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Monday 5 June 2023

Ethnobotany at Orleans House Gallery, by Dr Sarah Edwards

Ethnobotany is the study of people and plants, combining both social and natural sciences. It explores the interactions and interrelationships of people and plants and how these are reflected in art, music and stoytelling as well as traditional practices like cooking and healing. Dr Sarah Edwards has been delivering ethnobotanical tours called Stories of the Forest throughout our current exhibition Superm̶a̶r̶k̶e̶t̶Forest. Sarah has collaborated with artist Andrew Merritt on the exhibition and has written an article about some of the plants found at Orleans House Gallery and locally in Twickenham. 

Clootie Tree: Clootie tree, an old hawthorn growing beside Sancreed Holy Well, Cornwall, 2019. Photo @Sarah E. Edwards.

As we move through the seasons from Spring towards Summer, plants can be seen bursting into life in the grounds of Orleans House Gallery. Taking in a moment to breathe the air, the mingled scents of the fresh vegetation and tree blossoms can be inhaled, connecting ourselves physically with the plants around us. As we exhale, the plants in turn take up our breath and use the CO2 to convert rays of light from the sun to chemical energy, a reciprocal process that provides us with the oxygen and nourishment to live. 

Yet in our busy human world, people often forget to pay any attention to the more-than-human beings around us, let alone have gratitude towards them. Plants are objectified, commodified, or ignored. Or worse, destroyed. Their stories, once interwoven with ours, are forgotten. 

This is an invitation to use our senses to remember again, at this eternal moment of now, when past, present and future collide, to listen to the plant stories and wonder at the magic. 

Disclaimer: before using any plant for medicinal purposes it is important to consult a qualified healthcare professional; under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is illegal to dig up any wildflower in the UK without the landowner’s prior permission.

Historically, Summer was welcomed at the beginning of May with a celebration during the ancient Celtic Fire Festival of Beltane in which Hawthorn, a member of the Rose family (Rosaceae), had a significant role. The white to pink blossom of the Hawthorn comes into flower in May, giving rise to other common names for Hawthorn, May Thorn or May Tree. The celebrations traditionally included the youth venturing into the woods on May Eve or early May Day morning, to gather green branches and make garlands of May flowers; a May Queen was selected who represented goddess qualities, and sometimes a May King was chosen too. The practice of dancing around a May pole decorated with May flowers is thought to be a remnant of pre-Christian pagan fertility practices. In ancient Greece a marriage torch was made from Hawthorn wood and the blossoms were worn as crowns by young women at weddings.  

Hawthorn is a native plant of Europe, including the British Isles, where it has been used since the Iron Age to form impenetrable hedges, which are managed by regular laying, coppicing and pruning to keep livestock in fields. A Hawthorn hedge can be seen bordering the woods at Orleans House Gallery, next to the car park. Hawthorn has historically been used to mark boundaries and is recorded in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters and early English place-names, including Hackthorn in Lincolnshire and Hathern in Leicestershire. Following the Enclosure Acts (a series of Parliamentary Acts passed between 1604 and 1914), open fields and ‘wastes’ (unproductive common land) were closed to access by the peasantry with the planting of 200,000 miles of hawthorn hedgerows. 

Most Hawthorn growing in Britain is the common hawthorn species (Crataegus monogyna), while the natural distribution of Midland Hawthorn (C. laevigata) is restricted to ancient woodland in central England. The two species will often hybridise, and cultivars are frequently grown in urban parks and gardens. Both species are similar in appearance and difficult to distinguish – but common Hawthorn can be identified from its flowers’ single stigma and fruits’ single seed, whereas Midland Hawthorn has two stigmas in each flower and two seeds per fruit. The leaves of Midland Hawthorn are also more deeply lobed.  

As suggested by the name, Hawthorn stems are covered in thorns, with the dense foliage providing a shelter for nesting birds. The delicate flowers have five petals, similar in appearance to apple-blossom, growing in flat-topped clusters. Their heavy scent has been described as ‘carrion-like’, which attracts insect pollinators. Studies have shown that the blossom contains trimethylamine, the same compound produced by dead bodies when they decay, said to possess a similar odour to semen (the latter perhaps one of the reasons for its association with fertility). Hawthorn blossoms historically were thought to resemble the ‘stench of the Great Plague of London’, which may be why the flowers have been regarded as unlucky if brought into the home, with the belief that doing so will result in misfortune, illness or death. It has also been suggested that the reputed unluckiness arose from the legend that Christ’s crown of thorns was made from Hawthorn.  

The small red fruits are known as haws and have been alternatively referred to as ‘pixie pears’ and ‘cuckoo’s beads’. They provide an important food source for many birds during Autumn and Winter months. Although not particularly sweet or palatable, Hawthorn berries are edible and rich in antioxidants and can be used to make jam, jellies and wine. Buds, flowers and young leaves are also edible, and children (including my mother in the 1940s) would make a ‘sandwich’ using the leaves as ‘bread’ and the berries as ‘cheese’ – hence another common name for Hawthorn is ‘bread-and-cheese’. 

While generally small, Hawthorn trees have been known to grow to 12m tall, with girths of over 2.5m. They can live for hundreds of years, with one of the most ancient Hawthorns in England, Hethel Old Thorn in Norfolk, believed to date from the 13th century. 

There is much folklore and mythology associated with Hawthorn trees, which have been both venerated and feared. Destroying an ancient Hawthorn was considered unlucky in Ireland, resulting in the loss of all one’s money and death of one’s cattle and children. Some Hawthorns in Ireland were believed to be markers for a fairy fort or a site where fairies would gather to prepare for battles. Even today, there are Hawthorns referred to as ‘fairy trees’ or ‘fairy bushes’ and in 1999 a Hawthorn made international headlines when a new road in County Clare was allegedly diverted to avoid harming it. It has been suggested that these beliefs are vestiges of ancient Irish peoples’ regard for sacred trees. Hawthorns are the most common trees found in Ireland today. 

Hawthorn trees found in the Celtic areas of the British Isles growing by holy wells or other sacred sites, such as megalithic burial chambers, are often imbued with spiritual significance. Some of these can be seen today decorated with strips of colourful fabrics, rags and ribbons, or religious items such as rosaries, medals and crucifixes, presumably left as votive offerings or to make wishes and prayers. In the past it was believed that holy wells and nearby sacred trees (usually Hawthorn) had healing powers. As the rags tied to the trees rotted and disintegrated, so would the ailment and suffering diminish. These trees are referred to as ‘clootie’ trees, from the Scottish word meaning cloth. 

Interestingly, given Hawthorn’s symbolic association with love, the plant is also known as a heart medicine. In herbal medicine a combination of Hawthorn flowers, leaves and medicines are administered orally in decoctions or tinctures to balance blood pressure and treat anxiety or depression. Clinical studies have shown that Hawthorn extract improves muscle tone and blood supply to the heart and can provide significant benefit as an adjunctive treatment for patients with chronic heart failure. Old herbals refer to the use of Hawthorn in drawing out splinters or thorns as well as treating gout and insomnia. In ethnoveterinary medicine Hawthorn has been used to treat diarrhoea in bullocks. 

The leaves of Hawthorn have also been used to produce a dark blue fabric dye and the ash made from burnt Hawthorn branches used to bleach cotton. 

The tough close-grained wood of Hawthorn makes it suitable for making tool handles, and it was used to make cogs and teeth of mill-wheels. As it burns well, it also makes good firewood. 

While hawthorn is important socio-culturally, it is also ecologically significant, providing support for 300 species of insects, including butterflies and moths, as well as small mammals and migrating birds.  

A fairly common perennial plant of hedgerows and woodlands, that you might come across as you walk through the Orleans House woods between May and August, is Geum urbanum or Wood Avens. At first glance, with its bright yellow flowers, you might think it’s just another buttercup – but take a closer look, as this plant is not a relative of buttercup, but instead belongs to the Rose family (Rosaceae). Later, after pollination, the yellow flowers develop into red, hooked seedheads that can readily attach to clothing or the fur of a passing animal, helping with seed dispersal. Each seedhead contains about 100 achenes (dry one-seeded fruit); occasionally a single plant can produce over 1,000 seeds – and in coppiced woodland this figure is even higher, with on average 2,500 seeds per plant. 

Wood Avens is widespread in Europe and can be found all the way to Central Asia, Iran, and northwest Africa. The plant has been used medicinally since ancient times, although it is rarely used today in modern phytotherapy. The Romans used the rhizomes (underground swollen stems, but often referred to as roots) to treat recurrent fevers, which we now recognise as a key symptom of malaria.  

In medieval Europe, the Christian Church – and notably its monasteries -played a central role in providing medicine and looking after the sick. Several medicinal plants became associated with Christianity, including Wood Avens, hence its alternative common names St. Benedict’s Herb and Herb Bennet, which derives from the Latin ‘herba benedicta’, meaning ‘blessed herb’. Healing plants were thought to have been provided for the benefit of humanity as gifts from God. Correspondingly, there was a strong belief in the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, whereby the purpose of a plant would be indicated by a particular sign or ‘signature’. The upper leaves on Wood Avens grow in groups of 3 leaflets, believed to represent the Holy Trinity, while the 5 petals in the flower were said to represent the five wounds of Christ. To the medieval mind this was interpreted as significant – and the herb was considered to have the power to repel the Devil and evil spirits. As such, the plant, in particular the medicinal rhizomes (‘roots’), were carried as an amulet to protect against the forces of evil, including venomous snakes and rabid dogs. 

In traditional herbal medicine Wood Aven rhizomes were primarily used to treat stomach complaints, including taken as a tea against ulcers, gingivitis (gum disease), and inflammation of mucus membranes of the mouth and intestinal tract. Other uses included as an antiseptic gargle to treat throat infections, and externally it was applied as a wash to treat haemorrhoids (piles) and skin blemishes.  

There are two major groups of chemical compounds that appear to be responsible for the medicinal properties of Geum species: phenylpropanoids, notably eugenol (which is used in dentistry for its disinfectant and analgesic properties, as a food flavouring, and in perfumery); and tannins, which are present in high concentrations and are known for their anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. The rhizomes smell of the spice cloves, as eugenol is also present in high concentrations in clove essential oil. Spring is considered the best time to harvest the rhizomes, when the fragrance is strongest.   

The rhizome is edible when cooked and can be boiled to make a tea. It is also used as a spice to add to soups and stews, as a substitute for cloves (with a hint of cinnamon), as a flavouring in ale, and historically was used like a moth ball to protect linen. The young leaves are edible when cooked. 

A familiar annual plant, Galium aparine, found on roadsides, waste-ground, along hedgerows and in woodlands (including the woods at Orleans House Gallery), is known by several common names, including Cleavers, Clivers, Goosegrass, Sticky Weed – and the one that children find most amusing – Sticky Willie. The name probably comes from the (possibly ancient) game many children play of sticking the plant on the clothes and in the hair of their friends. A crueller version of the game from Scotland, called ‘bleedy tongues’, involves a child tricking a friend to put a piece of Cleavers in their mouth and pulling it out again quickly. Cleavers has micro-hooks on the stem, leaves and fruit that catch on animal fur and clothing. The ability of the plant to hook together made it an ideal makeshift strainer, which historically rural folk used to remove straw or hair that had fallen into milk. Cleavers also was added to milk to make it curdle, as a rennet substitute, helping to separate the curds and whey. Like other related bedstraw plants, it was also used as a mattress stuffing. In modern times, the plant has been used as inspiration to create a biodegradable Velcro and for use in high tech micro-robotic devices to monitor crop plants for precision farming.  

Traditionally, Cleavers was used as a spring tonic, as one of the first plants to germinate in the year. Spring was considered the best time to use the herb, when the soft, young leaves and tender tips can be eaten in salads, used as a vegetable, or added to soups. Interestingly, the seeds have been used as a substitute for coffee, with the ripe seeds slow-roasted and ground: Cleavers belongs to the same plant family, Rubiaceae, as true coffee, Coffea spp. The herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) suggested that consuming the young boiled shoots of Cleavers helps to keep you lean and prevent obesity. Historically the plant was fed to livestock, including chickens and geese, hence one of the common names, goosegrass.  

In traditional herbal medicine Cleavers had several uses: externally the leaves and stems were applied to treat ulcers and cancerous growths, while the juice was taken internally for the same purposes; it has been used as a diuretic and blood purifier and is believed to support lymphatic drainage; it has been used as a remedy for urinary tract infections and kidney stones; the fresh bruised plant has been used as a poultice to soothe and treat various skin conditions such as rashes, sores, psoriasis and inflammation; it was used to treat stomach ache, diarrhoea and bowel inflammation in children; and it could be used to counteract scurvy (a disease caused by lack of vitamin C in the diet).  

According to the renowned herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), Cleavers is under the dominion of the Moon and can be used to help those bitten by an adder, by protecting the heart; the juice of the leaves, or bruised leaves, can be applied to stop bleeding of a wound and the juice can be dropped into the ear to treat earache. 

Scientific studies suggest that extracts of Cleavers may have potential anti-cancer effects against breast cancer cells, without damaging normal breast cells, and has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and hepatoprotective (protects the liver) properties. While modern medicine has paid limited attention to this versatile plant, the use of Cleavers is currently being revived by traditional herbalists. 

Next time you take a wander through the woods, look out for Hawthorn, Wood Avens and Cleavers, and remember their stories. 

You can find out more about the ethnobotanical tours here: Stories of the Forest