Friday, 15 November 2013

Epilobum angustifolium and Dictamnus albus

A Burning Problem
Mysterious footwear?
      Have you ever thought about shoes in the road? The number of times you come across shoes left along the highway seems to have something significant about it. It's possible you haven't noticed this phenomena but, having read this, I can guarantee you will. The odd pair of knickers behind a park bench speak for themselves but shoes? and usually only one (nearly always a woman's)??

      Alien abduction is the first thing that springs to mind - the victim was hauled up so suddenly that the shoe was left behind and I suppose it's conceivable that it could be only one, perhaps because the lace was undone. However, I think this is a bit unlikely, based on the fact that it never happened to Spock or Captain Kirk when they were beamed up. Another possibility is a broken heel.  I saw it happen to a woman in a film once: a heel broke off and she simply took the other one off and walked barefoot, keeping her dignity. That's the 'sod it' factor, how can I walk if I'm listing to port? This solution may work for Hollywood but she wouldn't do that round our way - not with the amount of dogcrap on the pavement. A better solution would be to walk with one foot in the gutter and the other on the pavement, rectifying the uneven elevation. However this could be problematic if it's your right shoe that's lost the heel and the kerb is on the left due to the direction you're travelling: the foot with the heel would then be twice as high. My first reaction to this conundrum was that you'd have to walk the other way round the block in the hopes that you could reach your destination that way. When I think about it though, this, of course, that's ridiculous - you'd just have to walk along the gutter on on the other side of the road.

      And what about the one-legged person? Did Long John Silver have to buy two shoes and throw one away? I should have thought that, in the cause of decency, the shop should  sell them one at a time. Probably there is a balance between one legged people with the left leg and those with the right so, in the long run, they'd be able to sell them both. However, if they do have to buy two, one may end up chucked through the car window.

      These things are possibilities but the most likely answer, I feel, lies in spontaneous combustion. In Bleak House, Dickens describes how Mr Krook is a victim of this. In that case there was nothing left of him but an evil smell, greasy soot, a chunk of burnt thigh and a pool of oil. Although this was a novel, Dickens had done copious research and the story was based on a number of known cases. Lots of theories about how this happens have been propounded, the most widely accepted one being that of the wick effect: having first been ignited by a fag end or something, the person burns and fat from the body works like candle wax, keeping it lit for ages. Whatever the cause, it's a fact that, in 1951, a Mary Hardy Reeser of St. Petersburg, Florida was found almost totally cremated. All that was left was a pile of ash and a foot. The point is though, that the foot was still wearing - wait for it - A SHOE! I rest my case.

      A plant - Dictamnus albus - is also known as 'burning bush'. It produces volatile oils from its leaves and these may become ignited in hot weather. You can hold a burning match close and watch the resulting conflagration. It sounds advisable to only do on someone else's Dictamnus, because it wouldn't do a lot for your herbaceous border. However, the burst of flame is fleeting enough to not damage the plant. It's thought that this was the burning bush depicted in the Bible, when God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. I can't remember the rest of the story, maybe Moses used it to light his pipe. It grows to about three foot high, with woody stems, and looks a bit like rosebay willow herb, another plant associated with fire.
Rosebay willowherb or fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)
      Rosebay willow herb is also known as 'fireweed'. This is due to its characteristic of colonizing areas of woodland which have been burnt down. A perennial herb, it dies out as the trees reestablish but the seeds stay viable in the ground for many years, ready to make another bid for glory should fire or felling again create the right environment. At one time it was a rare plant in Britain and only really exploded onto the scene with the coming of the railways in the 1800's- the bare ground accompanying them suited the plant and the 'wind tunnel' effect of the trains helped spread the airborne seeds. The bombing of the cities created a wealth of new sites and a new name 'bombweed' became popular, as harsh areas of rubble became hidden under a sea of pink.

      The soft, downy seeds become a snowstorm in late summer windy days and, at one time they were used with thistledown in Scotland to stuff mattresses. The fluff was also used, mixed with cotton or fur, to make stockings and other items of clothing. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the young tender stems can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable and are claimed to be a good asparagus substitute. I haven't tried it yet but will give it a go next summer. The dried leaves are used to make tea and I've heard it said that it's difficult to tell it from the real thing.

      Although it was once considered a garden plant, rosebay willow herb quickly outgrows its welcome: the thick woody roots spread horizontally and its dense clumps suppress other plants, although foxglove seems to thrive happily with it. However the white form - Epilobium angustifolium album - is a bit less belligerent and can be a stately addition to the herbaceous border.


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