Following World Environment Day, we're now exploring the Churchyard at St John's Waterloo, a historic green oasis in the heart of London. Jonathan Trustram from the Churchyard of St John's, writes about herbs, and their (historic and sometimes murderous) connections to our local area.
I went to Kew one summer’s day and had a look at the Queen’s Garden, the 17th century herb garden behind the little palace in the Dutch style, built of shocking orange brick, a place I hadn’t visited for years and had always thought was a little dull and academic or the province of Culpepper aficionados. And besides, I had become allergic to Heritage. In other words, like the herbalists I was ignorant and prejudiced.
Although it is surrounded by the inevitable box hedges the garden itself is vigorous and crowded, and when full grown and going to seed in midsummer full of disorderly and competitive plants barely contained by the neat hedges. When seed production is important, tidiness is impossible.
The labels, quotations from the writings of 16th and 17th century botanists and herbalists, make visiting the garden a literary experience. But I read them not as extracts from a pharmaceutical text book, a guide to quaint cures and herbs to help you rest and digest, but as a sampling of the ills and fears and suffering of the time: ulcers and the plague, witchcraft, burnings, scalding and bleeding, wounding, infertility, melancholy, indigestion, sadness. And a fair bit of sex and drinking too.
So many of these plants are familiar already to us in Waterloo. Motherwort (“it makes mothers joyful”) appeared in Mint Street about four years ago and is spreading round the park. Greater Celandine which grows at St John’s against the north east garden wall was used in the treatment of asthma up until the second world war. Epimedium, or barrenwort, was said to make women sterile. Glaucium flavum, the yellow horned poppy, which is a British native found only (as a true 'native') on a few shingly beaches, has seeded itself all around the dry garden at St John’s; its foliage is a match for any Mediterranean silvery grey architectural plant. Gerard wrote in 1597 that it “looseth the bellie gently.” The cardoon, which has already marched across from St John’s to Waterloo Green, is there. It contains the chemical cynarine which has recently been found to protect the liver and lower cholesterol levels. (As old remedies are discredited, new ones are discovered.) Galium verum, ladies’ bedstraw has established itself in the wild flower meadow at Waterloo Green: ‘the root thereof being drunk in wine stirreth up bodily lust’. (And I thought the name came from its being used for stuffing pillows.) ‘The leaves and flowers of Borage’, a vigorous annual very common at Mint Street, ‘put into wine, maketh men and women merrie, and driveth away all sadnesse, dullness and melancholie’. We’re not told what the effect of ladies’ bedstraw or borage without the wine might be. After the fanciful and fantastic, the truth of Gerard’s judgement on Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, which has grown in this country since the middle ages and is common everywhere, is sobering: ‘It mitigateth paine, but leaveth behind a mischief worse than the disease itself.’
The most surprising discovery at Kew was Datura stramonium, which was already one of my favourite plants for the stories it tells. Daily Mail: THE POISONOUS WITCH DOCTOR PLANT WHICH IS SWEEPING THROUGH BRITAIN. It is poisonous and hallucinogenic and although the Daily Mail only woke up to it recently, it sneaked in from America at about the same time as that great legal economic migrant the potato. John Pechey said of it in 1694, ‘Wenches give half a dram of it to their lovers, in beer or wine. Some are so skill’d in dosing of it, that they can make men mad for as many hours as they please.’ Like other demons, it goes by many names: thorn apple, jimson weed, Jamestown weed, mad apple, stinkwort – and I have just been told by a colleague from South Africa that there it is known as stinkblare. It gets around.
It is reassuring to know that there have been almost no cases of poisoning from it. The seed pods, which give it the name of thorn apple, are so prickly that children would find it very difficult to open them and the seeds taste so foul that you spit them out straight away. It is common in SE1 and once earned Putting Down Roots (more on this project in the coming days) an alarmist article in the South London Press, after which we pulled most of them up. But it made a comeback (it is an annual which seeds prolifically). It also got an article in Rail News in 1980:
‘Hard on the heels of the giant hogweed reported in August Rail News comes another rare and dangerous plant – the thorn apple. It was spotted at New Milton station by a retired chemist and local botanist. He told his next-door neighbour, one of Waterloo’s assistants. Apparently, the drug stramonium, which came from the plant, was once used for the alleviation of asthma. And it is believed wizards in medieval times used it. New Milton’s stationmaster was told that the plant was in the station car park and arranged for it to be destroyed. After hacking down the three-foot plant they dug up its roots and burned the lot.’
Interesting that only complete destruction by fire would satisfy the authorities. It is what you have to do to witches, after all. Its seeds, though, are thought to be able to survive in the soil for a hundred years, which might make its sudden re-appearance seem magical.
According to Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica it had ‘…an honorable place in the treament of asthma up to the end of the second world war.’ When supplies were cut off during the war it was grown commercially, and the County Herb Committees were asked to gather wild plants too.
Here are some of the herbs growing in the Queen’s Garden at Kew which can also be found at St John's (with quotes from the labels at Kew):
Epimedium, barrenwort. The root would make women barren that ate it inwardly.
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy. It mitigateth paine, but leaveth behind a mischief worse than the disease itself.
Oenothera biennis, virginian tree primrose. Heals ulcers of the mouth. (Parkinson, 1629)
Asperula odorata, woodruff. It is held also to be good against the Plague, both to defend the heart and vitall spirits from infection, and to expell the noysome vapours that are received. (Parkinson, 1656)
Cynara cardunculus, cardoon. From it comes cynaria which is used to lower cholesterol, for the early stages of late onset diabetes and for chronic liver disease.
Euphorbia lathyrus, garden spurge. The juice mixed with honie causeth haire to fall from what place, which is annointed therewith, if it be done in the sune. (Gerard, 1633)
Melissa officinalis, (lemon) balm. Driveth away all melancholie and sadness.
Borago officinalis, borage. The leaves and flowers of Borage put into wine, maketh men and women merrie, and driveth away all sadnesse, dulness and melancholie.
Origanum vulgare, marjoram. is a remedy against the bitings and stingings of venomous beastes and cureth them that have drunke opium. (Gerard, 1633)
Angelica archangelica, garden angelica. The root is available against witchcraft and inchantments. (Gerard, 1633)
Hypericum perforatum, St John’s wort. The leaves stamped are good to be laide upon burnings, scaldings, and all wounds, and also for rottening and filthy ulcers. (Gerard, 1597)
Knautia arvensis, field scabious. It is effectual for all sorts of coughs, shortness of breath and all other diseases of the breat and lungs. (Culpepper, 1616–54)
Campanula trachelium, nettle leaved bellflower. They are excellent good against the inflammation of the throte. (Gerard, 1597)
Glaucium flavum, yellow horned poppy. It looseth the bellie gently. (Gerard, 1597)
Nigella damascene, wild damaske. (love in the mist.) Cleanseth the kidneys of gravell and the stone, and provoketh urine, being taken with honey.
One more plant: the wonderful Silybum marianum, whose punning name appeals to all those with the sense of humour of a three-year-old - which includes most of us. In English silly bum is blessed Mary’s thistle, or, more commonly, milk thistle. Its big spikey leaves are covered in an intricate silver pattern, its flower is a purple thistle. The association with milk, from the milky coloured patterns on the broad, spiny leaves, is an example of the Doctrine of Signatures, the idea that God endowed plants with characteristics that indicated their uses, so that a plant with a leaf pointed like a blade was called woundwort and thought to be a remedy against cuts. It may all be nonsense, but it shows, if nothing else, that people recognised and named plants and placed them in a system.
Silymarin, a chemical derived from Silybum marianum, was used until recently in the treatment of Hepatitis-C! It is interesting how many of these plants are thought to be relevant to the ailments, physical and emotional, of our homeless clients.
And one more…. Richard Mabey on feverfew, Tanacetum perthenium, (from the Balkans, early middle ages) ‘almost the classical and medieval world’s aspirin’ and recently proved to be effective when taken daily in preventing migraine attacks.
Many of these plants are annuals or biennials. It is not surprising that short lived plants are good at self-seeding; they compensate for a brief life with many offspring. Their independence from the gardener’s control can be exciting or threatening, depending on the gardener. You never know quite where they will appear next. In dangerous city gardens – dangerous for plants, that is, because of statutory or illegal vandalism – plants which can survive as seeds and appear in out of the way places will thrive. They are always on the move, unlike, say, the paeony, the precious paeony which can live as long as a human and is of course rooted to the spot. Annuals, you could say, achieve homelessness. Or, they seem at home, for a little while, very much at home in fact because they have chosen their own place, they have not been assigned a place, but then they’re gone. Amazing that a big bold plant like the milk thistle, with such a strong presence, appears then disappears then sets up somewhere else.
I began thinking about these plants in connection with the herb garden we were going to make in St George’s churchyard in the Borough, against the old perimeter wall of the Marshalsea prison. (We were asked to dig over a weed infested border and turf most of it. We dug up so many gravestones, mostly broken, that we used them eventually to make a rock garden in another part of church yard. I liked the idea of an herb garden, connected with the struggle against disease and death, next to the prison wall, in ground where we had dug up a child’s skull. At the other end of the church yard is the coroner’s court. And the herb garret museum is very close by...). Some of the plants we were thinking about are a bit coarse and thrusting, vigorous, easy to please, but big. This would have been an herb garden which might make you feel a bit uneasy. They are not well behaved, fragile herbs. Some of them, like lemon balm, need to be kept in check. The garden would not have too much to show for itself in autumn and winter, but bulbs could be planted to flower before the bullies get out of bed. So far nothing has come of this project.
To try to get a better picture of things – to move beyond the council’s alarm at opium poppies (the poppies at St John’s got us into the paper again) and jimson weed and beyond lazy Garden of Eden herbalism, read the Richard Mabey article on Datura stramonium, in Flora Britannica, and get a sense of how complicated the picture is for one plant. Foxglove, digitalis is of course famous for being both poisonous and medicinal. Many plants have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ wrapped up together. Even potatoes become poisonous when exposed to light.
The world of the herbalists is a fallen world. We have been expelled from Eden. But God has left us clues and glimpses of how things were and how they might be: manna from heaven, poisons and their cures, bliss guarded by alkaloids.
And one more approach: there’s the connection between the people of this city, a diverse spectrum of people from all over the world - from migrants to asylum seekers to occasional stowaways - and the plants from all over the world which have become naturalised. Some are welcomed and become pillars of the community, some make their way here as aliens. Some plants were brought in as trophies by hunters to the courts of aristocrats, some smuggled themselves in as seeds tangled up in imported cloth or in the ballast of ships.
Native plants and wildflower gardens which are imitations of English hay meadows have become popular and there is a widespread and mistaken belief that English birds and insects need English plants to feed on (OK, it is true for a few species). Look at the birds eating myrtle and cotoneaster berries! And look at the Mediterranean insects like the rosemary beetle which have arrived to feed on the Mediterranean plants we have imported. And just as those concerned about the effects of immigration on British culture and society never seem to bother themselves much about, for example, what our expats have done to Andalucía, never mind Australia, so those who write alarmist stories about foreign plants are unaware of the serious harm our common or garden brambles have done in Australia, or purple loosestrife in North America.
The ‘heritage’ of the English countryside is not London’s heritage. We have a community of plants which reflects the multicultural human population of the city and centuries of global trading.
Postscript. Wondering if my acceptance of poisonous plants in public places was irresponsible, I fished through websites in search of more information on plants and poisoning, I have discovered the following:
At Alnwick Castle gardens in Northumbria around 200,000 people take a tour round the Poison Garden each year.
Between 1958 and 1977 there was only one confirmed case of a child killed by eating a poisonous plant. The plant was hemlock, which the South London Press's correspondent failed to spot at the Green, even though it grows six foot tall. (It has since almost completely disappeared.)
In Switzerland between 1966 and 1994 there were 135 serious cases of poisoning by plants, and five deaths, all of adults. Two people were killed by autumn crocuses, one by yew, one by hemlock water dropwort, and one by inhaling daffodils. This is a breakdown of the cases:
42 deadly nightshade 18 giant hogweed 17 Datura stramonium 11 dieffenbachia (dumb cane) ? 8 Colchicum autumnal (autumn crocus) 8 Veratrum album 4 Aconitum napellus (monkshood) 3 horse chestnut 3 henbane 1 yew 1 Arum maculatum (lords and ladies) 1 Asarum europaeum 1 Chrysanthemum vulgare (tansy) 1 Cyclamen persicum 1 Datura suaveolens 1 liquorice (!) 1 laburnum 1 clubmoss
1 oleander 1 groundsel
and, wait for it -
1 broad bean
Note that the death rate for narcissus inhalation is 100%.
One other note: I got the phrase 'pillar of the community' from an article in the Guardian. The information about the contemporary or near contemporary medicinal use of greater celandine and milk thistle also comes from Richard Mabey's 'Flora Britannica'.
Jonathan Trustram is a gardening volunteer at the Churchyard of St John's Waterloo. You can follow his blog here.