Some of our garden plants have less than flattering names, with odd reasons why they should be so called. And Lady Edith’s garden books reveal some that she wanted to order like Wong Bok Cabbage, Giraffe beans, and Granite State Musk Melon. Here are a few of our present collection to consider as you walk around the grounds.
Skunk Cabbage, phew..
Found in swamps and wet areas of the Pacific Northwest, this plant was introduced to Britain by David Douglas of fir tree fame, and flourishes where our stream enters the lake. In flower it looks like a giant canna lily with cabbage style leaves, but is aptly called Skunk Cabbage because of its malodorous smell. It can emit heat and will melt snow around itself in early springtime. The leaves are composed mostly of water and in autumn turn black and dissolve, a process which happening just now. Find some up at the stream, take a sniff and see if you want to plant some beside your clothes line, and if you want to learn more take the Skunk Cabbage Discovery Trail next time you visit California.
Bear’s Breeches, ouch…
This is Acanthus spinosus, the spiky one in the Italian border that caught out my investigating forefinger.
Memo to self: Carry plasters in rucksack, or desist from touching plants with thorns. A cousin plant, Acanthus mollis, not quite so prolific in flower but with much more friendly and voluminous leaves (hence the breeches) is the model for the decoration at the top of Corinthian columns. Introduced to Britain by the Romans, both plants were used as poultices, after boiling, to relieve burns, sprains, gout and baldness. May not need the Band Aids then.
The pinkish peduncles or fruit-bearing stems of Pokeweed are such a lovely colour, but unless you are a songbird don’t eat the black berries as they are poisonous. The plant is properly called phytolacca americana, being a north American plant. Elvis recorded a song Polk Salad Annie, the story of a serially unfortunate southern girl (a ‘gator got her granny and her mother was in a chain-gang) whose destitute family ate polk or poke sallet, a dish free from the forest. Sallet is an old English word meaning cooked greens, not salad. Poke juice was once used as ink and dye, and so another name is inkberry, and native Americans used it as a laxative and to induce vomiting. Given her luck, it’s a wonder that poor Annie survived her “mess of sallet”.
Dogwood, barking up the wrong shrub?
Dogwood seems like an inelegant name for this lovely shrub, but it could have easily evolved from the Celtic word dag, dagga, or dagwood. Dagge was a useful pointed tool, dagger, or arrow and as dogwood is extremely hard this is a reasonable assumption. But because of the name, many an unfortunate pet was bathed in water boiled with bark (there’s a pun in there somewhere) in an ineffectual attempt to cure mange. I fell in love with the shrub while driving in Springtime along the Blue Ridge Parkway, when the bracts were appearing like clouds of butterflies amongst the bare branches of the trees. Bark-free branches were used as toothbrushes by pioneers and modern products include roller skates, tool handles, and golf club heads. Our June pink variety is Cornus kousa Miss Satomi. I can’t help feeling that Lady Edith, being a lover of faery legend, would have rejoiced in the Cherokee story of the Dogwood People, a tiny race of forest dwellers who did good deeds without expectation of reward.
Together with her tales of Formorians, Pookas and Leprechauns, Lady Edith had her own odd plant names in The Magic Ink-Pot stories. In The Enchanted Steed chapter we come across Stinking Willie, Witchbane and Bloodwort, all with stories of their own.
I’m currently keeping an eye out for Stinking Willie as this is where the leprechauns hide their gold, not at the end of the rainbow
(don’t tell anyone).