Saturday, May 3, 2008

Soapwort and Hummingbird hawkmoths

This last week I had to argue the case for the retention of a narrow strip of flowerbed next to the house and not have it covered with concrete. I won the case, but my given reasons were not really the truth. For it is in this patch that a rather untidy but attractive plant grows called Soapwort (saponaria). And it is supposed to do just that, an early soap taken from the leaves and used in the medieval period and at fulling mills.
But what has made it a more magical plant is the fact that I have spied the hummingbird hawkmoth on it for several years. This moth is rather small and dumpy, grey with a blotch of orange on both its wings. Impossible to photograph because of the rapid beat of its wings, and it seems to have only recently moved into Britain from the continent preferring hotter weather than ours, because it has a rather long proboscis, it is able to obtain the nectar from the longer tunnelled flowers such as soapwort (see picture) and the nicotinia flowers.
Grigson says soapwort is rather a sad name it originated with William Turner, originally called sopewort and skowrwurt the"fullers" herbe. Earlier in 1526 it was called herbe phylp, burit and fuller's grasse, obviously an ancient washing herb. apparently in the Swiss alps sheep were washed with a mixture of roots and leaves before they were shorn, and linen was washed in soapwort and ashes. Even today apparently old tapestries are washed in this old plant soap.
Hummingbird hawkmoth

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