Saturday, 12 April 2014

Marigold and Rue

Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
From our supermarket - stocked citadels we tend to see marigolds as simply a pretty flower providing a splash of annual colour in the garden. However, there's a bit more to them than that:

The common name comes from 'Mary's Gold', as it was so called in honour of the Virgin Mary. Why this should be is open to conjecture, but the scientific name, Calendula officinalis is a bit easier to explain: 'Calendula' comes from the Latin 'Calendae', meaning the first day of the month and possibly refers to the fact that, in its native Southern European and North African habitat, it can often be seen flowering throughout the year; 'officinalis' applies to plants with perceived medicinal properties. Dipping a leaf in boiling water for a second, then bruising and applying it to a wound controls bleeding and speeds the healing process. When you hear a fact like this, there's a tendency to think this would be really useful if you were to injure yourself in the countryside. However, if you think about it, the presence of boiling water on the spot is about as unlikely as a comfrey plant growing next to the nettle that stung you. (I think it probable that no one is absolutely sure whether comfrey eases nettle stings, because by the time you find some the pain has naturally dissipated or you've died of old age).

Herbalists also use marigold internally for a bewildering list of ailments ranging from colitis to athlete's foot and as if its medicinal properties aren't enough, the plant has numerous uses in the kitchen: a complete flower dropped into a stew will add a pleasing flavour, while the petals have a similar effect in salads and soups. It also provides a pretty good substitute for saffron because, when soaked in milk or water, it can be used as a colouring for rice, cakes and puddings.
Rue (Ruta graveolens)
Not all plants are as benevolent as the marigold: rue (Ruta graveolens), derives its name from 'graveolens', meaning 'heavily scented' and 'rue' refers to 'bitterness' or 'unpleasentness'. The latter feature manifests itself through its powerful oils. In contact with the skin, these render it sensitive to sunlight, resulting in eruptions similar to those caused by giant hogweed. In nurseries the gardeners wear protective gloves which cover to the elbows when they are dealing with the plant. Although seen as a tonic and stimulant to digestion in small doses and chewing a leaf may relieve tension headaches, it is toxic in stronger solutions, so should be used advisedly. Sprinkled dried and powdered over seeds as sown, the herb protects against seed - eating birds and insects who presumably don't like the potential skin eruptions or death which it promises, and, rubbed through the coats of dogs or cats, it repels fleas.

The variety 'Jackman's Blue' is readily available in garden centres and the 'blue' the name offers gives a nice evergreen contrast to a bed, or, at a height of about two foot, provides an attractive low hedge round a border. Apparently neither rue or basil will thrive if planted close together, although this is a problem I've not personally encountered.

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