You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Great Britain’ tag.
This blog has described cherry blossoms as one of the crowning beauties of spring, but there is a darker and more haunting beauty of the season which might possess equal floral splendor. Bluebells are woodland flowers which need very little light. They create dense colonies under full canopy forests where few other plants can grow. In May, they bloom simultaneously in a shimmering ocean of lavender blue. If cherry trees are written in a major key of pink and white, bluebells are in a minor key of silver and ultramarine shadows. At a distance they look like a pool of some exotic liquid, but this illusion vanishes up close (an effect which tends to draw the viewer toward a goal he never reaches). Individual flowers are actually also quite attractive looking like the related hyacinths, but with each blossom hanging like, well, like a pretty little lavender bell.
Carpets of bluebells are a particularly British phenomenon. The flowers colonized Britain late in the ice age, before the seas rose; the flowers thereby avoided competition with many other European woodland plants which never naturally reached the Sceptred Isle.
Because of their otherworldly loveliness, and the way they made familiar woods seem completely alien, bluebells have an ancient and somewhat sinister place in folklore. Bluebell woods were regarded as portals to fairyland where unwise aesthetes could be trapped between worlds—or children could be stolen outright.
Bluebells feature in Rip Van Winkle style tales of people who wander into the flowers grasping at absolute beauty only to emerge and discover the world has changed by hundreds of years and everyone they knew and loved was dead. Another tale told about the bluebells is that anyone who hears them ring will soon die—although this story might have a hint of truth since the flowers are poisonous. If you find yourself disoriented in the midst of a bluebell woods with your ears ringing you might be in trouble (although scientists are poring over the chemically active compounds within bluebells to see if they have potential medical applications).
Bluebells also produce a sticky sap which was used for fletching arrows and binding books in ages past when arrows and books were everyday items. The bulbs themselves were also ground into a starchy powder used for…get ready for it…starching Elizabethan lace ruffs.
Beyond providing a dark portal to supernatural realms and stiffening ill-thought out fashion accessories, bluebells are a sign of ancient forests. Since they outcompete other woodland plants when beneath dense shade, a large vibrant colony of bluebells indicates that the forest has stood for a long time. Magnificent bluebell displays are rare in the new world unless you find a place which had dedicated and visionary gardeners a lifetime ago.
Here we are at the end of tree week—an event which isn’t real anywhere but on this blog and which I didn’t even realize was happening until now. But don’t worry, I’ll be writing more about trees in the future. I really like them. Anyway, to close out this special week I’m going to write about one of my very favorite trees, the yew.
Yews are a family (Taxaceae) of conifers. The most famous member of the family is Taxus baccata, the common yew, a tree sacred to the ancient tribal people of Britain and Ireland. Although their strange animist religion was replaced by Christianity, a cursory look at the literature and history of the English, Irish, and Scottish will reveal that the yew has remained sacred to them–albeit under other guises. The common yew is a small to medium sized conifer with flat, dark green needles. It grows naturally across Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia but the English have planted it everywhere they went (so pretty much everywhere on Earth). Yews are entirely poisonous except for the sweet pink berry-like aril which surrounds their bitter toxic cone. The arils are gelatinous and sweet.
Yews grow very slowly, but they don’t stop growing and they can live a very long time. This means that some specimens are ancient and huge. The Fortingall yew which grows in a churchyard in Scotland had a girth of 16 meters (or 52 feet) in 1769. According to local legend Pontius Pilate played under it when he was a boy. This is only a legend: Pilate was not in Britain during his youth. The Fortingall yew however was indeed around back in the Bronze Age long before the Romans came to England. The oldest living thing in Europe, the yew is at least 2000 years old. According to some estimates it is may be thousands of years older than that. It was killed by lackwits, souvenir hunters, and incompetent builders in the early nineteenth century…except actually it wasn’t. The tree merely went dormant for a century (!) before regrowing to its present, substantial girth. It is one of the 50 notable trees of Great Britain designated by the Exalted Tree Council of the United Kingdom to celebrate their revered monarch’s Golden Jubilee.
As noted, the people of the British Isles loved yews but they loved their horses and livestock even more and objected to having them drop dead from eating the toxic plant. This means that they planted the tree in their cemeteries and churchyards (or, indeed, built their churches around ancient sacred groves). According to pre-Christian lore, a spirit requires a bough of yew in order to find the next realm. Many English poems about death and the underworld incorporate the yew tree as a symbol, a subject, or, indeed as a character. Aristocrats also had a fondness for yew because it could be sculpted into magnificent dark green topiary for their formal gardens.
The substantial military prowess of the English during the middle ages depended on longbows made of yew. A good bow needed to be made from a stave cut from the center of the tree so that the inelastic heartwood was next to the springy outer wood. This meant that yews in England were badly overharvested and the English had to continually buy yew from Europe. To quote Wikipedia “In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighboring trees.”
Like many toxic plants, the poisonous yew has substantial medical value. The extraordinary Persian polymath Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’ (who is known in English as Avicenna) used yew to treat heart conditions in the early eleventh century—this represented the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drugs which finally came into widespread use during the 1960’s. Today chemotherapy drugs Paclitaxel and Docetaxel are manufactured from compounds taken from yews. It is believed that the yew’s fundamental cellular nature might yield clues about aging and cellular life cycles (since the yew, like the bristlecone pine, apparently does not undergo deterioration of meristem function). In other words, Yews do not grow old like other living things.
A final personal note: I naturally put a yew tree in my walled garden in Park Slope. It’s the only tree I have planted in New York. It grows very slowly but it is indifferent to drought, cold, or the large angry trees around it. It will probably be the only plant I have planted to survive if I abandon my garden.