Thursday, June 30, 2011

Comfits of sea holly

During my recent sororal sojourn in the deep south (aka East Kent) in early June, I went, for the first time, to Sandwich Bay. There is so much to do in the area, without opening one's wallet, that I've never got past the toll on the private road to Sandwich Bay.

The weather on 5th June was none too promising (driving rain, mist, wind....), but as I'd planned to go to Sandwich Bay, I ignored the weather forecast and to Sandwich Bay I went, and hoped the weather might improve. It didn't. I must go back when it is sunny. Or at least dry.

I was a bit confused by the toll sign which I thought said, that if I parked at the Bird Observatory then I would not have access to the sea and bay. As it happens I misunderstood it. Doh! One can park at the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory Trust (SBBOT) Field Centre (bit of a mouthful) for a peppercorn fee of £1 for non-members, and walk to the sea. We parked back up the road and walked in. We popped into the SBBOT (well worth a visit), paid a fee anyway 'cos it's a good cause, and got some gen on what plants were about.

Photography was barely possible and my map (a photocopied map of the bay is available at the field centre) got moist and started to fall apart. We looked around some of the reserve areas but the weather harried us into walking a shorter circuit than we'd planned; down the road, up the coast a bit and then back to the car on the PRoW through the golf course.

Asparagus officinalis was in flower in the woods. I've not seen the flowers before.

Once we reached the coast I noticed that there were what looked like batteries in front of some of the houses. I checked a friend's facsimile of Captain William Mudge's 1819 Ordnance Survey map of Kent and there are old batteries on the coast at Sandwich. Napoleonic I guess?

I see that I can buy the Cassini Old Series OS map for Canterbury and East Kent online. If I buy one for my sister I can use it when I'm down there. 

On the shingle there were the usual hardy halophytes including mounds of succulent sea sandwort (Honckenya peploides) and prickly grey-green sea holly (Eryngium maritimum).

Sea sandwort (Honckenya peploides)

Sea holly (Eryngium maritimum)

Sea holly looks like holly. It's not related. It looks like teasel. It's not related. Oddly enough it's an 'atypical' umbellifer; in the same family as carrots, hemlock, parsley and fennel. The old English names are sea holm or sea hulver. 

Eryngium is possibly from the Greek word for spiny thistle (Johnson and Smith 1931), although Bostock and Riley (1856) and Mrs Grieve (1931) claim the plant name is derived from the Greek word eruggarein, which means to, err, eructate (in common parlance to thee and me, to burp). The plant's roots were praised by Dioscorides for their ability to ease eructation. And as an aphrodisiac. And candied root was sold as a kissing comfit, to sweeten the breath. Kind of like Viagra, Rennies & spearmint all rolled into one. 

In addition Gerard (1597) claims that sea holly roots are wizard for colic, cramps, convulsions, gravel (kidney stones), and 'provoketh urine, greatly opening the passages being drunk 15 dais togither'. Gerard's language is so delightful I can't resist more. 'The roots are condited and preserved with sugar.......good to be given unto old and aged people who are consumed and withered with is also good for other sorts of people that have no delight or appetite.......amending the defects of nature in the younger'. Comfits of sea holly could save us millions in health care. 

Young sea holly shoots were also stewed and eaten like asparagus. Pliny the Elder (79AD) lists more herbal uses for this miracle plant; taken in wine, it was efficacious for venomous serpent bite or in goose-broth (or boiled in water with a frog; true) for poisons like aconite (don't try it at home). Pliny also recommends using it as a liniment for wounds inflicted by frogs. Do Italian frogs bite? Perhaps they bit their persecutors when they were being tossed into boiling water?

I got totally distracted by sea holly comfits. More from Sandwich Bay tomorrow.

John Gerard (1597) Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. Online here. The pages referred to above are here, and here and here and include 'The maner to condite Eryngos'
Mrs Grieve (1931) A Modern Herbal. Online version here
Johnson AT and Smith HA (1931) Plant Names Simplified. Collingridge: London.
Pliny the Elder (c AD77-79) The Natural History. Book 4. Translated by J Bostock and HT Riley (1856). Full text on Google Books (the chapter on Eryngium is on pps 396-7).

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff again.
    I had read that sea holly is good for many things, although there was a warning that it can look similar to yellow horned poppy, which is poisonous.
    Plenty aphrodisiacs in this area, obviously, so it's just as well Pfizer invented Viagra across the river from the bay.