Saturday 17 August 2019

Country Matters: 'Long purples' for tragic Ophelia

Detail of Ophelia by John Everett Millais
Detail of Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Joe Kennedy

An early morning farmer broke a long journey to give me a lift to a church remembrance, and Shakespeare, or, rather, a painter named Mailais, addressed us from the hedgerows.

Generous clumps of Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) signalled in seasonal confidence, an annual sign for me when I make this trip. Shakespeare's "long purples" were, however, Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) which were, according to Gertrude, the queen in Hamlet, the tragic Ophelia's chosen blooms "within fantastic garlands of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies….but our cold maids dead men's fingers call them".

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The Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, however, used Loosestrife in his famous 1851 painting of Ophelia's drowning, a flowing clump accompanying the dog rose and the willow. The tall magenta spikes, growths of damp ditches and watercourse landscapes, have become fixed as the dead girl's garland. Millais had been scouting a location for his project with his friend Holman Hunt and found an ideal spot along the banks of the River Ewel in Surrey to provide a satisfying composition of arboreal richness.

At this time of year, Loosestrife may be seen close to its companion of the roadside, Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), once gathered to perfume the rooms and hallways of castles and more humble abodes. The plant, contrary to its botanical name, does not appear to 'hang on a thread', in a place I know near a ruined chapel and ancient burial ground of the blind Gaelic poet Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta (1647-1733), a wandering bard who worked Meath's fields as a day labourer. Through his fellow New Yorker, the writer Jack Deacy, I had once promised to conduct Frank McCourt, a more famous scribe, to this resting place of a possible ancestor. But it was not to be.

The person I had known, on this particular journey, was of a generation that gathered wild flowers while walking to school, much as a young John McGahern did with his mother along Leitrim lanes profuse with growth, as recounted in his Memoir.

Loosestrife has been esteemed in past centuries by herbalists and apothecaries. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Younger maintained it dissolved strife among oxen at the plough and settled restive horses in harness. The medieval herbalist Culpeper wrote that it "cureth the eyes and preserved the sight". Early farmers valued it as an aid to foaling and calving. The strife effect was highlighted by Mrs Grieve in her famous Modern Herbal (1930) - tracing provenance from a Sicilian king - that the plant was "obnoxious to gnats and flies" and was burnt to drive them off. Snakes and serpents also slid away quickly.

Meadowsweet was once used to flavour mead. The perfumed plant hangs on in folklore balancing between "courtship and matrimony'' as the crushed foliage brings a subtle aroma change of sharpness symbolising time passing. One of my sons, arriving from abroad, handed me a bottle of mead along with a blackthorn walking stick I had thought lost. Meadowsweet and Loosestrife lay with roses and other blooms of summer on a peaceful hillside.

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