Category Archives: John Gerard

Cuckoo Flowers

Lychnis flos-cuculi from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

The arrival of the cuckoo in April remains a popular sign of spring, even for the majority of us now living in towns or cities who might not actually hear the call.  The unmistakable sound of the cuckoo is embedded in our creative culture – in music, poetry and in the common names of some of the UK’s native wild flowers, all of which help us preserve a link with the natural world and the changing seasons.

Flora Londinensis, written by William Curtis and published in six volumes between 1777 – 1798 is an illustrated survey of all the wild plants that could be found within a ten mile radius of London.  Curtis sheds some light on the reason why Lychnis flos-cuculi is known as the cuckoo flower observing that, ‘from the earliest ages’ people have made a connection between the flowering of certain plants and ‘the periodical return of birds of passage’.

Before the return of the seasons was exactly ascertained by Astronomy, these observations were of great consequence in pointing out stated times for the purposes of Agriculture; and still, in many a Cottage, the birds of passage and their corresponding flowers assist in regulating “The short, and simple Annals of the Poor.” 

Curtis points out that  ‘we have several other plants that, in different places, go by the name of Cuckow Flower’ including cardamine, arum, orchids and wood sorrel.  He talks about a double form of the lychnis flower being cultivated in gardens.

Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of plantes (1597) contains many examples of local plant names.  He confirms that cardamines are commonly known as Cuckow flowers, while noting that in Norfolk they are called Caunterburie bels and in Cheshire (his place of birth, in Nantwich), Ladie smockes.  

Another cuckoo flower mentioned by Gerard is the common woodland plant Arum maculatum.  He lists the plant’s common names:

The common Cockow pint is called in Latin Arum: in English Cockow pint and Cockow pintle, wake Robin, Priest’s pintle, Aron, Calfes foote, and Rampe, and of some Starch woort.

According to Wikipedia, ‘pint’ is a shortening of the word ‘pintle’, meaning penis, derived from the shape of the spadix. 

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Cardamine pratensis from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Arum maculatum from Flora Londinensis by William Curtis

A double form of Lychnis flos-cuculi ‘Jenny’ (photo Wikimedia Commons)

In the eighteenth century it was understood that cuckoos left the country to overwinter in warmer places, but not known that they travelled as far as Africa.  While we know more about the cuckoo’s migratory patterns now, fewer of us experience the cuckoo first hand, so may not know about the changing call of the cuckoo over the season.  Gerard talks about the time in April and May when ‘the Cuckowe doth begin to sing her pleasant notes without stammering’.  In his poem The Cuckoo John Clare also observes a loss of voice, but in summer:

When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
‘Cuck cuck’ it cries and mocking boys
Crie ‘Cuck’ and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more. 

This alteration in the cuckoo’s call is described as a ‘change of tune’ in Jane Taylor’s poem, memorably and beautifully set to music by Benjamin Britten in his collection of twelve songs entitled Friday Afternoons.  Do listen on the link below.

Cuckoo, Cuckoo!
What do you do?
“In April
I open my bill;
In May
I sing night and day;
In June
I change my tune;
In July
Far far I fly;
In August
Away I must.”

Jane Taylor, 1783-1824

from History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick 1797 – 1804

Cuckoo! by Benjamin Britten

Flora Londinensis

Arum maculatum entry Wikipedia

(images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, unless otherwise stated)

Some English Trees

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Early March is when we anticipate blossom and the unfurling of new leaves, marking the arrival of spring.  With snow now covering the trees and the landscape, spring is some way off.  But as trees begin their new cycle of growth, it still feels like a good time to revisit John Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), to renew our acquaintance with our native trees and appreciate their place in England’s cultural history.

According to the Woodland Trust more than four fifths of us can’t identify an ash tree from its leaves and almost half cannot recognise an oak, underlining our profound disconnection from the natural world.  The close connection between plants and people is inescapable in  Gerard’s Herball.  Pre-industrial society’s knowledge of local plants is linked to dependence on them for immediate needs, such as building materials, technology, food and medicine.

Amongst Gerard’s entries for trees we discover the wood of the alder tree was used for guttering because it is slow to rot and elm was used for making arrows and wheels.  The boughs of the common willow were brought into the sick chamber for those suffering from fevers and oak apples were ‘read’ to divine the future.

Gerard’s Herball is a survey of the plants known in England in the late 16th century and is quite unlike a scientific book published today.  Gerard’s commentary on each plant is delivered in a personal, anecdotal manner, mentioning plants growing in his own garden and reporting observations of other plant enthusiasts and growers.

The stylised illustrations generally show a branch of each tree with detail of the leaves, flowers and fruits, representing the tree in all the stages of its growing season.  The overall shape of the tree is not usually depicted, although some illustrations show a trunk with roots, and one over-large branch as the canopy, which is actually a twig, showing detail of the plant.  The rectangular illustrations are without a border, but are filled to their corners with a profusion of closely observed foliage, flowers and fruits.

Here are Gerard’s observations of some of our most common tree species.  I’ve included the elm tree which was once common in the UK, but now largely absent as a result of Dutch elm disease.  Recently I read the elm has returned to London as a street tree in Bond Street, so perhaps one day this tree will once more take its place in the English landscape?

The Birch Tree  Betula

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597 (images via Biodiversity Heritage Library)

The common Birch tree waxeth likewise a great tree, having many boughes beset with many small rods or twigs, very limber and pliant: .. the rinde of the body or trunke is harde without, white, rough, and uneven, full of chinkes or crevices: under which is founde another fine barke, plaine, smooth, and thinne as paper, which heeretofore was used insteede of paper to write upon, before the making of paper was knowne; in Russia & those colde regions, it serveth insteede of Tiles and Slate to cover their houses withall:

in times past the magistrates rods were made heerof: and in our time also the scholmasters and parents do terrifie their children with rods made of Birch.

The Common Oke  Quercus vulgaris.

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

Gerard records oak apples being used as a means of predicting events in the coming year:

The Oke Apples being broken in sunder about the time of their withering, do foreshewe the sequell of the yeere, as the expert Kentish husbandmen have observed by the living things founde in them: as if they finde an Ant, they foretell plentie of graine to insue; if a white worm like a Gentill or a Maggot, then they prognosticate murren of beasts and cattle; if a Spider, then (saie they) we shall have a pestilence or some such like sicknes to followe amongst men: these things the learned also have observed and noted; for Mathiolus writing upon Dioscorides saith, that before they have an hole thorough them, they conteine in them either a flie, a spider, or a worme; if a flie, then warre ensueth, if a creeping worme, then scarcitie of victuals; if a running spider then followeth great sicknes or mortalitie.

The Beech Fagus.

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The Beech is an high tree, with boughes spreading oftentimes in maner of a circle, and with a thick body, having many armes: the barke is smooth; the timber is white, harde, and very profitable: the leaves be smooth, thinne, broad .. the catkins, or blowings be also lesser and shorter then those of the Birch tree, and yellow: the fruite or Maste is contained in a huske or cup that is prickly, and rough bristled; .. the rootes be fewe, and grow not deepe, and little lower then under the turfe.  

The Beech flowereth in April and May, the the fruit is ripe in September, at what time the Deere do eate the same very greedily, as greatly delighting therein, which hath caused forresters and huntsmen to call it Buckmast.

The Alder Tree  Alnus

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The Alder tree or Aller, is a great high tree having many brittle branches, and the barke is of a browne colour, the wood or timber is not hard, and yet it will last and endure very long under the water, yea longer than any other timber whatsoever: wherefore in the fennie and soft marrish grounds, they do use to make piles and posts thereof, for the strengthening of the wals and such like.  This timber doth also serve very well to make troughes to convey water in steade of pipes of Lead.

The Ash Tree  Fraxinus

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The Ash also is an high and tal tree; it riseth up with a straight body, and then of no smal thicknesse, commonly of a middle size, and is covered with a smoothe barke: the woode is white, smooth, hard, and somewhat rough grained:

The fruite .. is termed in English Ashkeies, and of some Kitekeies.  The seede or Kitekeies of the Ash tree provoke urine, increase naturall seede, and stirreth up bodily lust, especially being powdred with nutmegs and drunke.

The common Willow  Salix

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The common Willow is an high tree, with a body of a meane thicknes, and riseth up as high as other trees do if it not be topped in the beginning , soon after it is planted; the bark thereof is smooth, tough, and flexible; the wood is white, tough and hard to be broken: the leaves are long, lesser, and narrower, than those of the Peach tree, somewhat greene on the upper side and slipperie, and on the neather side softer and whiter;

The greene boughs with the leaves may very well be brought into chambers, and set about the beds of those that be sicke of agues; for they do mightily coole the heate of the aire, which thing is a woonderful refreshing to the sicke patients.

The Elme tree and the Elme with broad leaves Ulmus, Ulmus latifolia.

The first kinde of Elme is a great high tree, having many branches spreading themselves largely abroad: the timber of it is hard, and not easie to be cloven or cut in sunder.  The leaves are somewhat wrinkled and snipt about the edges .. This tree is very common in our countrie of England: the leaves of this Elme are pleasant fodder for divers fowerfooted beasts, and especially for kine and oxen.

The second kinde of Elme groweth likewise unto a great stature, with very hard and tough timber, whereof are made arrowes, wheeles, mill pullies and such other engins for the carriage of great waights and burthens.

The common Elder tree  Sambucus.

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The common Elder groweth up now and then to the bignes of a meane tree, casting his boughs all about, and oftentimes remaineth a shrub;  .. little berries, greene at the first, afterwards blacke, whereout is pressed a purple juice, which being boyled with Allom and such like things doth serve very well for the Painters use,

The Hawthorne tree Oxyacanthus.

from The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes John Gerard 1597

The Hawthorne groweth in woods, & in hedges neer unto high waies almost everie where.  .. many do call the tree it selfe the May bush, as a chiefe token of the comming in of May:  .. the fruite is ripe in the beginning of September, and is a food for birdes in winter.

Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes  via the Biodiversity Heritage Library  (Trees begin at around page 1146)

Wikipedia John Gerard

The Woodland Trust tree identification quiz

 

Of the Marigolds of Peru

Gerard Sunflower 01a

from ‘The Herball, or General Historie of Plantes’ by John Gerard (1597)

To discover the range of plants that were available and grown in late 16th century gardens The Herball, or General Historie of Plantes is an invaluable resource.  The book records and illustrates plants known to European cultivation including trees, shrubs, plants grown for the kitchen and garden, herbs, wildflowers and weeds. At the same time the author John Gerard provides insights into contemporary domestic culture, such as the use of plants for medicine, decorating houses and even feeding caged birds, while his travels around London and beyond reveal the places where wild plants can be found.

To give a flavour of the book, here follows a selection of plants commonly known at that time as marigolds. Gerard makes this observation about sunflowers, then known as the Marigolde of Peru, expressing the wonder at their size that we still share today

The Indian Sunne or the golden flower of Peru, is a plant of such stature and tallnesse, that in one sommer being sowen of a seede in April, it hath risen up to the height of fourteene foote in my garden, where one flower was in waight three pounde and two ounces, and crosse overthwarte the flower by measure sixteene inches broade.

Gerard records three other plants that still bear the common name of marigolds. Calendula or the pot marigold appears illustrated in several double forms as well as a single and Gerard observes that, ‘The Marigolds with double flowers especially, are set and sowen in gardens’.  He also says that the marigold is called Calendula because of its long flowering season; ‘it is to be seene to flower in the Calends of almost everie moenth.’

Gerard Marigold 01a

Gerard Marigold 02a

Gerard describes the African marigold as having ‘verie faire & beautifull double yellow flowers, greater and more double than the greatest Damaske Rose, of a strong smell, but not unpleasant’.

Gerard African Marigold 01a

Both the African and French marigolds described by Gerard are actually from the genus tagetes which originates mostly from North and South America.  The plants shown in these woodcuts are not dissimilar from the tagetes hybrids available today, mostly sold as summer bedding.  The woodcut showing the great single French marigold reminds me of Tagetes patula with single flowers of burnt orange which can grow up to 1m high. They look spectacular in the late summer borders at Great Dixter.

Gerard French Marigold 01a

Of both African and French marigolds Gerard says ‘They are cherished and sowen in gardens every yeere’. Today marigolds (and sunflowers) of all types look great in the kitchen garden or allotment – there is something about the yellow and orange flowers that blend especially well with brassicas.  As well as attracting pollinators it is thought that tagetes protects crops against pests such as whitefly.

Biodiversity Heritage Library