Wednesday, December 11, 2013
A bit of a stink
Few of our native wild flowers have such beautiful fruits, but such an unpleasant name, as stinking iris Iris foetidissima. I grew some plants from seed a few years ago and planted them in dry sandy, sun-baked soil under our garden hedge, where they've thrived ever since and produce these lovely seed capsules that open in late November to reveal their spectacular seeds.
Two other common names, gladdon and roast beef plant are also in common usage and the latter refers to the smell of the crushed leaves that have a powerful aroma of beef (though to me they smell more of roast beef-flavoured crisps, rather than the real meat). In The Englishman's Flora Geoffrey Grigson listed no less than seventeen further common local names used in various parts of the British Isles. A proliferation of such names for a plant is usually a sign that people once found it useful and gladdon has a long history of applications in herbal medicine, mentioned by Dioscorides, William Turner and John Gerard in their herbals. One popular use was as a purgative, made from a decoction of gladdon root and beer.
In his Botanical Arrangement the 18th. century doctor and botanist William Withering, always a good source of contemporary anecdotes, mentions that "the juice of the root of this species is sometimes used to excite sneezing; but it is an unsafe practice, violent convulsions sometimes having been the consequence."
I rather like the flowers that are unspectacular and reminiscent of faded denim, but Withering wasn't so impressed, describing them as being "of a disagreeable purplish ash colour", also mentioning that in his day there was also a variegated-leaved form which now seems to have disappeared from cultivation.