Thursday, June 08, 2023

In early June


Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). Frome, 3 June 2023.

In early June, the miracles come along so thick and  fast we easily miss them. Here's two. 

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, 
And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. 

(Matthew 3:1-4)

Most likely John the Baptist was living off insects, perhaps the Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria). (They are still a popular food, considered halal and kosher in the Middle East; you just need to avoid them if the swarms have been sprayed, or you'll get a nice dose of organophosphates and pyrethroids.)

ipse autem Iohannes habebat vestimentum de pilis camelorum et zonam pelliciam circa lumbos suos esca autem eius erat lucustae et mel silvestre

(Vulgate version of Matthew 3:4)

St Jerome, himself a desert dweller at one time, would have known all about eating locusts. Nevertheless, some time in the Middle Ages the idea arose that "lucustae" actually meant the pods of the carob tree (another useful survival food). Consequently, the name "locust" became attached to other pods and other pod-bearing trees, and that's how the beautiful tree in these photos acquired the name Black Locust (I haven't seen any explanation for what's black about it, though). It's native to two regions in the eastern USA, but is widely planted throughout temperate parts of the whole world, including the British Isles. I must admit I just call it "Robinia" (the Latin name is Robinia pseudoacacia). 

It's a tree with many aspects to it, as you can read on Wikipedia, but I just wanted to record its breathtaking beauty, especially in a good flowering year like 2023: the extended wet and gloomy spring must have helped. (In 2022, by contrast, we were in full-on drought conditions by June and the trees produced very few flowers).

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). Frome, 3 June 2023.

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). Frome, 7 June 2023.

Ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare). Chippenham, 2 June 2023.

My second miracle is even more commonplace: Ox-eye Daisies on a bank. 

If you were a newcomer to this uplifting sight, I think you'd be surprised that the rest of us make so little of it. 

Leucanthemum vulgare is native throughout the British Isles, also most of Europe including nearly all of Sweden, where it is called Prästkrage ("priest's collar", referring to the white ruff once worn by clerics). You would think that so showy and common a plant might have left more of a mark on our older literature, but so far I'm having trouble locating any references. Chaucer might have been referring to them -- but no, his daisies are "whyte and rede", so he must mean Bellis perennis, the lawn daisy. There is never any red in the rays of an ox-eye daisy. 

"Day's eye" refers to the habit of Bellis perennis (and many other Asteraceae species) of opening their flowers only during the day and closing them at night. 

However Ox-eye Daisies don't do this, and hence one of their other vernacular names is Moon Daisy. A field of them, fully open in the dusk and gazing at the moon, is one of the sights of our "white nights". 

One problem with looking for traces in older literature is that there is no settled name. John Gerard (1597) gives a good description, in Ch 203, "Of the great Daisy, or Maudlin-Wort". He supplies the Latin name Consolida media vulnerariorum. (Another of his plants,  the "White Oxe-eie", is described as looking similar but with compound leaves. -- That must be why, by the 18th century, the term "Ox-eye Daisy" had become established.) 

I haven't found any Middle English references to "Maudlin-wort". "Marguerite" or similar is mentioned in Lydgate, supposed to mean Leucanthemum vulgare. Likewise Middle English herbal references to "Whit bothen" or "Whit bothel"; "boþen" is an Anglo-Saxon herbal word, e.g. for Rosemary and similar herbs. "Orval" (usually meaning Orpine) seems to have also been applied to L. vulgare, at least once. I have only moderate confidence in these identifications.

Generally (based mostly on the University of Michigan's entry for "daies-ie")  you can derive a Latin herbalist scheme in which Consolida minor meant the "little daisy" (Bellis perennis), Consolida media or mediana meant the "great daisy" (Leucanthemum vulgare), while Consolida maior meant comfrey (Symphytum spp). But it's the last of these which is the normal meaning of consolida in Latin sources, and the extension to daisies may have been just local and sporadic. 

Ox-eye Daisy does have a herbalist tradition: Gerard witnesses to that, and Mrs Grieve , as ever, is helpful. The Ox-eye Daisy has an acrid taste and, according to Linnaeus, is avoided by cows and pigs, but eaten by horses, goats and sheep.

Ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare). Chippenham, 2 June 2023.

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