Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Silbury plants in the 17th Century

The Englishman's Flora - Geoffrey Grigson

The following information are for two plants found on Silbury Hill,  as it was called then; Grigson must have done a lot of reading to put this invaluable book together, and I must one day write down his history in the area, and also I note for future reference some of the 17th century Civil War, which took place in this corner of the world, especially on the Lansdown.....
Jane Grigson, wife of Geoffrey and Sophie Grigson their daughter, both are writers on cookery.  Jane Grigson's history of vegetables is a must...

Round-headed Rampion - Phyteuma tenerum
Climbing Silbury in Wiltshire on a hot August afternoon, climb to the top of this ziggurat of prehistory, and at your feet you may see an unusual insect of sharp blue or violet.  Look nearer, and it is more like a violet sea-anemone - air anemone - closing upon an incautious bee or fly.  But it is vegetable, after all, a globe of curving, or incurving, tentacle- like corollas, which is the flower head of Rampion.
The Round-headed Rampion was found here on Silbury in 1634 by Thomas Johnson and a party of botanizing apothecaries exploring their way from Marlborough to Bath.  Not far off more of these violet air-anemones float over the actual ramparts of the Avebury 'Temple'
note;  Rampion distinguished by 'round-headed, since nobody could think of  better name than the one which already belonged to the vegetable bellflower Campanula rapunculus.
Another history note the Roundway Down Battle was fought nearby in 1643  

Squinancywort - Asperula cynanchica
Every time a botanist journeyed from London to Bath, he was tempted to get down from his horse and climb Silbury, as Thomas Johnson and his friends climbed it in 1634 (see above).  The Flemish botanist De l'Obel must also have been up this 'acclivem cretaceam et arridam montem arte militari aggestum', this 'steep chalky dry hill raised by military art', as he called it in his Stirpium adversaria nova in 1570.  On Silbury he found a plant blossoming in July and August which seem to have been Asperula Cynanchica and which he called Anglica Saxifraga the first record for Great britain.
Squinancy is the quinsy, sore throat and this waxy flowered little perennial of the downs made an astringent gargle.
Squinancywort from Creative Commons; Bernd Haynold  photo
One of its local names is Shepherd's Bedstraw, which probably shows that it was scented.  Scented woodruff is called Asperula Odorata and there is of course the useful and beautifully scented Lady's bedstraw just across the page from squinancywort. 


  1. At some point I knew many of the Latin names for wildflowers and garden plants--there is pleasure in naming and being able to discern characteristics.
    The Passion Flower was one that grew in arid Wyoming, blossoming briefly in the late spring before the searing dry heat and winds came.
    Some of the most delicate looking plants have a splendid tenacity.

  2. Hi MM, As you say the latin name of many plants are very descriptive,there is one favourite hesperis matronalis or Dames violet in English, which I found amongst the photos yesterday.