Friday, 31 January 2014

Allium ursinum (ramsons) and Lamium album (white dead-nettle)

Henry VIII
The flowers of ramsons (Allium ursinum)
A friend who is a primary school teacher told me this true story: she was taking history with the class and they were currently looking at Henry VIII. She had given a brief outline of Henry's activities before looking for feedback from her captive audience:

"What was unusual about Henry the Eighth?" she asked the class, and nine year old Billy's hand shot up.

"Please miss, 'e was unusual 'cos 'e 'adn't got a willy", he said, a serious look on his face.

There was a frozen silence which eventually gave way to suppressed sniggers from the rest of the class. Billy looked round indignantly. It wasn't often he came up with the right answer  but he knew he was on the ball with this one. Unfortunately he was known to be disruptive in class - a bit of a joker - but this was one step beyond, even for him.

"I beg your pardon".

"'E 'adn't got a wi.....".

"That is very rude  Billy Jones. Before I send to to the head's office, why did you say that?"

Anthony looked mystified. "Well, 'cos it sez it in the song".

"What song?"

To those of you who missed the more intellectual musical entertainments of the 'sixties, a group called Joe Brown and the Bruvvers recorded a song about a bloke called Henery who married the widow next door who had been married seven times before. At one point in the chorus, she firmly proclaims that she 'wouldn't have  a Willy or a Sam' (because she preferred an 'enery), and it was this, hearing it on his dad's 'Hits of the Sixties' CD, that Billy had unfortunately misinterpreted. Although Billy had got it wrong, the incident made me think of the potential for teaching through rhyme and music. For example:

Henry stepped down from his throne
To marry Anne Boleyn, it is known
Broke the rules of the church
And left the Pope in the lurch
By making a church of his own.

O.k. Maybe Wordsworth it isn't and as a full history of Henry it's a bit constricted, but I bet Billy'd go for it.

And believe it or not, there's a plant called Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus). Actually, it's a weed - often one of the first to appear on newly cultivated ground. In the past it was used as a vegetable and was widely grown in Lincolnshire, where it was known as Lincolnshire Spinach. However the Asian spinach then arrived on the scene and Good King Henry abdicated. It is useful as a green manure, its deep roots absorbing valuable nutrients which can then be made available for shallower rooting crops by being cultivated into the soil. The common name comes from German meaning 'good Henry' and is supposed to refer to an elf. Somewhere along the line the English stuck 'king' into the name and it has stuck. It has absolutely nothing to do with Henry the Eighth, but is the perfect bridge into gardening from the above anecdote.
A healthy bank of ramsons
A surprising number of hedgerow plants are edible and the survivor of some sort of holocaust could probably get by on native plants. During summer, at least. Ramsons (Allium ursinum) is one example, and can be found in damp woodland and riversides in  spring. Although having a strong smell, the leaves have a mild onion flavour and make a pleasing addition to omelettes, when finely chopped. They can also be used in salads and, until fairly recently, were commonly boiled like cabbage in the Scottish Highlands. At one time, ramsons was popularly used applied to infected wounds. Bulbs would be picked and pickled in brown sugar and rum in the Isle of Man, shipped to the mainland and used during the winter as a remedy for coughs and colds. Its efficacy was reflected in a seventeenth century saying:

Eat leaks in Lide (March) and ramsins in May
And all the year after physicians may play

Probably one of the biggest deterrents to walking in Scotland is the merciless attention of midges and a couple of leaves of ramsons, crushed and waved round your head, will keep them away. Don't wave too vigorously though as this may be misinterpreted as a cry for help and, before you know what's happening, you've been mountain rescued.
White deadnettle (Lamium album)
White deadnettle (Lamium album), another perennial native plant, is so called because its leaves resemble those of nettle. However, it is not related and doesn't have the potential to sting. It is often found growing alongside nettles and I've just come across an interesting little story in Hatfield's Herbal - A Secret History of English Plants: it seems that 'fairies became cross at their shoes being continually stolen by centipedes, so they decided to hide them among the stinging nettles. Pick a piece of deadnettle and turn it upside down: in every white flower, you will see two black pairs of fairy shoes, neatly hidden'. I've never tried that, but certainly will when they come into flower this year. The young leaves and stems (and I stress 'young') have culinary use when cooked without additional water and in the company of a knob of butter, some salt and pepper and perhaps spring onions to spice up the rather bland flavour. The plant is also used medicinally for menstruation problems, so, in all, if you are the survivor of the holocaust, this is another one to look out for.

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