I had intended my Notes this week to be about signs of Spring – all those bluebell shoots, pussy willow catkins and subtle colours in the twigs of alder (amethyst) and Willow (barley-sugar gold). Unfortunately, the weather was against me and, penned in by rain and gales, I could only imagine. However, it did get me thinking about how we first learn about wild flowers and trees. In my case the answer was easy: before I even started school, an elderly neighbour took me for walks locally and told me the names of the flowers we saw and I had a book. It wasn’t a reference book, it was Flower Fairies of the Spring by Cicely Barker, a collection of short verses, each illustrated by a water colour of a plant and its fairy. Sentimental, you may think, but actually the verses carried a lot of botanically correct information and the artist seemed to capture the essential quality of the flower in her fairies – the dandelion bold and open-faced, the wood sorrel small and modest. I’ve had many more grown-up identification guides since, but the fairies’ flowers are the most firmly lodged in my memory!
Then, a couple of weeks ago a friend said, ‘We were going to send this to a charity shop but I thought you might like it.’ It was well-thumbed copy, a 1930s reprint of Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Culpeper, botanist, astrologer and physician, was born in 1616. He trained as an apothecary, married a rich wife and opened a pharmacy in Spitalfields where he treated as many as forty patients a day – most of them for free. He wrote his famous Herbal to educate the public in the use of freely available medicines. Injured in the Civil War, he died in 1654. A short life and a great achievement.
His description of plants are clear and easy to use and, though we may smile at some of his prescriptions, based on astrology and the old theory of the four humours, several are in use today – comfrey for sprains, senna for constipation. I looked up one of my Spring favourites and learned that colt’s-foot ‘shooteth up a tender stalk, with small yellowish flowers’ earlier than the leaves, and that ‘syrup thereof is good for a hot dry cough.’ I can remember such cough medicine from my childhood. It was as effective, and much nicer than, the doctor’s alternative.