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GOLDEN SAMPHIRE, NETTLES & HERB ROBERT

  Photo: Michael Clarke Wikicommons

Just as they find themselves places to flourish in the lawns of London, clovers, dandelions and daisies also survive amidst the grass around the wooden buildings that make up the chalet park on the Isle of Sheppey. The grass is mown regularly, but the mower blades are kept high and the flowers in the grass, keeping their heads down for the most part, not only survive but thrive. They thrive not just amongst the grass but even nearby on the wild windswept pebbles and breakwaters of the sea’s edge.

‘Hello,’ I said as I walked past the man scrabbling along the sea defences of the island, between my chalet and the Thames Estuary, and watched him filling a plastic bag with dandelion heads. ‘Food,’ he replied, as if in answer to an unasked question. It was spring, and the dandelions were sprouting up everywhere, close to the ground between the rocks. Around them were taller clumps of ragwort. The sea defences are thick concrete ramparts with a road along the top for walkers and cyclists and the occasional slow-moving maintenance vehicle. At the nearby Yacht Club there is a steep access point. Where for centuries the boats had stood on the beach, they now have to be hauled up and over the concrete to the water by a tractor. Here at Barton’s Point the sea is at its most forceful and the concrete is reinforced with huge lumps of granite. Though not high, these rocks can be a dangerous place, and notices from the council warn against climbing on them. Clearly the notices were having no effect on my dandelion forager. Concrete, granite, shingle and salty sea are swept by a cutting wind. What could find a home here and grow in such inauspicious circumstances? Yet come summer it can look like a sea shore meadow, with metre high green stalks coming up through the rocks, covered in fleshy leaves and yellow flower heads. This is Golden Samphire, after dandelions and ragwort the third yellow flower of the year and, like the dandelions, another source of food. The dandelion-like flowers are hermaphrodite and so the plant is self-fertile, but here the bumble bees which also find space to make their nests down in the darkness under the granite, give them help and, on a bright sunny day when rock and plant and bee can bask in the warmth, the clusters of bright yellow flowers can be alive with foraging bumbles.

Shakespeare knew of the dangers of collecting this rock-bound plant:

‘Half-way down

Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade.

Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.’

That is Edgar in King Lear convincing his blind and suicidal father that he is standing on the cliff edge at Dover. It may be that it is the white flowered Rock Samphire (Crithium maritimum) that Shakespeare is referring to, or Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europaea), the ashes of which were used in the making of glass hence another old English name of Common Glasswort. Shakespeare, with his theatre on the banks of the Thames, was an estuary man. The Globe was close to where the river widens and at what was then the nearest bridging point to the sea. The waters and the shores would have been lively with commerce, with boatmen ferrying people from one bank to another, sea food being harvested from the waters, and forage collected from the river’s edge. The Globe was on the Kentish side of the water and Lear is a play of Kent. Samphires of their different kinds being plants of the Kentish shoreline, it was most likely this yellow flowered Golden Samphire (Limbarda crithmoides) that Shakespeare was thinking of. We know no more about its whereabouts in Shakespeare’s day than this one reference in King Lear. Today Golden Samphire is a rarity, growing only here on the Isle, and yet this otherwise rare plant flourishes and is found in abundance amongst these rocks. Something about the human created sea defences of granite and concrete makes them a congenial home to Golden Samphire and to the golden bumble bees which live alongside it.

The three samphires, Golden, Marsh, and Rock, are not related. They are coastal neighbours rather than members of a Linnaean family. Yet, while their scientific classification puts them amongst very different groupings, divided by more than a hundred pages in the botanical by my desk, the three have much in common. All enjoy the salty, rocky side of the sea and take their name from Saint Peter, professional fisherman, disciple of Jesus and (with his brother Saint Andrew) the patron saint of fishermen. Samphire is a corruption of the disciple’s French name, Saint Pierre. Most samphires are edible hence another of their names, sea asparagus, and are salty to the taste, and so another name, ‘a mermaid’s kiss’.

Though enjoying something of a fashion again in the more experimental restaurants, samphire must once have been a staple to those dwelling on the coast where it grew. It can in quickly boiled, fried and pickled. Being covered in brine, it needs no salt as a condiment, but a squeeze of lemon can cut through the saltiness.  It makes a perfect accompaniment to the shellfish to be found on the beach beyond the rocks and would have garnished the cockles and whelks sold fresh from the waters to the audience watching a performance of Shakespeare’s play.

Of the three it was Rock Samphire that was mostly sold for food and, preserved in brine, it travelled well.  So successful were the sales and so abundant and lucrative to those collecting it that eventually stocks declined. Thomas Green in his Universal Herbal of 1832 (a ‘botanical, medical, and agricultural dictionary containing an account of all the known plants in the world’), tells of Golden Samphire being used to eke out the Rock Samphire in jars of pickle, something he calls ‘a villainous imposition because this plant has none of the warm aromatic taste of true samphire.’

Golden Samphire grows strongly on the sea defences. Some three feet tall, its narrow fleshy leaves and large flower heads, with six yellow outer and orange inner florets, are about six inches across, and it is quite bushy in appearance. You can eat the young leaves raw or better cooked as a leaf vegetable. 

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My London flat is one of twenty-one built in the 1970s on what had until then been an overgrown bomb site, creation of the Luftwaffe. Left for three decades without disturbance the plot was one of many to be taken over by wildlife once the German bombs had dropped and become a ‘natural’ urban habitat. Much the same happens today when estates built just after the war are torn down for replacement. Within days nature has taken over, and the bulldozed site is overgrown with plants, and alive with insects, birds and mammals. It is as if we only just keep the natural world at bay as we concrete over living soil.

In those three decades between the dropping of bombs and this little plot in Soho being regenerated for humans, it had re-wilded itself. The seeds and spores remained once offices, shops and flats were built. It took little for them to arise from dormancy once building work had ceased but within weeks green shoots were to be seen, flowers bloomed, and insects hatched. Did seeds drop from enemy aircraft along with the bombs? Do they come in now and fall from the skies as planes circle overhead? The city is sown with air blown seeds, some just on the wind, some in the turn-ups of tourists’ trousers, others in luggage and discarded emptied lunch boxes. Insects too drop from the skies, from planes and the beaks of birds? It is a ruderal world, of species that have evolved here over millennia; of plants that have been brought in to enrich garden, manage the land, and provide food and clothing; of species that have been accidental visitors and found new homes and habitats: the rats and foxes, buddleia and sparrows.

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Seeds have fallen into the cracks between the paving slabs outside my front door, to join the others that have lodged there from before the flats were built. The displacement is widespread, from gardens, flower pots, bird feeders and Chinese herbalists. Invasive species, wild flowers, garden escapees, all are now ruderals - plants that grow on waste ground.

Some you can eat. There is Herb Robert. A few leaves pulled and infused in a mug of boiling water gives a spicy tea to start the day. The golden fringed leaves with their toothy incisions do not even need chopping up before going into the mug. And the kettle having boiled it is time to cut some nettles. A bit of care and a glove is needed but quickly blanched in the boiling water the nettles immediately lose their sting. Simmered on their own the nettles are little more than a tea, but with condiments, a potato or two or some rice (whatever is to hand at the bottom of the fridge or back of the pantry) it is a healthy broth to start the day. There are dandelion leaves and sorrel to pick as a tangy side salad. The seeds of the nettles can be dried in the sun and toasted to sprinkle on the salad.

While the eastern Day Flower enjoys they shade of the north facing balcony by my London bedroom door, other native plants flourish in the south facing sunlight of my front door. Like the Tsukikusa the plants have all found their own way to my front door. Left to their own devices they root and find sustenance wherever their seeds are dropped or swept or blown. The downpipe from my roof to the drain by my doorstep is thick with long stemmed daisies cascading down as they thrive on the rich detritus washed into the drain.

But it is the rather despised Herb Robert that seems most at home in this unlikely setting. Few have a good word for this plant. Even keen urban wild flower fanciers talk of pulling it up wherever they find it. It grows in abundance around my London home, sprawling along and between paving slabs and out of brickwork. Its colouring is subtle, with furry stems that shade from green to maroon and bright red, fern-like leaves that have the colours of the most spectacular autumnal trees and small bright pink flowers with white stripes on the petals and orange or yellow pollen. They have almost no roots at all which no doubt helps them thrive in the most unpromising of situations. The seeds help it spread. Five are produced in each seed pod. The pods look like birds’ beaks, hence the common names of Storkbill and Cranesbill.  When ripe each ‘beak’ springs open to send each seed in a different direction. The plant only grows about a foot high but around me in London is mostly recumbent staying close to the ground, spreading low and quickly. Subtly coloured and humble, it often goes unnoticed, and certainly unloved.

Perhaps it is the smell that makes it so unpopular. Its rushed leaves rubbed on the skin have traditionally been used as a mosquito repellent. Rabbits and deer are said to avoid the plant. The Robert after whom Geranium roberianum was named recognised its charms and its powers. He was Saint Robert of Molesme, an Eleventh Century abbot and one of the founders of the Cistercian Order in the Champagne region of France, who recognised its herbal properties and its traditional uses for easing skin conditions and aiding healing of cuts and bruises. Robert was not alone. The plant was known for its medicinal possibilities across ages and cultures. Yet it grows neglected or unwanted wherever it can find a crack in the paving or a space amongst the stones. True, it can be smelly, but the rich variegation of its deeply serrated leaves is as subtle and spectacular in its greens and bronzes and reds and russets as any New England autumn and its tiny woody pink and white flowers are almost coy in their beauty, nothing showy about them but as self-effacing members of the core de ballet in a production of Swan Lake. The plant can be picked and dried and ground, poultices can be made from it, or just a few leaves can be plucked and in a mug of just boiled water made into a reviving drink. It tastes a little like the Roibos, the Southern African Red Bush tea. Perhaps it is the ubiquity of Herb Robert that makes it so unwelcome, unloved and under used. I cannot speak to its medicinal qualities, but the leaves can make a tea and be added to a salad, and both can be dried and stored for use through the winter.

If only we to keep our eyes open, there are many plants growing wild and free, indestructible and waiting to be foraged.