A “noxious weed” that Culpeper praised….

Nicholas Culpeper, born 18th October 1616

My recent research has taken me into the realm of medieval plants, remedies, myths and legends. It’s fascinating, and I could easily become too engaged by it all, to the detriment of the things that led me to it in the first place.

Until two days ago I don’t think I had ever seen the orange flower that suddenly popped up all over my daughter’s garden lawn. The recent heavy rain had prevented regular mowing with her electric mower, so the orange flowers had been left to their own devices. As a result, they all sent up long hairy stems (the ones I’ve seen are about 10” tall) topped by clusters of what looked miniature button chrysanthemums. The leaves were hairy too, and the plant sends out stolons in all directions, that creep along through the grass, rather than shoot up like rose suckers.

Appropriately enough, this plant is called Orange Hawkweed, Pilosella aurantiaca, and it came from the European Alps. It then became a garden escape that is naturalised in the UK, but is still rare, even though it was introduced in the 17th century. One of its common names here is ‘fox and cubs’, apparently because of the way the buds hide away beneath the open blooms, like a vixen shielding her young. This name may, of course, apply to other varieties of hawkweed, but I came upon it when looking for the Orange Hawkweed specifically. It is also called Tawny Hawkweed, Devil’s Paintbrush, Grim-the-Collier (‘because the black hairs are reminiscent of a miner covered in colliery grime’), and Orange Hawkbit. So it’s been around enough to have acquired a handful of names. Oh, and fame has it that hawkweeds acquired their general name because ‘it is alleged that hawks eat these wildflowers and that this is the reason for their superb eyesight’.

Now, in the UK you will find a lot of different hawkweeds. Who hasn’t seen their yellow spikes topped with little yellow ‘dandelion’ flowers? They’re all similar, and can usually be differentiated by their leaves. And, of course, they all rejoice in complicated Latin names. But then, tell me a plant that doesn’t! I know there are many more hawkweeds throughout the world (Wikipedia claims there are 10,000+ recorded species and subspecies) but I’m confining this little article to the UK, and my personal experience.

1736-Johann-Weinmann – Hand-Colored-Copper-Plate-Engraving-Hawkweed
Illustration from Culpeper’s English Family Physician (1792) (from the library of the Royal College of Physicians, London via the Biodiversity Heritage 

This garden interloper aroused my interest in hawkweeds in general, whatever the variety. I immediately resorted to the beautifully illustrated and informative The Medieval Flower Book by Celia Fisher, wondering what medieval people had to say about it. Surprisingly, Celia doesn’t mention it…unless she does under a name I haven’t recognized.

The Reverend W Keble-Martin, in The Concise British Flora in Colour, describes the Orange Hawkweed without illustrating it. He illustrates many other varieties, all of them yellow.

What’s that I hear you cry out in horror? Hawkweeds are noxious, invasive pests of a weed? Exterminate! Exterminate!….

Oh, dear. I know that is how they are viewed, but Culpeper had quite a lot to say about their ‘government and virtues’. He lists their properties, and a very long list it is indeed. If he’s right, hawkweed seems to be some sort of super-plant.

“…Government and virtues   Saturn owns it. Hawk-weed (saith Dioscorides) is cooling, somewhat drying and binding, and thereforegood for the heat of the stomach, and gnawings therein; for inflammations and the hot fits of agues. The juice thereof in wine, helps digestions, discusses wind, hinders crudities abiding in the stomach, an helps the difficulty of making water, the biting of venomous serpents, and stinging of the scorpion, if the herb be also outwardly applied to the place, and is very good against all other poisons….

“….A scruple of the dried root given in wine and vinegar, is profitable for those that have the dropsy. The decoction of the herb taken in honey, digests the phlegm in the chest or lungs, and with Hyssop helps the cough. The decoction thereof, and od wild Succory, made with wine, and taken, helps the wind cholic and hardness of the spleen; it procures rest and sleep, hinders venery and venerous dreams, cooling heats, purges the stomach, increases blood, and helps the diseases of the reins and bladder….

“….The distilled water cleanses the skin, and takes away freckles, spots, morphew, or wrinkles in the face….”

Good lord, a noxious weed can do all that?

The gardeners among you will no doubt be frowning and shaking their heads when I say that I have purloined an Orange Hawkweed from my daughter to put in a trough and grow. I’ll watch the ‘clocks’ though – not everyone will be pleased to have hawkweed, no matter how rare and pretty, popping up in their immaculate gardens. And if it becomes too ‘wild and woolly’, it will go into the garden refuse bin, for Tewkesbury Borough Council to deal with somewhere I can’t see.

To read some more: http://wildflowerfinder.org.uk/Flowers/F/FoxAndCubs/FoxAndCubs.htm

and for some excellent illustrations from old herbals, try: https://www.botanicalartandartists.com/herbals.html

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