Monday, 14 July 2014

Galega officinalis (Goat's rue)

Goat's rue
Goat's Rue
      Goat's rue (Galega officinalis) is apparently so-called because of the way the foliage smells when bruised. Someone once left a billy goat in Wythenshawe Park when I worked there, presumably with the thought that he'd be absorbed into the farm stock. I made the mistake of patting its head and the stink which adhered to my hand was indescribable and took a good time to get rid of. It seems they urinate in their beards to strengthen the smell - an athletic feat comparable to the exertions of gifted small boys against lavatory walls (I remember Raymond Taylor doing it right over the top of the school toilet wall and hitting a passing teacher - bet Offsted 'd have loved that - like Ray, they're into targets, but a lot of theirs are even dafter). I can't begin to understand what the females goats see in ponging males, but I suppose it's a matter of what turns you on.
Flowers close-up
      Anyway, Galega is a relative of the pea and shares that familiy's characteristic of having root nodules. These are caused by bacteria which live in the root and have the ability to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere. Some of this is then donated to the plant like a lodger paying the landlord in kind. The landlord, appreciating this contribution towards the day-to-day living, reciprocates by bunging some plant sugar downstairs to the bacteria, who obligingly consume it for pudding. This, of course, is why we should always dig in the roots of harvested peas or beans, enriching the soil with nitrogen which will benefit the next crop. Farmers once used this knowledge by sowing clover then letting the field lie fallow for a year before ploughing it in. Organic growers still follow a similar procedure and a number of crops called 'green manures' are used on allotments to replace the soil structure and nutrient removed by cropping. Gardening with nature like this is actually common sense: if we grow a crop then take it away, it is obvious that the nutrient it has used in growing should be replaced - just look under a privet hedge - the soil is usually like dust, with all the structure and nutrient extracted by the plant in producing the leaves which we've clipped off and removed. The ultimate example of this occurred in the dust bowl of central United States in the thirties: winds removed the dusty topsoil and farmers were forced to abandon the land and move on. Steinbeck's story of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath was based on this.
Root nodules clearly visible on seedlings
      The name Galega originates from the Greek 'gala', meaning 'milk', implying that the plant aids its production. The truth of this was proved in 1873 by French research which showed that cows fed on it increased milk yield by 35 to 50%. It can also be used for improving lactation in humans. The racemes of small pea-like flowers render the plant a pretty addition to the herbaceous border and it seeds itself generously, so once you've got it there is no need to be without. Division is another easy way of propagating the plant in order to prevent it becoming too large. The fact that it can occasionally reach a height of 1.5 metres means that a support of some kind will help to keep it within designated bounds.

      In closing, it's worth mentioning that if they ever introduce an Olympic event on elevated urinating, watch out for Raymond Taylor's name.

For more information about herbs and their uses go to

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Poisonous Plants

Poison in the Garden
Ragwort (Senecio jacobea)
      It seems to me that you can overdo it when it comes to safety and poisonous plants. I've heard of people removing a Laburnum tree from the garden because their child may eat the seeds. This ties in with the wrapping- in- cotton- wool philosophy which ignores the learning potential in their own garden. What happens when the child plays in the park or friend's garden where the tree hasn't been taken down? The warnings and explanations which could have been gained at home have been lost. Many of the common garden plants are poisonous, including Rhododendron, Pieris, Hypericum, Euphorbia - the list is endless. And, because a plant is classed as poisonous, doesn't mean you are going to drop dead after a mouthful: apparently yew (Taxus baccata) which is widely known to be toxic, only carries out this promise after you've eaten enough leaves to stuff an average sized sofa. Maybe it should still be seen as dangerous but it isn't in the same class as telling the truth when a woman asks 'does my bum looks big in this?'

      I once suffered from mild poisoning when I'd taken the advice of a 'free wild food' book and tried chickweed, which is recommended as being fine in salads. I'd picked it in the garden and inadvertently included some sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia), which looks vaguely similar when you haven't got your glasses on. The Euphorbia had the effect of numbing my mouth and tongue so that I could hardly talk. At this point my wife, always sympathetic, said it was a good thing because it shut me up. There's a similar effect accompanying the consumption of the houseplant known as dumb cane (Dieffenbachia spp), the sap swells the tongue and justifies the common name. This is well known, but I pride myself in having personally carried out the ground-breaking research on sun spurge.
Choosey diner
      On the whole, animals seem to have an instinct which prevents them eating plants which may be harmful (although goats seem to be an exception to this). It's widely known that horses are poisoned by eating ragwort (Senecio jacobea) but they rarely eat the growing plant - only that which has been cut and lies unrecognised when mixed with  hay.

      Cows seem to be victims of other aspects of danger in plants: I was fishing on the River Dane opposite a fifteen foot high clay bank, when a cow appeared at the top of it and peered longingly at a patch of grass and wildflowers growing on a narrow ledge some distance below the lip. It disappeared and I thought it had decided to make do with the thirty acres of grass in its field, but a couple of minutes later it came back and repeated its thoughtful perusal. Then, overcome with longing, it stepped gingerly onto a bulge of eroding bank with the obvious intention of working its way along the face to where dinner beckoned. It got further than I'd have thought possible before the clay suddenly crumbled.

      I've always thought cows' faces were pretty mild and expressionless, but this one proved the exception as widening  eyes and gaping mouth conveyed a definite impression of surprise and horror. The accompanying bellow completed the bovine version of OH SHIT! before cow and large section of banking obeyed gravity and plunged into the river.

      I don't know how much a cow weighs, but it certainly displaces enough water to give Archimedes a 'eureka' moment. The resulting tsuname headed my way as I sat peacefully fishing and I sprang into action too late to stop my ham butties and half my tackle  disappearing into the torrent.

      I didn't catch anything after that.