Friday, March 21, 2014

visit to the local sewage farm

...attracted in by morning sun and a large golden patch of Colt's-foot (Tussilago farfara).

Photos from 17th March 2014.

In northern Sweden,  "Hästhov" or "Tussilago" is much admired as the earliest spot of colour in a landscape that is otherwise pure winter. "Tussilago" is the name my Mum always uses for the plant, and I grew up assuming that "Tussilago" was a Swedish word and only much later found out that it was Latin. 

The name  "Hästhov" means "horse-hoof" and thus equates to the English "Colt's-foot". 

But there's also an ingenious folk-etymology (reported on Den Virtuella Floran) that "Hästhov" is a corruption of "Hosthäva" (which could mean good-for-coughs, the same meaning as Tussilago). This must be just a happy accident of Swedish, because equivalent horse-hoof names have existed in other European languages for ages.  

One of the earliest entries in the OED for coltsfoot is H. Lyte's translation of R. Dodoens Niewe Herball (1578):

"Called..Fole foote, Horse houe, Coltes foote, and Bull foote."

The presumed reason for this is the shapes of the leaves. Compare them with the hoof-prints of unshod horses. 

(Hoof-print photos by "Equinitis" and "Manesntails" on the Horsecity Forum)

The other early OED entries for coltsfoot also mention the name Baechion or Bethicon. This must relate to the early Italian betico farfarum, but that's all I know about it. 

In the late 1980s, approximately, colt's-foot tea was implicated in a couple of cases of infant mortality, and a number of scientific papers raised concerns about pyrrolizidine alkaloids in Colt's-foot that, so it was claimed, could be liver-damaging.

In reponse, the German government banned sales of Colt's-foot. How devastating this was can be judged from a book like Nancy Arrowsmith's  Essential Herbal Wisdom (2009); the plant was absolutely central to traditional European folk-culture. It was eaten, drunk, smoked, and slept on. Above all, it was one of the most widely esteemed of home remedies, taken for all manner of ills but especially for bronchial and cough-related disorders. (In France the herbalist's symbol is a colt's-foot leaf.)

An Austrian grower has bred out the toxins, so his patented variety can now be sold. This story thus becomes part of the larger global saga of gradual patentization of natural products, a corollary to our ever-growing belief that unmediated contact with nature is a risky sort of thing. The belief is usually associated with ignorance, i.e. urbanized living and a lack of real contact with the countryside. This is true, but the belief is also about growth of knowledge: a recognition that scientists continue to discover and responsibly publicize things about nature that are potentially threatening. Since very few people are in a position to assess the real risk, the obvious thing is to pay someone else to take it on our behalf, i.e. by guaranteeing our safety and being susceptible to redress in the courts.

There was also an eye-catching stand of Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias). (The plant is perennial, the individual stems are biennial.) This one was subspecies wulfenii, with a bright acid-green inflorescence, which comes from the E. Mediterranean.  The W. Mediterranean form, ssp. charicias, is an equally common escape. It has chocolate brown splodges in the flowers (the nectar glands, in fact).



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