Tag Archives: spring

Pilewort

One of the dark materialsa medicinal for a range of ailments … tubers found at archaeological sites suggesting it was eaten … flowers open in the sun … storage in root tubers … dispersal by bulbils

Madwort, mugwort, sneezewort, spearwort – worts apiece. But among the earliest to show itself is the pilewort or lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria: first the deep green leaves, then the buds and soon the bright yellow buttercup flowers.

Its ‘business end’ lies in the dark, just below the soil surface. The foliage has gone by summer, but a collection of small root tubers holds the plant’s stores until next spring.

Pilewort unearthed: whole plant just about to flower (right) showing the tubers above the main root mass; and closer views of the tubers (left), each about 2 cm long, the hanging one 5 cm. Photo right is edited to distinguish foliage, tubers and roots.

Prehistory – food?

The tubers, usually charred remains, have been found preserved at a range of archaeological sites throughout Europe, extending back to the Mesolithic [1], for example at mesolithic Staosnaig on Colonsay [2] and the Iron Age period at Howe Broch, Orkney [3]. The implication is that the tubers were used as food. Archaeobotanists working on the middle Bronze age in Sweden ‘considered that the tubers had been roasted and eaten like popcorn’ [3]. There are also records of the leaves being eaten.

Most plants in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, are poisonous and there are reports that Pilewort has poisoned cattle and sheep [4]. It is difficult to find definitive, recent evidence that it can or cannot be safely eaten by humans, though Long [4] cites Cornevin’s 1887 book that the plant “is not poisonous when young, as in Germany the first shoots are eaten as a salad, but that it becomes so later … “. Other records [1] suggest roots of various species among the Ranunculaceae, which includes plants much more poisonous than pilewort, have been eaten safely when cooked. Given the uncertainties, it would be wise not to try it!

Remedy for a common complaint

The pilewort, also called figwort, is claimed as cure for haemorrhoids, known colloquially as piles or figs. Grigson [5], quotes Gerard’s (1597) observation that the piles “when often bathed with the juice mixed with wine, or with the sick man’s urine, are drawne togither and dried up, and the paine quite taken away”.

Grieve [6] writes that the plant is “used externally as an ointment, made from the bruised herb with fresh lard, applied locally night and morning, or in the form of poultices, fomentations, or in suppositories.” The hanging tubers are also said to offer a physical resemblance to the complaint.

Pilewort flowers, heart-shaped leaves (lower right), and plants early morning, frosted next to a clump of lords and ladies (lower left).

Habitat and reproduction

Plants seem to thrive best in locations that are partly shaded, where sunlight filters through to them in the morning. They sometimes form a near-complete cover, but in nutrient rich places, other plants, such as cleavers and ground elder, will soon grow taller and shade them. In some years, they suffer repeated frosts, from which they recover in a few hours. After a very cold mid-April night, the pilewort in the photograph above (lower left) looked fine by mid-morning while Arum maculatum nearby still displayed frost-damaged, hanging, curved leaf stalks.

The plant has a further interesting feature in the bubils formed in leaf axils. Kerner, in the 1894 translation of his Natural History of Plants [7] reported that when growing in sunny sites, the flowers were visited by pollen-eating beetles, flies and bees that pollinated the flowers, leading to seed formation. But when in deep shade, pollination was less successful, seeds were few and the plants responded by producing “little bulbous bodies in the axils of their upper foliage leaves”, which on becoming detached when the plant withered, were dispersed and gave rise to new plants.

Today the difference reported by Kerner is considered genetic, those plants reproducing mostly by seed and those mostly by vegetative bulbils being classed as different subspecies [8].

Pilewort grows in various places in the Living Field garden. This time of year, it will be flowering beneath cut hedges.

Plate showing pilewort bulbils and root tubers (right) from Kerner von Marilaun’s The Natural History of Plants [7], taken from author’s copy.

Sources | references

[1] The Sheffield Archaeobotany site: Charles, M., Crowther, A., Ertug, F., Herbig, C., Jones, G., Kutterer, J., Longford, C., Madella, M., Maier, U., Out, W., Pessin, H., Zurro, D., (2009) Archaeobotanical Online Tutorial http://archaeobotany.dept.shef.ac.uk/ https://sites.google.com/sheffield.ac.uk/archaeobotany/tubers/identification/ranunculus-ficaria

[2] Mithen S, et al. 2001. Plant use in the Mesolithic: evidence from Staosnaig, Isle of Colonsay, Scotland. Journal of Archaeological Science 28, 223-234, https://doi.org/10.1006/jasc.1999.053 (Institutional or paid access only).

[3] Dickson C & Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, UK.

[4] Pilewort as a poisonous plant. 1) Long HC 1927. Poisonous plants on the farm. MAFF, HMSO, London. 2) Forsyth AA. 1954 (1968) British Poisonous plants. MAFF Bulletin 161, HMSO, London. 3) Cooper MR, Johnson AW 1984 Poisonous plants in Britain. MAFF Reference book 161, HMSO, London.

[5] Grigson G. 1958. The Englishman’s flora. Paperback 1975 by Paladin.

[6] Grieve M. 1931. A modern herbal. Now online, read the page on lesser celandine at botanical.com.

[7] Anton Kerner von Marilaun. 1894 (English edition). The Natural history of plants. Translated by FW Oliver. Blackie and Son, London.

[8] Stace AC 1997 (second edition) New Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press.

Labours of the Months

A note to the Living Field’s exploration of The Year. The Labours in Medieval art and craft. Labours in the remaining Easby church murals, Yorkshire, ca 1250. Adam and Eve in the tradition: delving and spanning. The reformer John Ball. Modern Labours and the Crow. 

The ‘Labours of the months’ was an artistic theme that recurred in cathedrals and churches across Europe in the middle ages, typically 1200-1400 AD or 800-600 years ago [1]. The Labours, depicting rural activities through the year, were sometimes paired with the signs of the zodiac. They were crafted in stone, wood and stained glass and occasionally in wall paintings (murals). The great cathedrals of France and Italy display many fine examples.

The Labours  had a role in reinforcing power and privilege. In the Très Riches Heures for example [2] the paintings show well turned out peasants about their seasonal activities, but overlooked and dominated by great palaces and castles. And not all the Labours were about the agricultural year: hunting with hawk and dog would also have been the preserve of the wealthy.

So now to Yorkshire …

The Easby Murals

In the church of St Agatha at Easby [3] Yorkshire, four of what are thought to have been 12  murals remain of these Labours of the Months, dated to around 1250 along with several murals depicting scenes from the Bible. There are apparently very few other wall paintings of ‘The Labours’ from medieval Britain, and none to compare with these. 
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These murals were originally painted on dry plaster, but found covered with lime wash, presumably to prevent them being seen and defaced during Henry VIII’s purges of the monasteries in the mid-1500s. They were uncovered in Victorian times and restored again in 1994 [4]. The remaining 8 have not survived.

A notice in the church states that two of the remaining Labours are from spring, sowing and pruning, and the others, digging and hunting, from winter. Those of sowing and pruning are the best preserved.

The church at that time was next to a monastery, Easby Abbey, now a well kept ruin [5], and the resemblance of monks’ hair styles (tonsures) in the labourers depicted suggests that the painter’s models were working canons from the Abbey rather than common people.

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Yet the presence of this ‘Labours’, so close to central Christian themes, and in a humble church, shows the importance of the year’s cycle to the people and the beliefs at that time. As in the great cathedrals, hunting on horseback with a hawk features in one of the four (lower right in the images above). The hawk itself looks more like a crow and not too different from the crow observing the sower.

Who was then the gentleman …?

Another of the murals, not part of the ‘Labours’, but one of a set on early Christian themes, shows Adam digging and Eve sat on a rock or tree stump spinning, symbolic mundane tasks that they would have to do for eternity after their ejection from the Garden in the book of Genesis.

lf_ntsmgs_stgth_dgspn_gs_750These symbols of husbandry and craft have resonated throughout recent history, not least when the preacher for social justice and equality, John Ball [6] wrote in the 1300s not long after the Easby murals were painted:

“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman.”

He was querying why privilege and power should still so dominate and make miserable the lives of working people in what was purportedly a Christian country. That power was uncomfortable with the idea of social justice and John Ball came to a violent end, being cut into pieces and displayed in different parts of the country.

John Ball’s memory has also been kept in writings and songs, notably that by Sydney Carter [6].

In the mural at St Agatha’s, Adam is fully clothed, and Eve not quite, but in the folk tradition they can be without. In the song “Old Adam” – which has a delving and spanning refrain –  is the line “he never paid his tailor’s bills because he wore no clothes” [7].

Modern labours

The Labours of the months was given a new treatment by the writer and artist Clare Leighton in her ‘The Farmers Year’ published in the 1930s [8]. She begins with the Labours of Lambing, Lopping and Threshing, then in the month of April, Sowing; and the time of the engraving is more than 500 years after Easby, yet the farmer is broadcasting by hand, carrying the grain in a basket slung in front of him.

Her sower strikes a similar pose to that in the Easby murals, but with right arm back after flinging the seed. Her sower is more rugged, of the earth, not with smock and tonsure but with weathered face and trousers tied below the knee and having a wife waiting for him at the farm.

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Though she admits most sowing and other field work was then done with machinery, Clare Leighton chooses to engrave this sower, and writes ” ….. but here and there a farmer remains who still feels some warmth come up to him from the earth as he strides his fields, and to whom the land is a matter of emotion as well of economics.”

The crow?

The presence of the crow, following the Easby sower, recurs throughout the tradition. Crows observe the human condition, taking advantage where they can. In traditional song, two crows find a ready meal in a new-slain knight, deserted by his dog, his hawk and his lady. The crows are thinking aloud about which of them will feast on the eyes.

Of contemporary artists, Alan Stones has a special eye for crows and ravens [9]. In his lithograph – Brother Sun – a crow observes a man, a shepherd, coiling barbed wire. Another crow flies away low over the field. In a charcoal drawing, two crows peck before a gnarled hawthorn tree. His series ‘Divided self’ show crow-type birds standing on sheep and the series ‘Raven’ brings out the unearthly power of the great black birds.

The murals at St Agatha’s, Easby, are part of a European heritage and a continuing tradition [including colouring-in if that’s your fancy 10].

Contact / author: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk, visited St Agatha’s on 9 July 2017.

Sources, references, links

[1] Labours of the months: for general background and examples, see the Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labours_of_the_Months; and The Paradoxplace web site shows Labours and Zodiac in stained glass at Chartres, France c1217

[2] The illuminated manuscript, Très Riches Heures can be viewed at Public Domain Review: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/labors-of-the-months-from-the-tres-riches-heures/.

[3] Easy Parish Church – a brief guide. Bargate Publications, Richmond, North Yorkshire, www.bargatepublications.co.uk. A notice on one of the walls states that the murals were originally painted on dry plaster and pre-date the Florentine Giotto (c. 1267-1337) and the Sienese Duccio (active 1278-1319). The church contains a replica of the Easby Cross, of sculpted stone, now in the V&A London. The photographer and historian Stiffleaf has a bank of images at http://www.ipernity.com/tag/stiffleaf/keyword/28360/@/page:69:18

[4] The Easby Church guide states: ‘…. they were uncovered during the Victorian restoration and restored again in 1994 by Perry Lithgow (a company specialising in architectural restoration) assisted by a grant from English Heritage.’ More photographs of the murals can be viewed at Wasleys.org.uk.

[5] Easby Abbey was founded in the 1150s for the Premonstratensian Order, itself founded in about 1121 in Prémontré, in France. The Abbey was destroyed in the 1540s in Henry VIII campaigns. Information at English Heritage http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/easby-abbey/

[6] John Ball: the Wikipedia entry gives general background. Sydney Carter wrote the song ‘John Ball’ for the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Perceptive commentary at ‘Songs that grow like trees: an appreciation of Sydney Carter (1915-2004)’ on the web site Early Music Muse – musings on medieval, renaissance and traditional music by Ian Pittaway. Chris Wood sings ‘John Ball’ on his album Trespasser:  ChrisWoodMusic.

[7]  The traditional song “Old Adam” is performed (2016) by Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party on the CD album Old Adam, 2016, Soundpost Records, www.fayhield.com.

[8] Clare Leighton, 1898-1989, writer, artist and engraver. For examples of works, see clairleighton.com. Source: Leighton, C. 1933. The Farmer’s Year – a calendar of English husbandry. Little Toller Books, Dorset.

[9] Alan Stones at www.alanstones.co.uk.  ‘Brother Sun’ and other early lithographs can be viewed at Lithographs – Farming (1984-1992); crows and ravens at Lithographs (1996-1999).

[10] Institute for Medieval Studies University of Leeds
Downloadable page for colouring, Labours of the Months, January to March https://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/download/2753/labours_of_the_months

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[Edited 17 September 2017]

Thorn 1

The blackthorn Prunus spinosa is the first of the wild members of the genus Prunus, the cherries, to flower in the year. Its fruit – the black sloe – is not what we might expect of a cherry, being sour and unfit to eat, yet is used as a flavouring.

Generally the bush reaches full flower in mid-April while the leaves are still in bud, or just expanding, and where the plants are let to form thickets, they appear from a distance as if a heavy frost had covered the tangle of black branches.

Blackthorn thicket in flower, Sidlaws, mid-April (Squire)
Blackthorn thicket in flower, Sidlaws, mid-April (Squire)

The spectacle of a blackthorn thicket in flower has become uncommon in the croplands – relegated to higher ground on the fringes of rough grazed pasture or in lowland hedges that have been serially uncut. Massed thorn is sometimes seen as plantings around roundabouts and slip roads but seldom impresses.

It is a fine plant of the hedgerow but rarely flowers on branches that are trimmed short.

Blackthorn Prunus spinosa in flower mid-April (Squire)
Blackthorn Prunus spinosa in flower mid-April (Squire)

The flowers are simple and primitive, typical of the Rose family – five green sepals, which previously encased the flower bud, but now showing through the base of the five white petals, and many pollen-bearing (male) anthers ringing a central (female) style and stigma.

The flowers are held close to the woody stems, on stalks about 1 cm long, unlike the gean Prunus avium where the flowers hang in clumps  on longer stalks and the bird cherry Prunus padus where they are held away from the stems on short floral branches.

Almost-ripe sloes on a branch in autumn (Living Field collection)

The blue-black fruit, like a small dark plum, is used in drinks, gin and sloe wine, and has a long history as a medicinal and dye.  It turns dark blue from green in autumn, and if not removed, remains black and slowly withering throughout the winter when the leaves are gone.

Occasionally the blackthorn grows into a small tree, as the one by a lane in the images below.

Blackthorn as a small tree (Squire)
Blackthorn as a small tree (Squire)

 

 

 

Spring equinox

The croplands have not seen deep frost and snow this winter. They’ve basked in single-figure-Celsius warmth. By the spring equinox on 20 March 2014, the soil was not cold to the hand, and the winter cereals and oilseeds, sown last August to October, were almost covering the fields in a thin layer of green.

Sunrise is racing northwards now, as fast as it gets – and only three months to the summer solstice.

Back a year – to this day in 2013 – when large tracts of these islands were covered in deep snow and a deep cold that killed stock and set back crops.  The northern cropland got off lightly, yet the higher land here was white on 23 March 2013.

This was the scene on Dron Hill in east Perthshire, a great beech Fagus sylvatica, looking to Dunsinane but etched on white. Dron was an iron age encampment or fort, a reminder that crops and stock were tended here 2500 years ago, and long before that.

Spring equinox 2013 on Dron Hill, Perthshire (Squire)
Spring equinox 2013 on Dron Hill, Perthshire (Squire)