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The Heath Pea (Lathyrus linifolius)

Last week Mark Goff, an alert reader with a deep knowledge of botany and herblore, informed me of a mistake in my column concerning the bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). Apparently a second plant goes by this common name and I accidentally reported on it as though it was Vicia ervilia. This second bitter vetch is Lathyrus linifolius, aka the “heath pea” (which is the name I’m going to use for it here on out). I have edited my earlier article and purged it of information and photos of the heath pea. Suffice to say, Vicia ervilia is indeed the Neolithic founder crop known for its bitterness. Please note that the seeds of Vicia ervilia are edible only if prepared properly (not that I imagine anyone running out to feast on the ancient legume). Vicia ervilia must be blanched and the water must be then be dumped out over and over again and again to ensure that the final dish is not toxic.

The heath pea (Lathyrus linifolius) is a fascinating plant in its own right. Native to the Highlands of Scotland it is a delicate fern-like plant with purple flowers. I had used photos of its lovely flowers in the Vicia ervilia article. I have replaced those images–and now I get to show the pretty heath pea once again (properly labeled this time). The heath pea produces a bitter tuber in its roots which was apparently consumed by higlanders in times of scarcity and famine to suppress hunger. Charles II is said to have given it to his mistress Nell Gwyn to help her lose weight (although I make it a practice not to believe everything I read about the restoration court). Mark Goff, who is brave as well as learned, reports that he has been eating the tubers and has noticed no side effects other than weight loss. Since obesity and weight-related health problems are becoming more pervasive in today’s world, contemporary scientists are studying the plant and analytically assessing the claims about it. Contemporary business people are close behind, trying to determine if they can make a fortune from Scottish weight-loss tubers.

 

Lathyrus linifolius

Whatever the end results of theses studies and hopes, I wish to apologize for conflating the two plants and offer my thanks to Mr. Goff. All of this is a massive vindication for Linnaeus who established binomial nomenclature to avoid precisely this sort of misunderstanding. To wrap up this article, here is a statue of the great taxonomist which was given to my alma mater by the king of Sweden!

 

A statue of Carl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus), Founder of Binomial Taxonomy...

Knotweed growing from a crack in the concrete

I used to be a tenant in a Brooklyn apartment with a concrete patio in the back (in fact I still am, but I’m describing a different place). I spent a lot of time back there grilling, talking with my friends, or just pacing around. Sometimes my roommates and I threw parties and we had huge groups of people over: naturally the largest groups of guests were usually packed on the patio. One day I was on the patio, quietly appreciating the garden plants, when I noticed that there was a crack in the concrete right next to the barbecue grill. Growing in this unfavorable environment was a flattened-out dark green plant.  It was spidery and sprawling with tiny leaves and wiry stems, but it was thriving right where everyone walked on it constantly.  In fact it was next to the grill!  I think I probably spent the whole summer standing on it and cooking without even noticing.

This plant was Polygonum arenastrum, more commonly called the common knotweed.  It has a prosaic name and it is not exactly a giant redwood in terms of magnificence, but perhaps the giant redwoods should look up to it.  Although it was originally from Europe, it is now on all of the continents except for Antarctica, and it can be easily found in most temperate locations.  It has made a living being underfoot.  A summer annual, the knotweed is a bicot with a long taproot. A member of the buckwheat family and a cousin to the smartweeds, it grows on footpaths, dirt roads, and in barnyards–anywhere it can find packed ground.  The foot traffic which is inimical to other plants is actually helpful to it.  The tiny plant has a great many common names.  To quote Edwin Rollin Spencer’s folk-lore treatise, All About Weeds, ”Like most of the weeds that came from the Old World this one has many English names: Ninety-knot, Centinode, Ninejoints, Allseed, Bird’s Tongue, Swynell grass, Swine’s grass, Redrobin, Armstrong, Cow-grass, Hog-weed and Pig rush.”  Spencer further underscored this point by calling the plant “knotgrass” throughout his little essay.

Most of the literature I have found concerning the knotweed/knotgrass is about how one can eradicate it (to summarize this accumulated body of wisdom: pull it up), however the lowly weed has found its way into some lofty places.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Athenian nobleman Lysander tells off his lover Hermia (when, thanks to the magical power of fairy herbs and plot contrivances, he has conceived a dislike for her):

Get you gone, you dwarf;
You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;
You bead, you acorn.

This is an allusion to the folk belief that eating knotweed would retard a person’s growth. It was also reckoned by herbalists to be a astringent, coagulant, diuretic and expectorant, but I am not going to make any attempt to assess whether those things are true–I’m only reporting lore.  Small birds certainly enjoy the seeds as do some larger animals (hence some of the common names).  The Vietnamese make use of a closely related species Polygonum aviculare as rau đắng, an ingredient in hotpot.

A diagram of Polygonum aviculare which...um...happens to be in Italian

If you are feeling a bit trampled down you might pause to think of the knotweed.  It lives underfoot, but it lives everywhere.  Because of its humble appearance and lowly aspect (not to mention our haughty human tastes and perspectives) we call it a weed.  Looked at from a more expansive vantage (or maybe from the knotweed’s own perspective), we might call it a winner.

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