Monday, January 25, 2010

Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)

Like most flower-fans I pay excessive attention to the first flowers of the year. We always notice these harbingers. (The same distortion occurs among British people in general: they recognize snowdrops, daffs, primroses and bluebells but can't name anything that flowers later on.)

 I feel a bit rueful about my comparative neglect of the plants who crowd into midsummer, when there's so many kinds that we working folk are lucky even to note them, never mind write about them. But it's an intrinsic part of the acutely sweet character of, let's say, Grass Vetchling, to be nearly always missed out on.

Anyway I'm still grateful - no, I'm more than grateful, I'm delighted - for the chance to be seasonably excessive about winter heliotrope, a plant introduced from North Africa and seen here flowering in the very un-African January of Weston-super-Mare. [nb I also saw these plants in bloom on Jan 1st 2011, after an unusually cold December]

Like other butterburs, it is dioecious and there is an odd discrepancy between the distribution of the male and female plants. Only the male plant is known here. Likewise our common native butterbur: the male plant is found throughout England but the female plant is seen only in the north. I don't fully understand how such plants get distributed outside their heartland: mainly by human activity I suppose, plus I imagine they regenerate tenaciously from small fragments.

The other curious thing about the plant, aside from its own slight charms (which include a vanilla-like scent), is the name "heliotrope".

The name was originally applied to two common Mediterranean plants, both of which may be said to "follow the sun" (the meaning of both heliotrope and turnsole).

1. Heliotropium europaeum. It's part of the borage family. The inflorescence is bowed over, with the small white flowers all developing along the upperside (a helicoid cyme, for any botanists out there).
Culpeper called it the Greater Turnsole.

2. Chrozophora tinctoria.  A spurge relative. Pliny had called it Heliotropium tricoccum, and Gerard called it Heliotropium minus, the Lesser Turnsole. Dull-looking in itself but once important as a source of the dye turnsole, used in manuscript illumination (the dye called folium or turnsole), to dye carpets in Turkey, and as a food colouring; it turned acid foods red and alkaline foods blue, like litmus paper.  (It: tornasole comune) (As a result, litmus itself, actually a lichen, has sometimes been named turnsole.)

[For lots more about this, I recommend this 2002 article by New Zealand dyeing enthusiast Belinda Sibly aka Mistress Rowena Le Sarjent:


I'm not aware of anything especially heliotropic about Petasites, which is happy to bloom stolidly in shade. Most likely the transference of the pretty name is down to a superficial visual resemblance to one of the above species.

"Heliotrope" is too good a word to resist. Among many other things it's the name of a kind of decorative stone (a bloodstone), classically dark green with mysterious flecks of red; the stone's name is owed to certain ancient theories about how the sun gets into the stone and produces these flecks.

Heliotrope is also the name for a vivid purple colour; this use is fairly modern (1882) and it refers to the intense colour of the garden heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens, from Peru).

Slime as art, in Weston woods. (In all probability, this was Velvet Shank.)

The derelict roof-line of the Royal Pier Hotel in Weston-Super-Mare (plus Brean Down in the distance).

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Monday, January 18, 2010


A place built for the purpose of defending it against an enemy.
In that respect Edward I's Welsh castles were kind of forts, but the concept is usually distinct from a castle (which is also a community where people live, whereas a fort is merely garrisoned). "Fort" really belongs to an era of regular troops and national government (first use 1557).

Good places for forts are occupied territory, (to keep the natives down), as per Fort William, Ft Laramie, Ft Worth, etc. (in N America the term extended by association to mere trading stations) Why Forts often have this inverted naming standard I don't know. Not all of them do. E.g. Brean Down Fort, where I was yesterday, and which started me thinking about this.

Another place you build forts is on the coast to defend against invasion. e.g. Fort Cumberland (Portsmouth). Brean Down Fort was one of "Palmerston's Follies", a number of such forts built in response to the supposed might of the French navy and Napoleon III's sabre-rattling. It was built 1864-71, though by 1870 this concern about France was naturally at an end. The fort was staffed by 50 troops until 1900 when Gunner Haines fired a bullet into the powder magazine, apparently a spectacular act of suicide. From 1907 it was run as a cafe, then rearmed in WWII and used for weapons research; now it is unoccupied, but a natural destination for a walk. In January, the whole of Brean is virtually shut down and the idea of a cafe accessible only by two miles of hill-walking feels quite surreal. (But the one back at the road was open and I had a decent all-day breakfast unnecessarily beefed up with a side-order of chips - panic of impending starvation on what's virtually an island, especially with the road to Berrow closed.)

bastion - a sticking-out bit of a fortified wall, with the purpose of improving the field of fire e.g. to fire parallel to one's own walls, thus eliminating the safety-envelope of getting "Inside the range"
redoubt - enclosed defensive emplacement, often temporary and an earthwork, outside a larger fortification.
martello - a small circular tower used for coastal defence
rampart - an embankment, often topped by a parapet.
parapet - an earth or stone fortification to protect the torsoes of defenders. para-petto (It.)"for the chest".
terreplein - a level platform or earthwork behind a rampart or parapet, for mounting heavy guns.
Other words: redan, salient, re-entrant, pocket, annihilation battle.

(Adopts rapt second-sight-gazing posture and intones:)

A plant found on Brean Down in January so rare it doesn't even have an English name. Accidentally discovered by a botanist combing foreign debris out of a dried grass specimen, presumably Somerset grass. A little white lily or squill or something - otherwise known only from the Mediterranean region. I'm sure I haven't imagined reading about this somewhere, but I haven't been able to find any other reference to it. If you know anything about what I'm talking about, please get in touch!

Anyway no, I didn't see any.

[Not surprising. This was evidently a much-garbled memory of the discovery of Gagea bohemica at Stanner Rocks near Radnor - it is now known as Radnor Lily. Read about it here.]

Thursday, January 07, 2010

snow vocab

For the moment (this being the biggest freeze-out since 1981) we're not so much struck by the wealth of Inuit snow-terms (a widely-circulated bit of pub trivia) as by the poverty of English snow-terms. Or where they exist they're almost forgotten, as per "pitch" (below).

Scott and Becky were on this today. How do you tell someone that it was snowing A LOT (i.e. do for snow what "It was pissing down" does for rain - naturally, we have a ton of rain words). Becky objected to "dumping it down" on the grounds that snow falling looks pretty - I kind of saw what she meant, it swirls, it doesn't fall straight down like a box of books. Various listeners sent in other suggestions - "bleaching it down" (North-East), "houghing (hoffing?) it down" (Scotland), "wanging it down"...

This morning it wasn't snowing, it was clear and bright, but so cold the air was full of spangles so it almost looked like snow. The variety of winter weather is totally absorbing to us in Somerset, because we see so little of it. Vocabulary, on the other hand, implies frequency.*

* In this case anyhow. A more general statement would be: existence of vocabulary implies a subject that people want to talk about a lot ( quantifiable as perceived frequency x perceived interest )

Saturday, January 02, 2010

equation of time / 12 disciples

This material is just gathered from Wikipedia and elsewhere, but it's taken me ages to really understand it, and maybe I shouldn't spoil your fun too but here it is. Some simplifications and inaccuracies are inevitable...


As many people notice and are surprised by, the sunrise goes on getting later for some while after the winter solstice (Dec 21st or 22nd). Today (Jan 2nd) was just about the latest, the sun rose in London at 8:06. Slightly less noticeable is that the earliest sunset arrives a week or more before we get to the winter solstice - around Dec 13th - though I think a person very sensitive to light deficit begins to feel a mysterious lightening of the heart soon after then, and this is the only interesting meaning I can give to Eliot's "midwinter spring" (though I've since discovered that it's also used to refer to the marked increase in birdsong that begins right at the solstice). Even less noticeable is a similar but smaller effect around the summer solstice (c. June 21st), when daylight is so abundant that we're not so precious about it. The earliest sunrise is around June 17th, and the latest sunset is around June 25th.

All these phenomena are caused by something called "equation of time" (strictly, this refers to the variable correction of sundial time to civil time). There's a general consensus among clockmakers, civil governments and eventually all of us that it is handy if all days, hours, minutes and seconds are the same length as each other. Every day is 24 hours long, right? This is true, so far as civil time is concerned. But in fact the length of the "real" astronomical day (measured from the sun at meridian on one day to the sun at meridian on the next) varies slightly throughout the year.

This is mainly because the earth's orbit is an ellipse, not a circle. As the earth passes close to the sun (it's closest in January), the earth speeds up. Paradoxically, that makes the days longer. The astronomical day can be imagined as consisting of two parts. The main part, which of course does not alter, is the approximately 23 hours and 56 minutes that it takes for the earth to rotate once on its own axis. The other part - four minutes on average - is the extra bit of rotation that is needed to catch up with the change in the sun's position since the previous noon. The faster the earth is moving, the greater that change, hence the longer the day. Though any particular day's individual variation from 24 hours is not very great, the accumulation of longer-than-average days over December and January means that these astronomical days get progressively "later", compared with civil days; up to 14 minutes late in mid-February. Since daylight-length changes very slowly at the time of the winter solstice, it is dominated by these relatively rapid changes that are due to the equation of time.

I like to imagine that, in the northern parts of the northern hemisphere particularly, we are sensitive to the poignant perception that summer days, for all their glorious extent, are never quite long enough, while winter days are all too endlessly long; and sensitivity to the opposite effect in the southern hemisphere - where the longest days occur in the summer - influences southern psychologies, too. Perhaps, too, we northerners minutely benefit from having summer when the sun is furthest away, while in Australia summer coincides with the sun being closest.



i.e. What did they and Yeshua (Jesus) actually call each other?
(Question posed by my dad, to wile away the long winter night...)

According to Matthew 10:2-4, the disciples were:

Simon (who is called Peter) (1) Tiberian Hebrew Šim'ôn = OT Simeon. Petros is Greek, Hellenized Aramaic was Kephas or Cephas.

and his brother Andrew (2) The name is Greek, meaning "strong, manly", no Aramaic name is known - however, the name was common among Jews from the 3rd c. BC.

James son of Zebedee (3) (In church tradition distinguished as James the Greater.) Aramaic: Yaakov Ben-Zebdi/Bar-Zebdi (= OT Jacob)

and his brother John (4) Aramaic: Yokhanan, meaning God-is-gracious.

Philip (5) The name is a common Greek one. No Aramaic equivalent is known; coincidentally or not, his gospel links are with Greek-speaking communities.

and Bartholomew (6) (possibly = the Nathanael mentioned in John's gospel). Aramaic bar-Tôlmay, meaning son of Ptolemy or perhaps son of the furrows (i.e. a ploughman).

Thomas (7) (elsewhere called Didymus). Not really known as a name, however the Aramaic word Tau'ma means "twin", which is also the meaning of the Greek Didymus.

and Matthew the tax-collector (8) (elsewhere called Levi). Hebrew Mattay or Mattithyahu or Mattija, meaning Gift-of-God.

James, son of Alphaeus (9) (In church tradition distinguished as James the Less.) Aramaic: Yaakov

and Thaddeus (10) (elsewhere called Jude, Judas son of James, and Lebbaeus). Jude and Judas are variants on OT Judah.

Simon the Zealot (11) (elsewhere called Simon the Canaanite) Tiberian Hebrew Šim'ôn, = OT Simeon. Both titles derive from the Hebrew word Qana, meaning "zealous".

and Judas Iscariot (12), who betrayed Him. Judas is a variant on OT Judah.

When the disciples became the apostles after Jesus' death, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot.

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