Friday, August 07, 2020

Enchanter's nighshade

Enchanter's nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) is once again flowering here and there in our garden and local woods.  It is a small and modest plant with delicate pink and white flowers followed by  small burrs, each containing a seed, which cling to one's trouser legs.

It appears to have very few virtues as an edible or medicinal plant but most people wonder how it came by its mysterious English name.  This has been much discussed in various online places but generally it seems to have originated in the 16th and 17th century when many of the great European herbalists were writing about the medicinal and magical properties of plants.  Among other things they explored the works of classical authors like Dioscorides (De materia medica, AD 50 -70).  He wrote of a plant called 'kirkaia' in Greek which becomes 'Circaea' in Latin and can be translated as Circe's (plant).  Quite what this was seems uncertain but enchanter's nightshade is one candidate.

The French name for Enchanter's nightshade was, at the time of the 16th and 17th C herbalists, 'circée' and this is still current in France, Italy and French-speaking Switzerland.  The herbalists assumed this associated the plant with Circe, the enchantress of Homer's Odyssey who attracted Ulysses's men with her siren song then used a magic potion to turn them into pigs.  The derivation of circée as a plant name may be correct but I have not seen any direct evidence that this was so.  There are, however, some accounts of the plant being used by women to arouse men, though this may not pre-date the 16th century.

When the French herbalists were writing they often called Enchanter's nightshade 'circée de Paris'.  This was not only because the plant grew commonly in the Paris area (and elsewhere in most of France) but to distinguish it from upland enchanter's nightshade (Circaea alpina) known in French as 'circée des Alpes'.  Circée de Paris was written in Latin as 'circaea lutetiana', the second word deriving from 'lutetia' a Roman name for Paris, and Linnaeus used this when formally describing the plant in his Species Plantarum.

All that more or less explains the enchanter's part of the name, but why 'nightshade'?  This is quite simply because the plant was thought to be a nightshade due to the shape of its leaves resembling woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara).  Gaspard Bauhin the 17th C Swiss botanist  called it Solanifolia Circaea (nightshade-leaved circée) for example. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Things on hornbeam leaves

I seem to have been doing well with hornbeam leaves this year, especially as they do not normally seem to produce anything very exciting.  My first discovery was the tiny galls of the mite Aceria tenellus in the axils of veins in several leaves of the hornbeam cordon in my Square Metre, as well as on the edge of Killingan Wood up the lane.  There are only a few records of this species from Sussex and I expect it has been overlooked rather than being generally scarce.

My next discovery was of quite a few empty mines of the small purple hazel moth Paracrania chrysolepidella (it also feeds on hazel), an attractive, Nationally Notable class B, early flying micro.

While examining these I noticed a strange corkscrew  like gall on a leaf edge (see below) which turned out to be that of another mite, Aceria macrotrichus.  According to the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) there is only one British record of this (from the Midlands).  There were no Sussex records in the databases of the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre.  As well as the corkscrew-like structure there are vermiform swellings along the veins in the underside of the leaf and slits on the upperside from which the mites can leave

The next day I was looking to see if there were any more of these galls.  There were not, but I found the considerable mass of eggs (see below) that some insect had laid on the underside of a hornbeam leaf.  After arrival at home they started to hatch into tiny caterpillars, so I have put them on the hornbeam cordon down the garden in my Square Metre project.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Two comfreys

Part of our garden is carpeted with creeping comfrey, Symphytum grandiflorum.

The white, tubular flowers are very attractive to bumblebees and must be nectar rich.  This picture was taken on 5th April and the plant had been in flower for well over a month, helping the bumbles to get off to a good start.

Most species of comfrey have had many medical applications in the past, but these are best avoided as plants in the Symphytum genus have been shown to be somewhat toxic.

We also have a colony of Hidcote comfreyS. x hidcotense, with blue and white flowers but the same creeping habit.  I think this must have been the plant Kenneth Grahame wrote about in Wind-in-the-Willows: "Comfrey, the purple hand-in-hand with the white, crept forth to take its place in the line."

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Onion loops

One of the most delicately beautiful phenomenon of this rising spring are these arching leaves of wild onion (Allium vineale).  It seems to me an uncommon shape in our British flora.  These are just outside my Square Metre project and I think they may produce heads of bulbils this year.  The first wild onions appeared under the medlar tree a short distance away many years ago where their bulbils were probably dropped by birds. They are slowly advancing eastwards towards the Square Metre itself but have never 'flowered'.

A relaxing half hour can be had by contemplating these onion loops and listening to John Adams Shaker Loops at the same time.