Trimming hedges

It has been a very long time since I last wrote. In fact, this has been the longest interval since I started blogging. The last few months have been rather difficult, for various reasons. On the positive side, Little Boy G has started school and seems to be adapting very well. And we moved! After seven years in a lovely rented flat, we have moved to a house we bought.

This is the first time in my life I have a garden. I have always lived in flats (and once in a shared house with a courtyard). For a historian of botany, with a true passion for plants, I seriously lack gardening experience. Our garden is small, but it is a garden nevertheless. Unfortunately, it suffered some neglect for several years. We now have the task to transform it into something acceptable. A challenge I welcome! I started with a basic task: trimming the hedges.

Our hedges after an initial trim. Much work to be done!

Our hedges after an initial trim. Much work to be done!

Serendipity being what it is, as I was attacking the unruly bay tree, I came across a ‘delightful’ Greek passage on tree trimming. It is found in the pseudo-Hippocratic Letters. These are letters allegedly written to and by the great physician Hippocrates. They form a sort of novella, whose main story-line is the madness of the philosopher Democritus.

Democritus has lost his mind: he laughs at everything and anything. The people of his home city, Abdera, call upon Hippocrates to come and heal their great mind. After much preparation, Hippocrates sets on his way to Abdera, but not before having left his wife in the capable hands of his friend Denys. He assures him that his wife is usually well-behaved, but…

…a woman always needs someone who tempers her, for she has in herself, by nature, an unbridled character, which, unless it is lopped on a daily basis, runs all to wood, like trees. [Pseudo-Hippocrates, Letters 13].

So women are like trees: they need pruning on a regular basis. The most common Greek verb for pruning was kolouō, a word that is phonetically very close to the verb kolazō, to chastise,  to punish. The ancients played on the similarity between the two words, comparing tree pruning to some ‘beneficial’ punishment of family dependents: slaves, children, women. While the author of the Letter does not use the word kolouō, he is playing on the same set of assumptions.

Wonderful wild hedges!

Wonderful wild hedges!

Domesticated trees were usually considered to be female in the Greek world: like women, they carried fruits, but in order to do so, they needed constant care and constant chastisement. Pesky things…

With this Hippocratic passage in mind, I could not help but feel pain for the bay tree that I was hacking, especially since that tree is Laurus nobilis, my namesake. I found comfort in a new charity shop acquisition: a lovely tea-cup and saucers with wonderful scenes from Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge Autumn Story.


Posted in Ancient Greece, Ancient History, Gardening, Plants | Leave a comment

An ode to spring

The gods have treated us to this rare phenomenon: a sunny bank holiday. We decided to make the most of it and went To The Beach, to beautiful Rhossili Bay, on the Gower Peninsula. We actually live five minutes from a beach, but going to Penarth beach, with its uncomfortable pebbles and incomparable views of Cardiff industrial sites, does not count as a day out! For a real beach treat, we must brave Swansea’s idiosyncratic traffic light system, and head for the Gower Peninsula.

We had a lovely walk on the headland, with a long stop at the World War II radar station, which Big Boy T and Little Boy G re-invented as a lost golden city (we are currently watching the Mysterious Cities of Gold, that classic of 1980s television). Of course, I was on the look out for wild flowers. I was not disappointed. We saw carpets of late-blooming bluebells and beautiful yellow flags. But most spectacular were a couple of wild orchids, surrounded by blue bells and ferns (see here for a post on the alleged aphrodisiac properties of orchids).

What best to accompany my photos (which I admit fall far from professional standards) than a Greek poem celebrating flowers? I have chosen an epigram of Meleager (first century BCE), the original anthologist, the master flower (anthos) collector:

A wild orchid on a background of bluebells at Rhossili Bay

A wild orchid on a background of bluebells at Rhossili Bay

I will plait the white violet, I will plait with myrtles
The tender narcissus, I will plait the laughing lillies,
I will plait the sweet saffron-crocus. I will wreathe in the hyacinth,
Flushing red, I will plait the amorous roses,
So that, upon the temples of Heliodora of the sweet-scented curls,
The wreath may bestrew with flowers her fair tresses.
Meleager, Greek Anthology 5.147


Posted in botany, Plants, Poetry, Travelling, Wales | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A bad hair day

I have had a bad hair month – quite literally. I have been suffering from an extremely itchy scalp, covered in hives. Fortunately this is now calming down, but I am left wondering what caused such a severe allergic reaction. I do not dye my hair, so I am left with shampoos and conditioners as possible offenders.

As I was scratching my head while doing research for a new article, I came across the following epigram by Nicarchus (first century CE).

A Roman wig made of moss found at Vindolanda.

A Roman wig made of moss found at Vindolanda.

By dyeing his head, a man destroyed the hair itself,
And from being exceedingly hairy, his head became entirely like an egg.
The dyer (bapheus) managed the result that no barber can any longer cut
His hair, be it white or dyed black.
Nicarchus, Greek Anthology 11.398

Now, the word bapheus (dyer) usually refers to someone who dyes fabrics, rather than someone who dyes hair. For instance, Dioscorides writes that dyers use woad in their trade (Materia Medica 2.184). Perhaps the joke in Nicarchus’s epigram is that the man approached the wrong professional to get his hair dyed. Still, it remains that hair products could be very dangerous in the ancient world. For instance, the physician Galen (second century CE) claims that he had to include ‘safe’ cosmetics in his writings, not because he approved of them – he certainly didn’t – but because the alternative was just too dangerous:

For I have often seen women not only put themselves in danger, but actually die, from over-cooling their heads with such drugs.
Galen, On the Composition of Medicines according to Places 1.3, 12.442 Kühn

Even allowing for some exaggeration, this still sounds like very nasty stuff. So what did the ancients use to dye their hair? Various recipes have come down to us, including a list in pseudo-Galen’s Remedies Easily Procured. Here is an extract:

Fresco of Venus, Casa di Venus, Pompeii. Unlike me, Venus is not having a bad hair day - I am very jealous. Credits: Wikipedia

Fresco of Venus, Casa di Venus, Pompeii. Unlike me, Venus is not having a bad hair day – I am very jealous. Credits: Wikipedia

Ointments for the hair, so that grey hair becomes black: boil iron dross and lead in vinegar until a third is left; anoint, avoiding to touch the hair with oil.
Another: crush the root of caper-plant with ass’ milk; boil until a third is left; and use. Be careful as this thoroughly blackens the hair.
Another: dissolve the bile of sea turtle in oil and anoint the hair.
Another: boil walnuts; mix with wet bitumen; and anoint.
Galen, Remedies Easily Procured 2.1, 14.390-391 Kühn

Beside relatively harmless herbal ingredients (walnuts, root of caper-plant), and exotic animal ingredients (bile of sea turtle), ancient hair dyes very often included bitumen and lead. It is very easy to snigger at the ignorance of the ancients, who slowly poisoned themselves through vanity. But do pause a minute and ask yourself what exactly are methylisothiazolinone and cocamidopropyl betaine, two common ingredients in ancient cosmetics (which, as it happens, are present in the shampoo that most likely caused my allergic reaction). While I know that modern compounds are safe, tried and tested in labs, I also know that I am now facing a long struggle to discover what exactly turned my scalp into an angry sore. What is in your shampoo?


Posted in Ancient History, Cosmetics, History of medicine | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Metamorphoses: changes are shifting outside the words

I have just come back from the Classical Association Conference, the biggest classics conference in the UK, which this year was held in Edinburgh. This was a very good ‘vintage’, with among other things, a wonderful panel on crime writing and the classics (including Ian Rankin and Lindsey Davis), Scottish dancing, a bagpipe performance by distinguished classics Professor Ewen Bowie, and – lest I forget – some great academic papers.

A beautiful vegetable 'eye', which I photographed near the site of the CA conference

A beautiful vegetable ‘eye’, which I photographed near the site of the CA conference

Ancient science and medicine was well represented this year, as we had a double panel on Ancient Botany: Text and Practice, with seven papers in total (see here for the Tweets generated by the panel). Theophrastus was surprisingly little mentioned, but we heard much about Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides – and Ovid. Now Ovid is not usually an author that historians of science study very much, although his cosmetic recipes do get mentioned now and again. His stories of plant metamorphoses, on the other hand, are usually examined for their literary value, and for the political/messages they convey – but not for their ‘science’. Yet, stories telling the metamorphoses of mythical characters into plants or animals do raise questions about what it means to be a human, an animal, or a plant – and that is perhaps one of the most important questions in ancient science.

In antiquity, some philosophers believed that the human embryo was like a plant or ‘lived the life of the plant’: it only possessed the lowest part of the soul, which is sometimes called the ‘vegetative part of the soul’. It acquired other faculties (the senses and the capacity to think) later in the pregnancy or after birth. Now, when a human is transformed into a plant s/he regresses almost to the embryological stage, losing first the capacity to sense in a human way, and then the capacity to speak. Ovid’s beautiful stories make us wonder whether the being that has been transformed into a plant can somehow still feel and cry within. For instance, the story of Myrrha, who was metamorphosed into a myrrh tree, ends as follows:

The birth of Adonis from Myrrha, painting by Marcantonio Franceschini , 1690. Credits: Wikipedia

The birth of Adonis from Myrrha, painting by Marcantonio Franceschini , 1690. Credits: Wikipedia

Though she has lost with her body her former senses,
She weeps still, and the lukewarm drops trickle from the tree.
There is honour also in her tears, and the myrrh that drops from her bark
Keeps the name of its mistress, about which no age will keep silent.
Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.499-502

It is with all these thoughts of metamorphoses that I embarked on my journey home. The train journey was to last seven hours! I was frankly too tired to do any work, or even to read a  novel. So I mostly dozed and listened to music. One of the albums I listened to is Annie Lennnox’s Medusa, which I really love. Now, there is no ‘Medusa’ song in this album. As the editors of the Medusa Reader (a collection of documents relating to the myth of Medusa across the centuries) note, the album title must refer to Lennox’s ability to manipulate ‘her  own arresting image’ (p. 7). Lennox is the Medusa who can transform us into stones.

I suspect there is much more, and the opening song of the album ‘No more I love you’s’ must be part of the answer. This is a song about slaying one’s demons (those of despair and desire), and yet no finding happiness. The chorus goes as follows:

Medusa as a beautiful maiden on a poster advertising an exhibition against Tuberculosis in Basel, 1913. Source: Wellcome Images

Medusa as a beautiful maiden on a poster advertising an exhibition against Tuberculosis in Basel, 1913. Source: Wellcome Images

No more “I love you’s”
The language is leaving me
No more “I love you’s”
The language is leaving me in silence
No more “I love you’s”
Changes are shifting outside the words

Now, Annie Lennox did not write those words. The song was first composed in 1985 by The Lover Speaks, a new wave duo. As I said, I had a long journey, so I did a bit of <cough>Wikipedia<cough> reading on the duo. They were clearly well-read, as they called themselves after Roland Barthes‘ book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), a series of short essays on love.

Someone much more versed in cultural studies might explain to me how Barthes’ reflections inspired The Lover Speaks. I am more directly interested by Lennox’s rendition and what it may mean in the context of an album entitled Medusa. For Medusa is the monster who can turn people into stone through her stare. She is slain by Perseus, and in Ovid’s rendition of the myth, her bleeding head, deposited on seaweeds, gives birth to coral – the ‘plant’ (the ancient believed it was a plant) transformed into stone in contact with the air (see here for a post I wrote on the story).

In ‘No more I love you’s’, the narrator loses the ability to speak; changes are now ‘shifting outside the words’. This is a very arresting description of what would happen to someone who is metamorphosed, to someone who is turned into stone under the gaze of Medusa. But why would anyone ever say ‘I love you’ in the presence of the Gorgon? She is supposed to be an ugly monster. Well, not in all versions of the myth. In some she is described as beautiful. In Ovid’s version (at the very end of Book IV), she is a stunning maiden, before Miverva transforms her into a terrifying beast.

I could go further and refer to the feminist re-appropriation of Medusa, but language is leaving me in silence.



Posted in Ancient History, botany, History of Science, Plants, Travelling | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A yellow flag for peace

Today my native city – Brussels – was victim of horrific terrorist attacks. People on social media quickly showed their solidarity by using the Belgian flag (black – yellow – red). Less used – because far less known – was the flag of the Brussels-Capital Region: a yellow flag flower (Iris pseudacorus L.) on a blue background. It seems to me that flag is a perfect response to terrorist attacks: a symbol of spring to counteract acts of barbarity.

As readers of this blog know, I have a slight obsession for irises. My mother recently asked me whether this obsession had anything to do with the Brussels flag. Perhaps it does, although I do prefer species of blue or white irises (grouped under the common name ‘iris’) to the yellow flag. Both plants had a very important role to play in ancient medicine. Indeed, they are the first two plants listed by Dioscorides, the first-century CE author of Materia Medica, perhaps the most important pharmacological book written in Greek.

Here is what Dioscorides has to say about yellow flag:

Yellow flags photographed last spring at Cosmeston, near Cardiff

Yellow flags photographed last spring at Cosmeston, near Cardiff

The yellow flag (akoron) has leaves that are similar to those of the iris, but narrower, and it has roots that are not dissimilar to those of the iris, except that they are interwoven, and that they do not grow straight but sideways and at the surface [of the ground], and divided into joints, and they are whitish, and pungent to the taste, and not unpleasant to the smell. [Then comes a sentence that is corrupt, but whose meaning is that the best types of yellow flags have certain characteristics]. Such are the flag from Colchis and the one from Galatia which is called asplenon.
The root has a warming power. Its decoction, when drunk, is diuretic; it is suitable in cases of pains in the sides, chest, liver; colic; lesions; spasms; it reduces the spleens. It helps those afflicted by strangury, those bitten by wild animals; and in a sitz-bath, like iris, against gynaecological complaints. The juice of the root cleanses that which casts a shadow over the pupils of the eyes. The root is beneficially mixed with antidotes. 
[Dioscorides, Materia Medica 1.2]

Altogether then, yellow flag was a very useful plant: one that could be used for all matters of afflictions, ranging from gynaecological troubles to cases of poisoning. Interestingly, one of the names by which the yellow flag was known was choros aphrodisios, the dance/song of  Aphrodite, perhaps alluding to some aphrodisiac property of the plant.

Yellow flags photographed last spring in Cosmeston, near Cardiff,

Yellow flags photographed last spring in Cosmeston, near Cardiff,

How did the yellow flag become the symbol of Brussels? Wikipedia tells me the flag is an allusion to the marshy origins of Brussels; and recounts the story of an unnamed Duke of Brabant who kept to the shallow parts of the marshes where the flags grew, but let his enemy get bogged down in the deeper parts of the marshes. Who knows?

Whatever the origins of the yellow flag as a symbol for Brussels, it is perfectly appropriate in this time of crisis. An antidote against the bites of wild animals; a song to Aphrodite; a proud flower in marshy lands!

Posted in Ancient History, botany, History, History of medicine, Plants | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Sweet poison

It has been a while since I last posted. Instead of writing myself, I have been working with my ‘Greek and Roman Medicine’ Undergraduate students on a blogging assignment. This has been a steep learning curve for all those involved (that includes me). Once everything has been marked, double marked, and triple checked, I hope to share some of the students’ fabulous work. In the meantime, and since it is World Poetry Day 2016, here is one of Ausonius’ epigrams. You may remember my newly-found love for this fourth-century Latin poet from Bordeaux. Not only did Ausonius sing the beauty of roses, he was also a talented epigram composer. Here is his little pearl on a wife’s murderous intents:

An adulterous wife gave a poison to her jealous husband
And thought the amount insufficient to cause death.
She added a lethal amount of quicksilver,
So that the doubled strength might lead to a prompt end.
If one separates these ingredients, individually they are poisonous;
Whoever takes them combined, consumes an antidote!
Thus, while these harmful draughts fought against each other,
The deadly substance yielded to the salubrious one.
Onwards, they sought the empty recesses of the belly,
By the the well-known slippery path for digested food.
How benevolent is the care of the gods! A wife so cruel is a good,
And when the fates so desire, two poisons are of assistance.
[Ausonius, Epigrams 10]

Tel est pris qui croyait prendre, as they say on the other side of the Channel.

Posted in Ancient History, History of medicine, Latin literature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Flower consumption

V0018141 Dioscorides describing the mandrake. Oil painting by Ernest Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Dioscorides describing the mandrake. Oil painting by Ernest Board. By: Ernest BoardPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Detail of “Dioscorides describing the mandrake”. Oil painting by Ernest Board. Source: Wellcome Images

Last time I wrote, I presented to you some fabulous twentieth-century representations of classical medicine by Ernest Board. One of his paintings showed Athenian black-figure vases used as flower pots. Now, these vases would never have been put to that use in Classical Athens. In fact, it looks like the Greeks and Romans did not put flowers in vases (I had a discussion on  this topic with a colleague who came to the same conclusion). The ancients wore flowers as wreaths, crushed them to make perfume, put them in all sorts of decoctions, but apparently did not let them die in pretty vases.

Ceramic has been very much on my mind this week. Not that it is rarely out of my mind: I love china. I have an entirely childish collection of plates and cups with depictions of favourite characters from children’s books. A selection is on display on the same shelf as my Loeb Classical Library books. As these are among the books I consult the most in my academic work, I have ample opportunity to gaze at my collection. I should say, however, that I am not an obsessive collector. My purchases must come from charity shop – no ebaying here.

To get back to this week: on Monday I went on a bespoke visit of the National Museum Cardiff with a sizeable group of other Cardiff academics. We were offered a buffet of short tours, including visits of closed collections. I enjoyed them all, and I hope to return to visit the herbarium and botanical print collection more at length soon. However, it was during my last tour of the day (when my feet started to be very sore) that something really caught my eye.

Plate decorated by Thomas Pardoe at the beginning of the 19th century, National Museum of Wales.

Plate decorated by Thomas Pardoe at the beginning of the 19th century, National Museum of Wales. Photo taken in a rush (and without flash of course) on my lunch hour.

I was on a tour of the collections of Welsh ceramic. Unlike the other tours, this took place in the open galleries, which I ought to know better… The curator was showing us some fine examples of botanical and zoological depictions on Welsh ceramic. These were lovely, but from the corner of my eye, I saw something different: a plate with a depiction of a flower (nothing unusual you will say) with its roots. It suddenly occurred to me that I had not seen roots on china plates very often.

I was so intrigued that I had to go back the next day during my lunch hour and take some photos. The plate in question is the work of Thomas Pardoe (1770-1823), a painter from Derby who worked mostly in Swansea and Bristol. The plate in question dates to the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and Pardoe found his inspiration in Curtis’ Botanical Magazine, as several other porcelain painters did at the time.

So why exactly am I so obsessed by roots? We are all used to seeing beautiful, mostly accurate, botanical representations of flowers on china or ceramic plates, but roots are rarely depicted. That is because roots are unsightly – fair enough. Still, a flower without its roots is a dead flower. It simply won’t survive. A flower with its roots, on the other hand, may plausibly be replanted. It may then reproduce, and the circle of life may not be broken.

A beautiful iris on a Swansea plate, beginning of the nineteenth century. No roots in sight. National Museum of Wales.

A beautiful iris on a Swansea plate, beginning of the nineteenth century. No roots in sight. National Museum of Wales.

Cut flowers – flowers without roots – are the ultimate item of pointless consumption. They are beautiful, but let’s face it, they are utterly useless beyond their decorative function. We may not like to admit it to ourselves, but when we purchase cut flowers, we partake in conspicuous consumption. (I should confess here that I do sometimes purchase cut flowers). Now, people today – as they did in the past – purchase (or receive) fine porcelain, not to use it on a daily basis, but to show off at special events.  To me, it seems that cut flowers are the ideal companion of china plates: two beautiful, fragile, expensive, mostly useless items. When I see a flower with its roots on a porcelain plate, I perceive incongruity, dissonance. I find myself puzzled, and strangely enough, I like that plate even more.


Posted in botany, Food history, History, Plants, Wales | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment