Country Matters: From Mother Russia, a plant for all seasons
On a back road in the Normandy countryside, I once saw a woman carefully cutting the 'long acre' outside a house with a sickle.
There were rabbit hutches to the side of the house and some hens were picking about. The grass was for the rabbits, the sweet stems to eat (which they sampled enthusiastically), the remainder as hay for bedding.
The English poet Philip Larkin, who worked at Queen's, Belfast, for a time, wrote, with a touch of gloom, I feel: "Cut grass lies frail/Brief is its breath/Mown stalks exhale/Long, long the death."
A long way from Normandy, I caught the long stems of wild growth to cut, with more hope than skill. But skill gradually returns, remembered from when a rhythm acquired in boyhood seemed to come naturally, like scything with a blade fixed in a timber frame and a sharpening stone to whet, back and forth, back and forth. Meadows won't be cut with bill-hooks or hand shears but such tools can be useful for difficult places.
It would be a surprise to turn up a mouse's nest, like Robbie Burns, as he followed a plough to expose the wee, sleeketh, cowerin', timorous beastie, "oh, wha' a panic's in thy breastie". I remember shock at seeing these tiny, hairless, blind creatures hanging from their mother's breast, and turned away so they could hide. But I confess to youthful callousness in hunting field mice uncovered in their hundreds during threshing work in the great farmyards of yore.
Hot candle-wax dripped on taper-holding fingers as a Russian friend was remembered in an Orthodox ceremony this week. Russian comfrey (symphytum officinale), the Roman Pliny's healing conferva, a sturdy plant of drooping blue or purple flowers - and a vigorous self-seeder - had turned up in ground clearing.
I thought of my friend Alexey Krasnovsky's marvellous painting of a farm in Mexico, which I liked, and his humorous response to my pathetic "Russian" which, he said was meaningless, though pronunciation was OK! Pokoysya s mirom, Alexey, rest in peace.
The comfrey, growing along a boundary, is descended from Russian stock imported in Queen Victoria's time, one of whom, Henry Doubleday, thought he could make viable glue for postage stamps from the roots.
This was not a success so he fed the lot to his poultry and livestock. One hundred years later, Laurence Hills looked at Henry's notes and passed on the knowledge of comfrey's potassium-rich content to organic gardeners through his Henry Doubleday research station.
Johnstown Castle, Wexford, also produced data on the plant which contains allantoin, promoting tissue healing. Its medieval name was 'knit-bone' and it was used by apothecaries for a plaster paste from the roots lifted in spring and grated. Today, a comfrey ointment may be found in health stores and it is included in the British Pharmaceutical Codex. This amazing plant is also the basis of fertilizer for tomato and potato crops. Leaves are left to wilt allowing alkaloids to fade and then soaked in water until brown . They can also feed your hens and fatten a turkey for Christmas! All from an alert Scottish head gardener to the Czar who found the gossamer-haired plant in the palace flower beds in Mother Russia.