Nunc Dimittis

28 Dec

“What are you going to do now you’re retired?” people ask.
The answer is “actually I am not that retired”, the plants were supposed to be going to a Historical Foundation at the University of Pistoia, but the move was handled with such mind-boggling ineptitude that all the Labiates and many other plants are still here so if anyone wants to come and buy something they are very welcome (phone first) One of the more infuriating things is that when I thought it would be all over as scheduled, at the end of August, I cancelled our credit card facility so you will have to pay cash.
The second answer is that at one point when I was clearly not thinking straight, I briefly thought a TV presenting career loomed ahead. After all, during the summer I seemed to be selling plants to TV companies and advising independent production companies on a regular basis. A BBC crew wasted an entire morning following me around with a camera and microphone listening to my fascinating anecdotes with a view to screening me sometime in the future. “We’ll get back to you on Tuesday” they said and that was the last I heard of them. You may ask why they missed out on what, at first sight appeared to be such a dazzling opportunity for them. The answers I fear, are manifold. I am a grumpy old male misanthropist I don’t talk with an incomprehensible accent from the Celtic outback, and I use words of more than two syllables. I don’t wave my arms around in front of the camera and find it hard to do “spontaneous” enthusiasm for a lot of soggy weeds I have been looking after for more than half a century. If I don’t want to see my face in the mirror, I don’t suppose anyone else is to keen to have me appear on their screens during supper either.

Then again, the interview I did for a viewers panel a couple of years ago probably didn’t help. About twenty of us were gathered in the Bristol studios and were force-fed one of those things they call a “comedy” normally put out in the evening at around eight o’clock. I was in a minority of one when I described it as “Utterly dire”. Then during the individual interview, I replied “I loathe it” when I was asked what I thought about the BBC, to which the obvious next question was “Why are you here then?” My answer was that I wanted to persuade the beeb to make some programmes that justified the licence fee……Oh well, their sandwiches were nice. And if you think I am alone, have a look at the “Friends of Radio 3” web site in which a large group of public spirited people are fighting a rear-guard action trying to switch the station’s morning programmes back from an irritating talk-show interspersed with hideous cross-over background noise targeted at the brain-dead to a pleasant and generally tranquil way of starting the day with some decent music. My alarm is now set to “Radio Swiss Classic”
Visitors make a connection between the cats “Alo” and his daughter “Vera” and generally get it wrong. “Alo” isn’t so named for the spiky herb, but because when he was young, all his hair fell out and so he was named “Alopecia”. Jenny didn’t think that sounded very nice and abbreviated it. Sad to think that cats worry too, but in fact all his hair grew back and he is now a very handsome cat who comes for walks with me. Calling his kitten “Vera” just seemed natural even though she has never lost a single hair so far as I know. A “cure” which I didn’t try on the cat was to “medle nascorium seed with gandres gres to make the heer to growe agen as wel as euere it dede” as the “Agnus Castus” herbal suggests. Anyone wanting to try it for themselves (and please NOT on the cat) should first identify “Nascorium” which has yellow flowers and “schleyt” ie divided/lobed leaves. It can not therefore be garden cress Lepidium sativum in spite of generations of plagiarising herb writers so identifying it. Black mustard Brassica nigra seems a better bet. The Agnus Castus scribe was not the only writer to point out that guzzling too much “Nascorium” would “distroye the gret lykynge that man hast to wymman”, in fact Macer said that “Kerson” “wole destruye lecherye in driying the seed of the eter” raising the question of whether they regarded “Nascorium” and “Kerson” as identical plants. This seems unlikely, after all even a medieval monk could usually be relied upon to tell the difference between Black mustard and Watercress. A more realistic suggestion is that they applied the same extract of Pliny to entirely different species,. Whatever. Just think twice what is in your sandwiches next summer and what it might do for you.


Dragons Blood

26 Aug

I haven’t written a blog since I retired and took the web site down, but two people within a week shocked me by telling me that they actually sought out these ancient posts, so for want of anything new to say, here is something that was commissioned but never published. I suspect the lady editor was worried that an account of a medieval sexually transmitted disease would give her delicate readers a bad attack of the vapours

Dragons’ Blood, animal, vegetable or mineral?


“Von Weiter her als du denken kamst

Hilft der balsam nicht Arabia

Birgt dann nichts mehr zu seimem Heil

Fragt nicht weiter”

2014 marks the centenary of the public release of Wagner’s “Parsifal” and whilst this may mean little to the New Age herbalists who seem to prefer something more folksy, it is significant in that it is the one opera in which herbal healing as opposed to poisoning plays a central role[1]. In the quote above, Kundry has just returned from Arabia with a balsam in a vain attempt to cure King Amfortas’ impotence, the result of an agonising anti-social disease contacted during an illicit liaison with a flower-maiden. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was generally assumed that sprigs of healing herbs could be fished from the four rivers flowing out of Paradise and indeed the “Tacuinum Sanitatis”[2] has two illustrations of supposed healers attempting to catch twigs floating downstream. Perhaps Kundry’s geography was somewhat awry because much to her exasperation, her balsam didn’t work and in Wolfgang von Eschenbach’s original, the King’s knights having tried everything else, turn to their last resort, “Tracontea”. In the English translation “…..then we got a herb called Trachonte. Of this herb we hear it said that when a dragon is slain, it springs up from the blood”[3]. If it was Dragon Arum Dracunculus vulgaris, they had in mind, they could probably have found it within a couple of days’ march from their castle[4], but unfortunately this turned out to be “one of the longest unsuccessful cures in medieval literature”[5] – predictably, since the plant is seemingly devoid of virtues save a notoriously foul stench. At least Kundry was looking in more or less the right direction.

It is obvious then that God didn’t want Amfortas to be cured because all physicians were aware that no matter how potent their herbs, they could be of no avail if the Almighty wished it otherwise, so although the risk of divine displeasure didn’t stop them trying, the problem for Amfortas’ knights as it is for us, is to identify the true “Sanguis Draco”

It was definitely a problem that would have exercised the mind of Polyphilo, the unfortunate protagonist of Colonna’s “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”[6] written in around 1500. Fearing for his marital prospects following an unexpected meeting with a dragon, he was acutely embarrassed after a nymph slipped him some unspecified natural viagra in the guise of a pain reliever prior to skinny-dipping with her friends in a public bath. But then again, if dragons are an allegory for impotence as Anthony Colantuono argues in his commentary[7] using their acrid blood on Amfortas’ painful burning sensation should have worked. “Similia similibus curantur” or “Like cures like”, as a homeopath would say.

Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth century abbess and polymath was one herbalist who definitely believed in the traditional fire-breathing dragon, but in a muddled account wrote “there is not even any medicine found in its blood”[8] so even if the knights had gone off to a draconian slaughterhouse the results would have been no less disappointing than when they used a smelly Arum.

Of course herbalists had known since the days of Dioscorides[9] that “Dragons Blood” was really a mineral, but they didn’t let that stand between themselves and their gullible patients. By the Middle Ages, credence was lent to their stories by the availability of a resin, most likely from a “tree” (in fact an overgrown member of the Liliaceae), Dracaena cinnabari. As the “Circa Instans” compiler remarked, the exudate was called Dragon’s blood because “Sanguis draconis dicitur quod similis est ei” “because that’s what it looked like”[10]. The theory that it initially came from a Soccotran tree accords with the description that the gum (as opposed to sap) “Est autem gummi arboris in Persia and in India nascentis” which Greenish says was still being imported from Bombay as late as the nineteenth century[11]. Hopefully by then, the sellers would have discontinued the practice of adulterating it with red lead “Sophisticatur autem ex pulvere minii cum aliquo suco indurato; per xx annos servatur” ,which may have enhanced its shelf life, but would undoubtedly have prejudiced the longevity of the women whose menstrual problems it was intended to alleviate. It seems though that the Germans were even further behind Southern Europeans as Stannard has a note in his paper on Medieval Fachliteratur that “Apparently the botanical origin of Sanguis draconis was unknown, for there is a recipe for its preparation, including human blood in a late fifteenth century receptarium”[12].

There may be some truth in this as although Matteus Silvaticus had quoted Serapion’s description in the fourteenth century[13], it would appear that the earliest western first hand account of the actual tree, as opposed to the mineral or plant product was the “Dragon Tree” written up by Cyriax of Ancona in one of his Egyptian travelogues during the 1440 This was more likely to have been the Soccotran Dracaena cinnabari of “Circa instans” than the “Dragon Tree of Orotava” Dracaena draco endemic to the Canaries, an anonymous description of which dates back to 1402. This tells of a plant “with an antiquity which must be at least greater than that of the pyramids……the resin has been found in the sepulchral caves of the Guarches and has hence been supposed to have been used by them in embalming their dead”[14]. This is clearly not the source of medieval “Dragons’ blood” However, the closeness of the dates when the two plants were first recognised has inevitably made for confusion between them. Cyriax’s report was picked up by Schongauer and later, by Bosch both of whom depicted the tree as a Christian symbol, undeterred by the fact that neither had ever seen the genuine article[15]. Cyriax was also the source for much of the“Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” material so we have completed a full, if somewhat distorted, circle. The “tree”, actually a member of the Agavaceae, did not appear in a herbal until L’Ecluse published his book on Spanish flora in 1576 and therefore too late for Mattioli to include it in his 1557 edition. Instead he devoted considerable space to “Dragons’ Blood” complete with warnings about its toxicity in his Book 6 which deals with minerals. Gerard used the same block as L’Ecluse in 1597 but his description of the fruit is no less fanciful than the illustrations of a hundred years earlier and so the confusion continued unabated. After the founding of the Dutch East Indies Company in 1605 a number of more convincing dragon-like plants came to be recognised, most notably the spiky Daemonorops draco which oozed “blood” from between the scales of its imbricate fruit. The Italians however remained true to their old traditions so that a Seventeenth century “Ricettario”[16], like “Circa Instans” many centuries before, recommended “Sangue di drago” presumably from the traditional sources, as a thickening agent for embrocations. Even the oldest traditions eventually die and in the twenty first century the world wide web suggests Dracaena “blood” as a rust-preventative for motor cars. A sad come-down from curing a king’s impotence and probably no more effective.

[1] The thinking behind the libretto is covered in detail in NEWMAN, ERNEST “Wagner Nights” Pan 1977

[2] These are on pages IX and X respectively in the Liechtenstein codex  see BOVEY, ALIXE  “Tacuinum Sanitatis, An Early Renaissance Guide to Health” Sam Fogg London 2005

[3] WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH “Parzifal” Trans Mustard, Helen and Passage, Charles; Vintage 1961

[4] The castle of Munsalvaesche (aka Montesalvat) is variously stated to have been located in Campania or on the Andalusian frontier

[5]GROOS, ARTHUR “Romancing the Grail” Cornell NY 2005


[6] COLONNA, FRANCESCO “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”   Edizione critica e commento a cura di Giovanni Pozzi e Lucia Ciapponi Editrice Antenore, Padova 1980

[7] COLANTUONO, ANTHONY, “Titian, Colonna and the Renaissance Science of Procreation”, Ashgate 2010

[8] HILDEGARD VON BINGEN “Physica”, a translation by Priscilla Throop, Healing Arts Press, Vermont1998

[9] DIOSCORIDES 5:109 (Gunther/Goodyer edition) Cinnabaris is brought from Africa, it is also of an heavy or deep colour, whence some thought it to be ye blood of ye dragon”

[10] quoted by RUFINUS in his “De Virtutibus Herbarum” c 1287 ed Lynn Thorndike as the “Herbal of Rufinus”, University of Chicago 1949

[11] MATTEUS SILVATICUS “Pandette” Indice dei simplici 1317 ed Luciano Mauro in “Mater Herbarum” Edizione Angelo Guerini e Associati, Milan 1995

[12] STANNARD J “Magiferous Plants and Magic in Medieval Medical Botany” 1977 republished in Herbs and Herbalism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance” Ashgate/Variorum Aldershot 1999

[13] MATTEUS SILVATICUS “Pandette” Indice dei simplici 1317 ed Luciano Mauro in “Mater Herbarum” Edizione Angelo Guerini e Associati, Milan 1995

[14] Quoted in CAMPBELL, LORD GEORGE “Log-letters from The Challenger” Macmillan 1877

[15] BELTING, HANS “Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights” trans Ishbel Flett, Prestel Verlag, Munich & London 2002 & 2005. There is more on Schongauer and L’Ecluse in ARBER, AGNES “Herbals, Their Origin & Evolution” Cambridge 1912 2nd edition reprinted 1990

[16] PALATINO 195 in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze

A Phoenix Flutters

25 May


As we run down Arne Herbs, my daughter’s operation “Abri Herbs” takes flight, she’s just got the contract from her local Mairie to provide the flowers for all the roundabouts and verges in her village. Actually I didn’t know they had roundabouts down there, remote in the mountains and although it’s not for the medicinal herbs she prefers to grow, she has to start somewhere. An order for a hundred and fifty basils came as a nice bonus. So we both know how expensive and difficult it is to set up a thriving herb business, but what currently fascinates me is what happens when it (and us) come to the end of our natural span. Actually, to a limited extent I will keep growing not only because I like my food but I need the rare historic stuff to illustrate the Medieval glossary which becomes increasingly turgid.  By this I mean that the further one progresses through the alphabet, the greater the scope for back referencing giving the impression of swimming against a flow of solidifying treacle. For instance this morning I was doing “Thapsia” of which the fourteenth century “Synonima” helpfully remarks “Tapsia id est sucus ferule” sending me scuttling back to “F” for Ferula. According to Rufinus it is also “herbe similis feniculo”, which, given that Thapsia is popularly known as “Death carrot” suggests an interesting result if you sprinkle it rather than Fennel on your nice fresh trout.

There are still sufficient plants here to provide callers with almost all that they want, but being sort of retired we don’t mail out any more, I always thought that the skilled packing required to ensure the plants’ survival in transit was a complete waste of Jenny’s time particularly when she is not only a brilliant gardener but actually enjoys it (I look upon it as not dissimilar to washing up, – endless repetition year after year with nettle-stung hands and thistle-pricked knees thrown in for good measure) and the vestigial profit margin vanishes completely when the post and couriers mis-deliver. So the tunnels are slowly emptying, it’s a welcome relief when the storms blow not to have to panic that the covers are going to blast off into orbit. Now as a door sails by like a flying jelly fish, I just shrug and say “so what”.  On the other hand,  I admit to having always been fascinated by derelict nurseries in the way that the Victorians loved ruined abbeys. Plants are liberated from the constraints of tedious commecialism to do their own thing, either dying or embarking on a maniacal struggle with all their mates for survival. The English honeysuckle is currently entwining itself around the poison ivy daring any humanoid garden control-freak to intervene, Rheum palmatum has cheerfully established itself on the rubbish heap and the rosemarys have grown through the bottoms of their pots, penetrated the membrane underneath and for all I know, carried on down to the Infernal regions below. Obviously this attitude is the antithesis of the patio slab gardening promoted by the media and has probably cost me hundreds of potential customers over the years, but if you’ve got to do a job you might as well enjoy it and sacrificing visits from those who treat their plants in the manner of gauleiters lining up a row of untermenschen can only contribute to the pleasure. having written that, I did actually take the loppers down to a couple of tunnels where trees had grown through the mypex and were threatening to continue ever upward and through the covers. The Sassafras has already done this, taking advantage of my good nature and the fact that it is undeniably special. The Slippery Elm is kept in check by the constant demand for cuttings or that too would be insouciantly engaged in wrecking the place.


I have just finished reading Bernd Roeck’s, “Florence 1900”, an account of the German artistic community in the city at the turn of the last century. Impossibly remote as it seems now, many of the people alive then were still ticking over when I was a student there in the sixties. It is notable as the best-written book I have picked up in almost as many years, and all in translation. One could say much the same for the English edition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. Clearly translators are an under-acknowledged lot and it’s a familiar cliché that if it wasn’t for the Arab scholars who rescued Dioscorides, the whole history of Western medicine would have taken an entirely different course, – Chinese has been suggested more than once. On the German theme, I wish I could speak more than a couple of words, it would be good to know what the herbs were that Kundry used to heal Amfortas in Von Eschenbach’s “Parzifal”. In fact medieval legends are packed with herb lore which is normally over-looked by academics intent on deciphering the herbals themselves. Chretien de Troyes is another writer who clearly knew his herbs, eating them, slapping them on injuries, sorting out mental health problems and employing them for insomnia and as aphrodisiacs.  If one was going to be stuck in a medieval castle, I can’t think of a better companion. (Well if one has to be practical that is, obviously any man half way normal would prefer gorgeous feisty Nicolette from the French legend)


Listening to Bach in the bath last night, as I dozed off, the almost total absence of botanical references in music vaguely penetrated my waning consciousness (Oh God, here comes elfnsafety “It’s a safety hazard to go to sleep in the bath”) Visual arts is stuffed with them, from the exquisite marginalia of Bourdichon to Botticelli, – “Primavera” has so many that Mirella Levi D’Ancona wrote an entire book about them. Literature would be hard pressed for similes if the authors couldn’t draw upon plants, Nicolette’s physical charms are described in terms of cherries, roses, daisies and walnuts. But music, – almost nothing, Mahler 3 obviously,Tannhauser’s stick and that one in “Carmen” and that’s about it. But then inanimate  flowers are pretty much incompatible with a musical idiom. Thank goodness, It does make for a more relaxing bath if one’s memory isn’t being jogged by a lot of attention-demanding plants just as one dozes off.


Lepidoptera really are the most perverse little beasts. It only takes Butterfly Conservation, one of the more worthwhile charities, to say that something is seriously endangered, for great clouds of the things to clog the air space. A few years ago it was Common Blues. The day after the press release, a couple flitted through the garden, the next day eight, then twenty-two and by the end of the week they were too numerous to count. This year it’s Garden Tigers. Within a week of the alarm bell sounding, the larvae were enthusiastically trashing the Pentaglottis and my pleas to my sister to protect them rather than massacring the (not very cute) babies  as they turned her Wiltshire garden into an apocalyptic wasteland fell on deaf ears.  Most remarkably, as I dumped an old radiator in a scrap man’s van, I rescued twenty eight caterpillars clinging to it. Many more must have dropped off whilst radiator was being carried from the back of the house where it had been temporarily dumped, to the van. So what is the attraction of defunct B&Q radiators?  Should they become the next must-have garden feature  and will they become incorporated into gold medal winning gardens at next year’s Chelsea?

Are the Days of the Independent Herb Farm over?

24 Mar

It’s March, though it seems more like February and we all know what plants do in February, they die, -that’s what. So I thought there’s nothing for it but to come in, take down the Christmas cards, muck out the kitchen and do a biannual blog.

The question on everybody’s lips at the moment, well two or three peoples’ lips anyway is Are the days of the independent herb farm over? Perhaps people discuss it with me because I have said that I am on the point of retiring, already the specialist herb growers that are left can be counted on the fingers of a digitally-challenged hand. By “specialist growers” I mean those of us who specialise in a large range of  different herbs not the industrial mono-croppers who have several hundred acres of say, Coriander or Mint. The news from other sectors of the horti-industry with everything from garden centres to bedding plant people going splat seems pretty gloomy all over, but we have special problems that discourage new entrants in to our patch.

Firstly a rare plant is rare because not many people want it, this is countered by the avidity with which rarities are sought out by enthusiasts such as lepidopterists who need something virtually unobtainable on which to feed a new hatch of caterpillars. Gourmets (human sort) are another favourite category of customer, so whilst they are mercifully willing to pay realistic prices, such rarified clients are scattered across the breadth of Europe consequently we are at the mercy of hauliers and Royal Mail….and when was the last time you bought a cardboard box? the price is frightening and so yes, I do get very irritated by prospective punters who quibble about our mail order charges.

Then there is elfnsafety, We have to take out public liability insurance, but the riding school people who seem to get a disproportionate number of casualties, tell me that once you have made a claim, it is very difficult to get the policy renewed, thus effectually destroying the business. We have at least thirty plants here that will either kill at a stroke (eg Wolfsbane) or agonisingly slowly (eg Ricin) and entertainers like Hemlock that will allow you to remain fully conscious whilst you gradually lose all power over your limbs, not to mention Poison ivy that will simply make your skin blister and perhaps fall off. Obviously you can’t have people wandering about the nursery when plants like that are waiting to embrace them in their snaky tendrils, so we restrict access to a comprehensive display area. Nevertheless, this infuriates those self-important members of the public who for some reason think themselves entitled to poke about behind the scenes. Fortunately my interest is in plants not people so I am happy to keep the former at the expense of the latter. The alternative would be to go through the ridiculous hoops imposed on the the unfortunate Duchess of Northumberland and her poison garden. We find that children are not the problem, for all Jamie’s propaganda; the child that will willingly eat something green is an anomaly, it’s caterers that demand constant vigilance, they will bung anything into their mouths. Remember the celebrity chef who advocated a Henbane salad a few years ago? “A slip”, he said, but it’s slips like that which can destroy a herb business and one I am not prepared to risk

VAT, IVA, TVA or whatever they call it where you come from, is another discouragement. Because edibles are zero rated and medicinals taxed with a grey area in between, every plant sold has to be individually accounted for. This wastes hours, which, to avert banruptcy has to be reflected in the price. The result is that many garden centres now stock a basic range of culinary herbs in their herb sections and everything else with a different coloured label among their wild flowers, alpines etc. The coloured label reminds even the doziest school leaver in charge of the till to press the VAT key. To some extent, this works to our advantage, most centres can’t be bothered with the hassle so the punters come to us for anything interesting. We charge a price inclusive of tax, then if its edible all the money goes into our pockets, if it is clearly inedible we have to make 20 % over to the tax man….and yes all the sales are conscientiously entered in a book and heaven help me if the book keeper finds a discrepancy when she does the quarterly return.

Then there’s the weather, OK we won’t go into the weather, but it’s a curious thing that everytime it snows, half a dozen people will ring up for Holy Basil. They are invariably totally amazed when I tell them that it won’t survive an English winter. Actually this year I sowed it on our hot bench which is kept at 22F and wisely, it hasn’t stuck its tiny heads above the surface….and then people (not including specialist herb growers, obviously)  wonder why I am a grumpy old misanthropist that prefers plants.

Retirement is something that takes time, we started cutting back a couple of years ago and it will take at least another two before we are finally shot of the thing. Lest you are feeling bereft at the prospect of losing Arne Herbs, you will be consoled by the fact that my daughter’s operation “Abri Herbs” is already in action in the Perpignan area, well it would be if she wasn’t snowed in last week and then cut off by raging torrents when it melted. She’s the seventh generation of the family to be messing around with the herb trade, most of us became involved before, during or after following other interests, the brighter ones got other suckers to actually grow the things and made money out of processing them.  still  it makes me wonder why we do it even some of the time.

Hibernation Break

14 Jan

Hibernation Break

Not that many years ago, when gardening was perceived as the job you gave the village idiot when there weren’t any dung heaps to shift, snotty cousins would greet me at weddings with “Hullo, are you still gardening?” Actually I have never gardened, seeing the relationship of gardening to plantsmanship as washing up is to the preparation of a gourmet meal. One might say that gardening is imposing one’s will on nature whereas plantsmanship is looking at plants on their own terms, or to put it in a less posey way, I can’t stand all that leaf-raking, weeding and double digging that is part and parcel of gardening.   I am inclined to just let the plants get on with doing their own thing. Thus visiting eco-freaks go in to a state of orgasmic excitement whilst true gardeners get an attack of the vapours and rush off to the nearest garden centre where they can over-dose on the patio slabs and straight lines. It is therefore policy not to stock any cultivars except those of a few thymes and lavenders which it would be commercial suicide to ignore. Consequently, although “Ice road Truckers” on Friday night telly might be for the mentally challenged, I find it infinitely preferable to endlessly staking dahlias which  the BBC shows at the same time, and it does have the gorgeous Lisa Kelly rather than some hyper-active old bat doing the talking. This doesn’t mean to say that I am not into the aesthetics of gardens, so long as I am not expected to get involved in their maintenance. I was as gob-smacked as anyone by the magnificence and beauty of La Mortella when I visited it with the Mediterranean Garden Society last autumn, but as a medievalist, I go along with the historic fantasy of the instant Edenic garden.  When, in the Roman De La Rose, a stunning blonde opens the garden gate to the narrator, she introduces herself “I am called  Idleness by people who know me….and I have a very good time, for I have no other purpose than to enjoy myself, to comb and braid my hair. I am the intimate acquaintance of Diversion, the elegant charmer who owns this garden”. Well, lucky old Diversion, I say. Nevertheless, it’s a sad truth that if you want to work with plants, you have to sell some to pay for it. As I am for ever telling my daughter who is in the second year of running her own nursery, “You have to love people”. This is in contradistinction to seeing purchasers as abductors who take away your carefully-nurtured pets. I was a bit surprised last week when Jenny who is a skilled gardener and therefore has a  far more  commercial attitude than I do, admitted to sadness that someone had bought our last remaining Rhus coriaria for research purposes. We agreed that it was much like selling puppies for vivisection.

The unique selling point of Arne Herbs is that we actually grow AND research the plants from medieval texts, whereas other people do either one or the other. This does mean that encountering nature at first hand is sometimes unavoidable. Often the impeccably balanced ecology and bland climate of the medieval fantasy garden seems to exist here even less than in the rest of the real world.  Leaving aside the autumnal floods, which repeatedly put Chew city on the national news, during the last cold snap, I put a box on top of the last Euphorbia mellifer, one of my favourite plants, to protect it. Frost had zapped all the others during the previous winter. The box worked perfectly satisfactorily and I took it off to give the plant some light as soon as the weather warmed up. That night a deer came in and ate it down to ground level….and now we have badgers shredding the tunnels for absolutely no purpose whatever. I confess that these are not my favourite vermin. OK, so they do a useful job trashing wasps nests, but it’s scarcely enough to justify the adulation of urban bunny huggers. If I wasn’t trying to retire, I would put deer netting all round the bottom of the tunnels, but it would be expensive and I expect the wretched animals would chew through that too. If one wants a cute black and white pet, there is nothing better than a saddleback piglet, they are cleaner and far more intelligent than badgers, also they are genuinely friendly. Of course unlike the virtual creatures seen on the television screen, in the real world  pigs present the awkward problem that stuff goes in one end and comes out the other and when they eventually stop doing that, they have to be disposed of. Clearly this would be an additional difficulty for the bunny hugger who, if she eats meat at all, prefers to buy it without a face, sanitised and plastic-wrapped from the supermarket butchery counter. All a far cry from a dead badger which normally only penetrates her consciousness when she ventures beyond suburbia and sees the things splatted beside the road.

Talking of telly, did anyone, anyone at all, watch  “World without end”? For historical inaccuracy it ranked only marginally above the BBC’s “Merlin”.  Since this is supposed to be a herb blog, I will leave out most of the infelicities and just stick with the herbs. Part of the plot concerned a witch who was strung up for, in the words of the prosecutor, using “unknown herbs”. Since the setting was 1327 and the herbs included Bergamot, an exclusively Trans-Atlantic genus, and  Datura leaves for insomnia, the prosecutor probably had a point. OK stretching the imagination a bit,  dried Datura ferox (but not Datura stramonium which only came on the scene a couple of hundred years later) may have been available even if the whole plant was only known south of the Alps,  as Matteus Silvaticus quoting Rhazes (died c 925)  remarked “col vino inebria fortemente”.  So am I now going to get a load of insomniacs and people wanting to get pissed out of their skulls all asking for Datura leaves? I suspect not and in any case, it’s mainly the seeds that produce the interesting effects. The programme should have perhaps come with a health warning, – that the effects of Datura are cumulative and will stop the heart eventually.

The good news is that the obstruction in the pipe that stopped the well-water from coming down the hill before Christmas has cleared itself. Last time this happened, it was snails. obviously during the autumn, we had more rain water than we knew what to do with so the snails could amuse themselves undisturbed.  The fear now of course is that the system will freeze up then drain itself during the thaw. The people who installed our big tank used plastic connectors which inevitably came to grief during the previous freeze up. Fortunately I just happened to have a one and a quarter inch steel spare lying around as one does. But it does make for very wet sleeves taking off a cracked bit of plastic and trying to replace it with a g.i. connector when you have four thousand gallons stored over your head.

Snow’s forecast and naturally people are ringing up asking for Lemon grass as they always do when the weather turns particularly cold so I suppose I should go out and do something about it. On the other hand  during the depths of last winter, a TV researcher rung up in search of some tropical toxin for a detective programme. I can’t remember the plant, but the programme is being broadcast this morning. (Yes, really!) I think I might hibernate for a day longer  and see whether they managed to get hold of the plant or, as I suggested,  used a plastic fake

An Olympic Detumescence

8 Oct

An Olympian Detumescence


Sorry fans, this blog has been festering in the works of the computer for weeks, I have simply been too busy to post it.

After all the media acclamation and hype for the Olympics,  with the “entire nation basking in a feel-good glow and taking the competitors of  every creed and ethnicity to its heart” I began to wonder whether I was just a touch too sarky about the whole thing in my previous blog. Jessica Ennis was admittedly feisty, articulate and determined, but obviously other people similarly decided that there was a limit to the number of times one could go “cor” over  her manifold attributes not the least of which was her physical appearance. It was therefore a gratifying confirmation of my cynicism that during the games, the hits on the Arne Herbs web site soared, before sinking back into their traditional summer-holiday torpor as soon as the games were finished. I did watch the opening and closing ceremonies and was suitably impressed when they set the pot on fire.  The music wouldn’t have appealed to anyone over twenty five and the embarrassing has-beens from the sixties proved to the younger generation the Emperor really did buy his new clothes in Carnaby Street. Otherwise the one discordant note was the patronising bucolic scene with which the thing kicked off.  Before the industrial revolution, most of the rural population was too impoverished and too malnourished to have had the strength to dance around a maypole, the corpses of those who starved to death were piled up beside the roads both here and more particularly on the continent.  Having been forced into towns to fuel the ind.rev, they simply died there instead. This makes one ask why the over-praised prat who had clearly never ventured beyond the M25 in his life, gave us the Jarrow marchers but not the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Those rustics who had fallen foul of the game laws were probably beneath his radar because they would have been deported to the colonies, with or without their limbs,  (though if a mantrap didn’t actually sever a leg, gangrene would most likely have set in, which would at least save the authorities the cost of a boat trip). 

I was going to head this blog with something to do with soufflés, but a vaguely sexual analogy seemed more appropriate in that there was a protracted build-up to an event that demanded a lot of brief huffing and puffing with a minimum of intellectual effort before subsiding in to a state of anti-climax for the majority and a warm glow for a minority.  A sense of proportion was delivered on the telly when Nicola Benedetti described her work with the local equivalent of “El sistema” on the sink-estates around Glasgow. Unlike the ephemerality of “The Games” this really will provide a “legacy” and gives the reassurance that the younger generation has something to offer posterity beyond the transient glory of the dancing mayflies, already a distant memory. 

Next we had the Paralympics (or are they parolympics?) and an entire page on the BBC web site about what politically correct BBC terminology should be applied to the performers to avoid offending them. “What a load of garbage”, I thought, before realising that I personally can’t stand being asked how I am, particularly by complete strangers. My elder daughter referred to me as a “cancer cripple” which is refreshingly realistic and far less cringe-making than being told that one is fighting a courageous battle. The only “courageous battles” that are fought are those by the poor blighters that have to put up with us when we become cantankerous with the effort of staying alive, we don’t have any choice other than to put up with it, they could walk. Actually now most of that is behind me, I have to admit that I don’t remember the “battle” bit very clearly, radio therapy does make one utterly gaga, not that one is permitted to use such incorrect terminology,  and I  am still here whilst many friends aren’t, so that’s something to feel grateful for, but I do wish people would shut up about it.


We have sold a lot of somewhat arcane medicinal herbs during the last month which doubtless makes the VATman happy because these are VATtable whereas culinaries are zero rated. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that although my family had been involved with medicinals since the beginning of time,  I started this nonsense because Elizabeth David had written in the early sixties that Basil was unobtainable in England. I still write about them and having learnt to cook in Italy, still use them. However having been doing just that for half a century, I become bored rigid with my own food and binge-buy ethnic cook books. Fortunately Amazon second hand ones are dirt cheap. I mean this almost literally as someone’s favourite recipe is usually marked with sauce or tomato or something (hopefully, not blood) which gives a slight clue as to its popularity, even more so if they have annotated it with more than a tick. That said, I avoid second hand American books, recipes in at least half of them contain some foul pre-prepared ingredient obtainable only in a plastic container from a supermarket. I recently bought the Confederate Cook book whose recipes, I hoped, pre-dated instant ingredients. Fat chance, many of these squalid modern constituents are (thankfully) alien north of Dixie and unless there is a Defense commissary (I suppose they still exist?)  catering specifically to southern airmen within a hundred miles I am stuck.  God knows what would have happened if I had taken up the place I  was offered at Lynchburg University, I would probably be dead from phthalate poisoning or worse by now. In fact I ate very well when I was last in the South, so perhaps this is unfair. On the other hand watching the natives waddle about their daily business makes me think otherwise. Meanwhile I recommend “The Joy of Cooking” an American classic to which I was introduced in Maine by one of the most accomplished cooks I know. 



19 Jul


Is the title of this piece a cry of acclamation, remember “Yabbadabbadoo!? Or an expression of withering disgust?  Most of my friends and acquaintances seem to be going along with the latter. When it was announced that London had “won” the Olympics, some cynical hack or blogger, (no not me, regular readers will know that I would never do cynicism, now would I?) made a comment not unrelated to piss-ups and breweries, and prophesied national humiliation and blackness across the land. Well now we have got the G4S scandal and the aforementioned hack must be cackling gleefully about chickens coming home to roost.

So what is a poor grower supposed to say in a blog ostensibly about herbs when the media and politicians, if not the populace, are obsessed with a ridiculous cash-draining event which shares its name with a bankrupt Greek airline?  The obvious thing that comes to mind is whether the participants will stuff themselves with Ephedrine, derived from Ephedra of which we sell three species. Whether it really makes you “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, it would be wrong for me to say. Moreover since Wink and Van Wyk’s guide to mind blowing plants of the world lists a comprehensive range of lethal side effects, perhaps if you want to get “Altius” you should stick to your usual skunk, -like yeah man!  Don’t tell the Mormons, think Mitt Romney, -who have been using the stuff, Ephedra that is, not skunk, since their wagons first rolled in to Utah.

One thing’s for sure, the politicians are never going to tell the truth about the games’ real “Legacy” by which I mean what it has cost the nation. Perhaps therefore it is wholly appropriate that the event should be sponsored by Lloyds Bank who flogged PPI to cancer patients, presumably in the hopes that they wouldn’t survive to sue on the grounds that their disease rendered them ineligible to claim in the first place. Other sponsors who have penetrated even my mental resistance are a company associated with selling bottled water straight out of the tap and a junk food company.

People, I am told, have spent good money to watch other people whizzing round a circular track. I could have told them that if they wanted an infinitely closer contact with a bicycle at much less cost,  they could just try walking along a Bristol pavement where getting splatted is almost inevitable and where this hazard to life and limb is actually sponsored by the city council.  The primary reason we gave up doing farmers markets was because it necessitated both of us walking approximately five times each across the flow of pedestrians (and bikes) to unload from the van on to our pitch  Then back again at the end of the day.  OK, I am old and move slowly so my survival was merely a happy long-shot, but when Jenny who is so lithe and athletic that people mistake her for a daughter rather than a contemporary, missed being spread across the pavement by millimetres, it was clearly time to give up.  No point in getting dead for the sake of flogging a few weeds, besides I need her to run this place.

Meanwhile, as you may have noticed, it has been raining as indeed it has been since a drought warning was declared. One effect of the weather is that people have been reading this blog instead of buying plants, which isn’t really the idea. When the down-pours briefly stopped last Monday, five carloads of customers turned up, which was an unexpected treat. Hardly seen anyone since though.  That said, mail orders are substantially up so there must be some people somewhere out there who haven’t been discouraged by the biblically-proportioned plague of slugs and snails. Perhaps they all have nice greenhouses to work in. The other manifestation is the growth of the trees. For ten years now, I have been able to look out between the bay trees from my study window and across to the wild flower meadow beyond. This summer, the trees have grown right across the view, all the more extraordinary given that in April they were so brown-blasted by the icy winter that their very survival was in doubt. Even now, in mid-July, the apparently dead branches of the Himalayan jasmine have just started shooting.

Last week I was sent a review copy of Elizabeth Spiller’s paper “Recipes for knowledge…the invention of the cookbook 1600 – 1660” in which she links the development of recipes to the publication of the “Pharmacopoea Londinensis”  of 1618. And yes, before you write in, you do spell “Londinensis” like that.  This gives a totally different viewpoint of the post-Tudor development of medicine from the herbal tradition in which people like me have been steeped. Absolutely fascinating.  It is notable that London was just coming to terms with the dodgy apothecaries that Venice had sorted out  seventy-three years earlier. “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, as one might say,- those Londoners should definitely have got some Ephedra down them!.