Sunday 17 December 2017

Country Matters: Tall spikes and magenta flowers

PURPLE PATCH: Loosestrife in Millais’s Ophelia
PURPLE PATCH: Loosestrife in Millais’s Ophelia

Joe Kennedy

From a window of the train, tripping easily northwards toward Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry and beyond, flowering clumps of an artist's vision of Ophelia's death garland were clearly visible.

Purple loosestrife (lythrum salicaria), chosen by the pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais - instead of Shakespeare's early-purple orchids ('dead men's fingers') - to illustrate his famous scene of the tragic girl in the river, flourished within sight of the sea.

And, standing quite near, were swathes of meadowsweet (filipendula ulmaria), loosestrife's faithful companion of summer days. Each year I have pulled blossoming stalks of both in a remembrance of someone of a generation that had sought out wild flowers on the way to school, much as the questioning John McGahern did as he walked each morning with his mother along Leitrim's plant-rich lanes and about which he wrote, movingly, in Memoir, his last book.

Meadowsweet invites gathering as became its practical use in medieval times when it was strewn on stone and compacted clay floors of castles, keeps and dwellings of poorer mortals for the benefit of its soft perfume, a delightful aroma of almonds.

I usually found it near an old ruined chapel where I had looked in vain for early-purple orchids, Ophelia's true garland from 'Hamlet'. It was easier to find Millais's substitute. Here, his 'long purples' of loosestrife were profuse, with tall spikes and magenta flowers, leaves oval-lanceolate, pointed, paired below flowers or in whorls of three. (Zoe Devlin, in her The Wildflowers of Ireland:, gives an Irish name, 'creachtach').

Millais's re-imagining of Shakespeare, in a bold sweep of artistic licence, placed loosestrife beside the dog rose and the 'willow aslant a brook'. As a classic riverside plant, perhaps he found it a more fitting adornment for Ophelia's watery grave. But he also may not have found any orchids! With his friend Holman Hunt, the painter had been scouting for a suitably inspiring location for his opus and found it on the banks of the River Ewell in Surrey. In Hamlet, Queen Gertrude reports Ophelia's death by drowning, 'fantastically garlanded' with meadow plants - crow-flowers (possibly marsh marigolds), nettles, daisies and long-purple orchids.

From the time of the Roman naturalist Pliny the younger loosestrife has been esteemed by herbalists and apothecaries. Pliny maintained it 'dissolved strife' among oxen at the plough and settled restive horses in harness. Farmers valued it as an aid in foaling and cow-calving. In the 20th century, the famous Mrs Grieve in her A Modern Herbal traced its provenance to Sicily, noting that the plant was "obnoxious to gnats and flies" and, as well as being placed around animals' necks to calm them, was also burnt in houses so that the smoke would repel insects.

Meadowsweet, on the other hand, lives up to its name being an ingredient of the ancient honey-based drink, mead. It has two distinct aromas - called 'courtship and matrimony' in folklore - the perfume changing dramatically when the plant is crushed. Handle with care!

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