if it works: I could weave a garland for Max the Cat), which is good;

Erigeron flourishing among rocks in summer ...

Erigeron flourishing among rocks in summer …

... and still hanging in there, in mid-October.

Erigeron, still hanging in there, in mid-October.

Geranium phaeum and forget-me-nots, spread from the flower beds (OK);

Geranium phaeum, muddling in with the erigeron.

Geranium phaeum, muddling in with the erigeron.

Slightly mud-splashed forget-me-not, after last night's rain.

Slightly mud-splashed forget-me-not, after last night’s rain.

strawberries and Viola labradorica, adventitious but rather nice;

This beautiful little strawberry plant must have come from a seed: I have alpine ones in the front garden.

This beautiful little strawberry plant must have come from a seed: I have alpine ones in the front garden.

Viola labradorica: I got one plant, 25-odd years ago, which has had hundreds of descendants.

Viola labradorica: I got one plant, 25-odd years ago, which has had hundreds of descendants.

Allium ursinum (ramsoms: heaven knows where the first one came from), less good;

Ramsom seed-head, about to continue the colony.

Ramsom seed-head, about to continue the colony.

dandelions and random bit of rye grass, annoying;

Just grass ...

Just grass …

and pellitory, completely infuriating and apparently indestructible.

Indestructible plant of the month.

Indestructible plant of the month.

I randomly asked on Twitter if pellitory is good for anything, and Celia Hart, print-maker extraordinaire (whose chief foe on the pavement cracks front seems to be the dreaded oxalis, as it is for my aunt in Essex) very kindly sent me a quote from Act III of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (in which I once played Pertinax Surly (typecasting, my friends assured me), though I don’t remember this bit – I suspect the text we performed from had been cut down/bowdlerised considerably):

Drugger. My head did so ache –
Face. And he was fain to be brought home,
The doctor told me: and then a good old woman –
Drugger. Yes, faith, she dwells in Sea-coal-lane, – did cure me,
With sodden ale, and pellitory of the wall;
Cost me but two-pence.

So, pellitory as a cure for headaches? I looked it up, and the results seemed encouraging. But on further rummaging, I discovered that several quite different plants bear the name pellitory …

Firstly, Anacyclus pyrethrum, known as pellitory, Spanish chamomile, or Mount Atlas daisy – from which you would correctly deduce that it is a plant of the dry areas of the Mediterranean, as well as Arabia and India.

The Mount Atlas daisy.

The Mount Atlas daisy.

As you would assume from this picture, it belongs in the Asteraceae family (and the flower looks indeed not unlike the Mexican daisy). It can be used as a hot food spice, and also appears in Aryuvedic medicine.

Secondly, Achillea ptarmica (wild pellitory, bastard pellitory, European pellitory, sneezewort, sneezeweed, fair-maid-of-France, goose tongue, sneezewort yarrow, white tansy…). A wild European ancestor of all the many garden Achillea hybrids, it makes you sneeze (ptarmica, from Greek πταιρω, to sneeze) and is poisonous to cattle, sheep and horses, producing alarming symptoms including drooling, spasms and loss of muscular control (all of which, I have to confess, I wake up with every morning).

Achillea ptarmica.

Achillea ptarmica.

I’m inclined to treat the suggestion that you can eat the leaves raw or cooked with some caution … (By the way, ptarmigans don’t sneeze: the word is thought to derive from a too-clever-by-half graecised rendering of Scots Gaelic ‘tarmachan’.)

Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus), not sneezing. (Credit: RSPB)

Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus), not sneezing. (Credit: RSPB)

Then there’s Dalmatian pellitory (Tanacetum cinerariifolium), which contains the insect-killing pyrethrum, and which can produce a severe allergic reaction in humans…

Dalmatian pellitory.

Dalmatian pellitory.

And finally we come to Parietaria officinalis (Linn. 1753), ‘pellitory-of-the-wall’, which is what the Latin word ‘parietis’ (gen.) means. The note to the scholarly edition of Jonson’s works identifies the plant thus: however, it’s not clear whether (a) Jonson believed it to be a cure for headache; or (b) he put this so-called remedy into the mouth of Abel Drugger, tobacconist and idiot, precisely because both the playwright and his audience knew that pellitory-of-the-wall is fit for nothing?

Pellitory at the base of my wall.

Pellitory at the base of my wall.

Which brings me back to my starting point. Is it good for anything at all? On the analogy of the study of spiders’ webs in the construction of very strong steel filaments, something might be made of its roots. Its ability to flourish above ground in all but the very hardest frosts, and then to bounce back as soon as it gets warmer, must be to do with an apparently deeply embedded and virtually indestructible root system. You can pull off the stalks and leaves as often as you like: regrowth is depressingly immediate, and remarkable, given the lack of moisture and nutrients in its chosen habitat. Would even a weed wand get rid of it?

A fistful of pellitory - the war continues.

A fistful of pellitory – the war continues.

Pellitory flowers are drab and verging on non-existent: I’ve never seen them attract an insect. The leaves are covered in very fine hairs, and so cling in fragments to your gardening gloves and clothing when you try to pull them up. It has the slightly negative virtue that it very rarely colonises or invades actual soil, preferring a completely barren home. But I suppose that I ought not be be so species-ist as to seek its total eradication. Apart from anything else, I’ve always been haunted by the Ray Bradbury story, ‘A Sound of Thunder‘, about the catastrophic consequences of an apparently minute environmental alteration – not that that will stop me going out when I’ve posted this to pull up handfuls more.

Caroline

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3 Responses to Plant Of The Month: October

  1. Celia says:

    My first thought – that’/ our patio!
    But it can’t be – we have no pelitory and where is the oxalis?!
    Our Erigeron is looking greener and more lush than it has all summer, it has a new flush of flowers. I like how it softens he edges of the paving … a view not shared by my other half. It provides cover for voles the cats lose on the way back from hunting trips.

    Like

    • The next thing I need to do is winkle out the grass and dandelions, scratch out all the rotting leaves trapped among the more acceptable plants, and shove them in the leafmould sack …

      Like

  2. Pingback: A Curious Herbal | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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