Friday, 12 December 2008

The American Pokeweed, le Raisin d’Amérique, Phytolacca americana

Whilst in these momentous times the thoughts of thinking people turn to America, in the French countryside everywhere, the botanist is reminded of North America. Over the years numerous plants have entered Europe from that continent. Ubiquitously, the American ‘horseweed’ otherwise called the Canadian fleabane is a gardener’s ever present pain. It is a plant without any merit. Others are striking and beautiful. Of these the Thorn Apple (Datura) and The Pokeweed absolutely demand your attention. The former with enormous dangling white trumpets, seeds itself in many fields of maize and farmyards. The latter, the Pokeweed, is far less common but even more dramatic. It can grow three metres (ten feet) high. The red stems up to four centimetres thick, leaves as large as spinach and long dangling racemes of purple black berries look threatening. On a woodland path a few kilometres from home I passed plant after plant. When I searched the French national database of plant records in my department (the Lot, 46), it was not recorded. In the 1930’s it was described as common in countries bordering the Mediterranean. Is this plant spreading, I ask? Probably yes. Most probably they have seeded originally from plants grown for ornament.
The descriptions of this plant are trailed with lists of its medicinal virtues. It has been used, and is still recommended by herbalists, to treat rheumatism, headaches, insect bites, skin diseases and even breast cancer. Investigations have shown that it could inhibit infection by viruses. As you might guess the plant contains toxins. The berries are eaten by birds and it is most likely that the spread of the plant is largely through this route with their droppings. The berries taste a little like elderberries though slightly more astringent. In the USA birds gorge themselves on the berries, but a friend told me that chickens can be poisoned by them and for that reason the plant is recommended to be ripped out in some districts in France. If so, what about our blackbirds and thrushes? At one time the Portuguese used the berries to enhance the colour of port wine; one must hope that is now a discontinued practice! The berry juice makes quite a good ink and it quite likely that the Declaration of Independence was written with it. In spite of the poisonous properties of the plant, the young leaves can be eaten like spinach. A Frenchman travelling in Louisiana in 1791 writes that leaves were a favourite diet of the creoles and negro slaves, though it was also eaten agreeably by the ‘whites’. It was necessary to throw away the first dark ‘bouillon’ water. I have tried this. The raw leaves are a little bitter, but after discarding the cooking water several times the cooked leaves have the taste of spinach.. The original tribes – the caraibes – called it ‘lanmayan’ though the word ‘poke’ comes from the Red Indian Algonquin name.
I remind myself that the new American President did not have ancestors who tasted this plant. He is not laden with the historical baggage of slave ancestors.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Chestnut woods in Winter

In the Dead of Winter, Chataignier.

A bright day in December. Nothing moves. The trees are dying and falling to pieces. It is a picture of death. In it I read the passage of the centuries. The path was an ancient medieval road, which has witnessed the passing of villagers to market, rough bloody soldiers in the 100 years war, and throughout time the peasants struggling to their work. The particular species of moss at the bases of the trees shows me that the soil is acid and poor. Before the chestnut trees were growing here, it was probably a heathland, never farmed, but with difficulty grazed by goats and sheep. The chestnut trees were planted to produce food for the peasants.
The trees have been cut and recut throughout time (the process of coppicing), providing firewood and rejuvenating the trees to fruit more prolifically. A count of the tree rings on the smaller branches shows that the last cut was about ninety years ago, significantly at the time of the first great war, after which time the interest and the manpower waned. The original tree was probably planted two or three hundred years ago. Today no-one cares for the fruit or the logs or the timber. Coppicing probably would help to control the dreaded ‘blight’ which is causing the upper twigs and branches to die and probably has killed some trees. This same blight, originally from Asia, killed great forests of trees in North America and has been spreading in Europe since the 1930’s. The timber is useless. The huge cut trunk displays ring shaped splits in the outer sap wood, which the forester calls ring-shake. Any planks cut from such wood would fall apart like onion rings. The cause is probably more a reflection of the poor genetic nature of the trees than disease.
But also, as is obvious, the heart-wood has totally rotted to powder, leaving only the sapwood as a supporting ring. Even so, the tree may well have continued to live, had not the bank given way under its weight and the huge trunk fell across this pathway, still in use as for centuries by farmers going to their fields.
Nevertheless death and decay gives life. Woodpeckers nest in rotted holes. Their droppings add fertiliser to the rotting dust. Insects eat the rot. I search among this deep terreau which has a texture of potting compost for beetle larvae. One day maybe I will find the larva of an exceedingly rare black beetle, with a violet black colour which I know is found in such places, though to my knowledge it is usually found in similar cavities of rotting oaks . One day I may find Limoniscus violaceus. Ancient dying trees have their place in the scheme of things but their continuance is perhaps dependent on the hunters, who value the cover it gives to boar and deer. It is another phase of the landscape history.