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.

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1 comment:

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