Saturday, July 02, 2022

New age


Hypericum pulchrum. Battle, 30 June 2022.

For various reasons I'm not going to have much time to blog over the next month or two. Anyway, here are some pictures of a little group of Slender St John's-wort (Hypericum pulchrum) that I saw while walking with my family in Great Wood, Battle (E. Sussex) last Thursday. This is a managed woodland and it's good to see the variety of wild plants slowly increasing. The best place to see Hypericum pulchrum in those parts is, or used to be, Fore Wood in Crowhurst (ancient oak woodland). Hypericum pulchrum really is beautiful, like its botanical name. The stems and buds are often reddish, but not on this particular specimen.

In Sweden it's called Hedjohannesört (i.e. "Heath St John's-wort"). It's a rare plant there, growing only on heaths near the west coast. 

It occurs in most of the British Isles but has somewhat declined in central England since 1950. It only likes acidic habitats, which perhaps accounts for why I've never noticed it in my thirty years of living in Frome and Swindon. 

Hypericum pulchrum. Battle, 30 June 2022.

Detail of the previous photo. You can just make out the black dots on the edges of the petals. You can also make out the toothed sepals mentioned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

Le mille-pertuis élégant est une espèce branchue qui croît dans les bois et dans les bruyères, avec des tiges en forme de colonne ; les feuilles embrassent la tige ; elles sont unies et en forme de cœur ; les calices sont dentelés, avec des dents garnies de glandes.

The Elegant St John's-wort [Hypericum pulchrum] is a branched species that grows in woods and heaths, with columnar stems ; the leaves clasp the stem ; they are plain and heart-shaped ; the calyces are toothed, with some teeth furnished with glands. 

(from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettres élémentaires sur la botanique, Letter XV, 4 June 1776)

In later life Rousseau (1712 - 1778) had become an excellent botanist. He was still in robust health when he wrote this letter, but a few months later he was concussed in a Paris street accident (Oct 1776), and he began to suffer seizures. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on 2 July 1778.

These letters on the elements of botany, written to instruct the daughters of Mme. Delessert, were published as a book in 1785 and were much admired. Goethe said: "It's a true pedagogical model, and it complements Emile".


The lichens and mosses are especially delightful. The restriction of my mental horizon to the microcosmic beauties of plant life is one of the few consolations left to me on this earth, and I hope to spend my last years focused on my botanical studies, which never seem to progress, which move about in circles of forgetting and remembering, rotating on the same spot, without utility or value to any one else, but which for that reason are all the more precious to me. ...  I no longer want to be seen as a writer or a philosopher in the eyes of the world, and maybe if I complete my recollections of the life I have led I will at last be able to quench this compulsion to write things down, and finally be granted by God the quietness of mind that I will need to enjoy my last years on this earth. I had thought briefly of writing a compendium of plants, a botanical encyclopaedia, but the task is too great for me to complete, my knowledge is inadequate.  . . .

(from Andrew Key's Ross Hall (Grand Iota, 2021), a novel about Rousseau's time in England).


The OED does not commit itself to a specific explanation for the vernacular name "St John's-wort". Similar names occur through much of Europe, from Portugal to Serbia to Norway. 

The usual explanation is that Hypericum perforatum (the most common species) comes into flower around the time of the Feast of St John the Baptist (24 June). This theory works out all right in much of the British Isles, but it doesn't make sense in, say, Spain, where "hierba de San Juan" comes into flower in March. 

One of the earliest OED entries, from a herbal in 1530-ish,  notes the alternative name "Herb John", which of course resembles the form of the name in Spanish, etc. This format also links it to some other vernacular names that still survive today: e.g. "Herb Robert" and "Herb Bennet". "Herb Christopher" clings on as an alternative name for Baneberry, and (according to Mrs Grieve) also seems to have been applied to Royal Fern. "Herb Gerard" (Ground Elder, Goutweed) is supposed to be named for St Gerard of Toul (c. 935 - 994) who is said to have begun using it to treat gout.  In none of the other cases is there a clear "explanation" for the name; we can guess that three of the names refer to major Christian saints, but "Robert" eludes us.  

What is apparent is that the plants concerned were all used medicinally (though Baneberry is highly toxic). I suppose what I'm suggesting is that these names achieved fixity because they both resembled each other and differed from each other, which is the perfect combination for educative purposes. The original reason for such and such a species acquiring such and such a name, if there ever was one, is lost to history. The names survived within herbalist circles because of their intrinsic memorableness.

Hypericum pulchrum. Battle, 30 June 2022.

Things I learned while away in Sussex:

Bexhill-on-Sea has its own flag (since 1893). We saw it being displayed among the union jacks in the main streets.

How to play Shark Tag in the swimming pool. 

Two versions of a Swedish counting rhyme. To me they are just nonsense, so apologies if they contain anything offensive!

My mum's:

Binke bane koff
Koffe lane doff
Doffe lane binke bane
Ulle dulle doff!

My nephew Finn's:

Ulle dulle doff
Kinke nane koff
Ettan pettan puff
Du får en knuff
av puff!

Here's a very rapid one from Laura's Somerset childhood, perhaps with faint traces of the days when children were taught Latin.

Eeny meeny maccaracca
Dare down dominacca
Chickaracca bominacca
Om Pom Push!

The sung version of the alphabet in US English. You can sing it to the melody of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (but miss out the middle part).

H-I-J-K l-m-n-o-P
Q-R-S-T-U and V
Double-U X and Y and Zee

There is a Swedish equivalent, but it's a bit different towards the end. "dubbel-vi"is promoted to the end of the third line, and this allows room in the fourth line for the three additional letters in the Swedish alphabet: Å, Ä, Ö. (oar, air, err)

My English grandmother used to teach us a brisk marching chant that went like this:

Abaca Defaghij
Kalama Nop
Qrestuvee Double-you
Ex Why Zed

Actually, this was my pedantic rationalization of what she was saying. It really sounded more like this:

Abaca Deffergee
Kalama Nop
Restervee Double-you
Ex Why Zed

When we tired of this marching chant, she had another one to keep us moving smartly along Eastbourne sea-front. I'll need to put in bar lines for this one:

                 L                   R                   L         R     L          R       L
           I ||: had a good | home that I | LEFT, |      | LEFT, |        | LEFT, a |  
                R                L                    R            L     R            L    R
               home that | always was | RIGHT, |      | RIGHT, |     | RIGHT, and| 
                L                     R          L          R     L           R      L
               I always was | sorry I | LEFT, |      | LEFT, |       | LEFT that|
                R                 L                   R           L      R            L      R
               home that | always was | RIGHT, |      | RIGHT, |       | RIGHT. ( I ) :||


OK, that's all that time allows for now. See you for the occasional flying post in the weeks ahead. 

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