Tuesday 20 March 2018

'Long purples' dissolve strife

spirea flower in nature
spirea flower in nature

Filipendula ulmaria, or meadowsweet, its botanical name,does not appear to hang on a thread in this place.

Along the ditch on a side-road, its profuseness invites gathering as once was its practical need in ancient times to be strewn on the stone and clay floors of castles and lesser dwellings for the benefits of its soft perfume.

Parts of the verge had been cut back in some impulsive curb by council roadmen or landowner, but fortuitously abandoned, perhaps in a downpour.

Heavy rain can bring unexpected blessings.

Year after year, the meadowsweet is always here, near a ruined chapel and ancient graveyard reputed to be the resting place of the blind Gaelic poet Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta (1647-1733), a wandering bard who worked in these Meath fields as a day labourer as, a century and a half later, did another local farmers' boy and poet, Francis Ledwidge, whose remains lie in the green fields of France.

I once looked in vain here for early purple orchids but did not find any evidence of Ophelia's death garland and at least one enthusiastic plant seeker of a generation that picked wild flowers while walking to school (much as the boy John McGahern did with his mother along the lanes of Leitrim) had no sighting either.

It was much easier to find the substitute.

Here, other long purples of Shakespeare's Hamlet, immortalised by a Victorian painter, are profuse. Purple loosestrife, lythrum salicaria, grows along with its companion meadowsweet and, with its tall spikes and magenta flowers, has been fixed as Ophelia's garland because of a famous painting.

The flowers of the play were orchids, "long purples that liberal shepherds gave a grosser name/But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them".

But loosestrife's purples were a bold sweep of artistic licence by the pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais who, in his painting in 1851, added a clump of the flowering plant beside the dog rose and the willow.

Millais had been location-seeking with Holman Hunt and found their ideal place on the banks of the river in Ewell, Surrey.

Loosestrife has been esteemed for 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 held that it "cureth the eyes and preserved the sight" while farmers valued it as an aide in foaling and calving cows.

The strife effect was not widely known until the 20th Century when Mrs Grieve, in her famous Modern Herbal (1931), in tracing its provenance from a Sicilian king, wrote that the plant was "obnoxious to gnats and flies" and, as well as being placed around animals' necks to ward off the bugs, was also burnt in houses so that the smoke would drive away insects.

I gathered some loosestrife and meadowsweet for a simple purpose and continued my journey, remembering that meadowsweet, once used to flavour the honey-based drink mead, has two distinct aromas called, in folklore, courtship and matrimony - the perfume of the plant changing sharply, when crushed, symbolising the realities of married life, as it were!

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