Friday, 10 October 2008

Flower of the Week

Since some of the posts on this blog which have provoked most comment have been of a botanical persuasion, I thought we'd have a new feature here, a plant of the week. I'll try to make them seasonal, and either native, or garden cultivars of native plants, although in winter that may need some lateral thinking. And, having decided this, I made a rather poor first choice, in that I expected one of my favourite plants to have a more accessible history!

I was determined to write about the flower that features in the header on my other blog since its blooms have been giving us pleasure for so much of the summer: the cottage garden plant, Astrantia major or great masterwort (this one, I think, is Ruby Wedding, though a rather inferior specimen - they can be very variable). Common names are Hattie's pincushion, mountain or black sanicle, and melancholy gentleman. The name "masterwort" (meaning a universal cure-all) is actually applied to a range of the umbelliferae, and the plant that Gerard refers to in his Herbal was a different one, Peucedanum ostruthium; there doesn't seem to be a great deal of evidence for the use of astrantia major itself as a specific, though it was thought to be a diuretic and various constituents have been identified by modern analysis, including steroids, which may mean it will yet prove to have potential as a medicinal herb.

Astrantia major is not included in Geoffrey Grigson's Englishman's Flora, but Keble Martin (Concise British Flora) lists it with its English name of melancholy gentleman, as naturalised in Shropshire, giving a bit of credibility to the claim that it has been cultivated in Britain since the 16th century. The flowers, which are papery like everlastings, dry well, and it's a good cut flower, relatively unfussy about growing conditions. The subspecies "involucrata" has long bracts, giving rise to one of its varietal names, "Shaggy" while, in recent years, the reds have become deeper and richer, some with crimson stems. It's possible to cut them back just before flowering, to give late colour, but I find that they have such a long flowering period that I'm not sure it's worth it. Perhaps further south, where they would normally flower earlier, it may be more effective? All in all, a thoroughly desirable plant, even if its apparent place in the pharmacopeia turned out to be undeserved.

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