There are a few plants in the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden that if noticed by the visitor, are probably dismissed immediately as either “nothing to look at” or “avoid at all costs.” Maybe it is because they are not beautiful, or maybe it is because they are not natives, or maybe it is because we gardeners are just prejudiced against them. I have selected three of what I call the “ruffians” in the Garden. As gardeners, the vast majority of us will avoid them and will probably weed them out if they show up unannounced - but oh, what a story they have to tell.
For a more through discourse, including the origin of the names, the link on the plant name takes you the individual page of more photos and details of the plant. Lets take them in alphabetical order.
Curly Dock (Rumex crispus L.)
Hardly graceful of demeanor this rather coarse plant is all green, including the flowers, and remains unnoticed until mid summer when it suddenly turns completely rust-red and now the 4 or 5 foot high specimen stands out against the background of other still-green plants as you can see in the top photo. “Curly” refers mainly to the edges of the lance shape leaves which curl and somewhat to the flower racemes which form an upward spiraling whorl around the stem. As Moore (Ref.#30) states in his book "The big weed is hardly graceful of demeanor and most sensible gardeners would avoid introducing it intentionally". Like its accomplices discussed here, it is found world wide and because of that, savvy people have made use of the plant for centuries.
First, it is edible, (when green), containing large amounts of vitamins and iron. However, you must avoid the Oxalic Acid and the tannic acids which are toxic. This means cooking with several changes of water - then it's considered to be OK. Incidentally, the cooking with multiple changes of water during the process is standard procedure for eliminating Oxalic Acid from green leaves and stems of most plants.
It is frequently named in references as “Yellow Dock”, which refers to the inside color of the root, which is the part you want is you are practicing herbal medicine. Medicinally, this plant was beneficial enough to be listed in the U.S. National Formulary.
The root contains Rumicin, Chrysarobin (an acid), emodin and tannin. It was used by Native Americans, old time doctors, settlers and herbalists. Preparations of the root acted as an alterative, an astringent, laxative, anti-scorbic and as a tonic. Solutions in alcohol were most common and also a syrup taken by the teaspoonful. It was used to treat conditions of the blood and glandular system, skin diseases, as liver stimulant and to treat tumors. In fact there was apparently some success with it in treating cancers prior to the use of modern drugs.
Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus L.)
“The whole toppe, with its pleasant yellow floures sheweth like to a wax candle or taper cunningly wrought.” (The Niewe Herball, 1578). Mullein is a coarse plant, up to six feet high, with woolly stems and leaves. The alternate, oblong leaves are quite soft and the lower ones are up to 12 inches long, rarely with any teeth, and they do a curious thing: They spiral up the stem such that next leaf up is slightly shorter and slightly offset from the one below so that rain water is shed onto each subsequent lower leaf - all to direct the water to the roots. It is biennial and grows from a basal rosette that sends up the flower spike the second year. On tall spikes you will notice the 5-part yellow flowers appear to open from the bottom upward in several spiral rows, in fact, each flower is only open for one day, then the one above opens. The common name Mullein comes from the Latin "mollis", meaning "soft".
Mullein is part of the order Scrophulariaceae, many members of which are poisonous or powerfully active due to the presence of glucosides. Nothing terribly toxic about Mullein, however the entire plant contains slight narcotic properties and the short hooks on the stem and leaf hair can be a problem if precautions are not taken. Those short hooks provide an interesting story: Quaker ladies who could not use cosmetics were said to rub the leaves on their cheeks to make them red, resembling rouge. The effect would last for a while, however it unfortunately was a reddening caused by the irritation of the skin from the barbed hairs on the leaves. Dried flower spikes, dipped in suet or tallow made torches - as far back as Roman times. The Greeks and others later used the leaves as lamp wicks, as the down on the leaves, when dry, was excellent tinder. Prior to the introduction of cotton for wicks, this was a substitute - hence an alternate common name - "Candlewick Plant." Another name is “Hag’s Taper” referring to a superstition that witches used it for illumination in their incantations.
From a medicinal point of use, the leaves and flowers are used. The leaves - contain a large concentration of mucilage that can make a demulcent - a substance that softens mucous membranes - and have emollient and astringent properties. In Europe dried leaves were smoked in ordinary pipes to relieve irritation of mucus membranes. Extracts of Mullein show strong anti-inflammatory activity in lab tests. The plant was listed in the 4th edition of the U. S. National Formulary and previous to that in the British Pharmacopoeia.
The flowers contain gum, a resin, a glucoside, phosphoric acid and a volatile oil. An infusion of the flowers was a remedy for catarrhs, colic, etc.
An oil was produced from the flowers and Mullein oil was used for earache and discharge from the ear and this use was apparently very effective as it is referenced in numerous old herbals. Mullein oil was considered a destroyer of disease germs. The fresh flowers steeped for 21 days in olive oil were said to make a bactericide.
Monet grew V. thapsus in his large garden at Giverny. (Ref. 36A). He particularly liked mixing the ordinary with the exotic and had the plant growing near his Clematis frames and in contrast to the heavy oriental poppies - a combination still presented at Giverny.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica L. ssp. gracilis (Aiton) Seland.)
“We did eat some good Nettle Porridge, which was very good.” (S. Pepys, Diary, 1661).
Now, here is a plant everyone avoids and few, if any, would plant it in their garden, but it is quite useful.
Stinging Nettle has a stem with small bristly, stinging hairs. Leaves are opposite, stalked, lance like with coarse teeth and a sharp point. The underside of the leaf also has the stinging hair. Stems can reach 6 feet in height in moist conditions. This species forms colonies of plants from shallow rhizomes. You can find it on the bog path and nearby is the Wood Nettle which has alternative leaves and a different looking flower cluster. The name “Nettle” may be from the Anglo-Saxon and Dutch word “Netel”, that work being derived from “Noedl”, a needle. There is also speculation that it comes from much older words that refer to the ability of the fibers to be sewn (see below).
We avoid the plant because species of Urtica cause immediate contact dermatitis and must be handled with gloves while wearing proper clothing.
The underside of leaves (usually) and the stem (always) have many small hollow hairs that contain antigenic proteins and formic acid. When these needle like hair penetrate the outer skin layer these chemical contents are injected causing an immediate burning rash.
The plant (leaves) is however, edible, in fact highly nutritious, high in iron, calcium, potassium, vitamins A, C and D, and has many practical uses. When cooked, the harmful ingredients are neutralized and the plant can be treated like a spinach for spring greens or used for tea. The cooking water must be discarded. Young plants prior to blooming should be used as older ones become fibrous (see below) and after blooming the leaves develop cystoliths which irritate the urinary tract if eaten in large amounts.
Nettles were widespread as a foodstuff. Walter Scott discusses them in Rob Roy, Pepys refers to it in his diary of 1661 as quoted above. Victor Hugo included some discourse on Nettle usage in “Les Miserables”. Mrs. Grieve (Ref.#7) gives recipes for Nettle Pudding and Nettle Beer. Nettle beer, like Nettle tea would have a slight laxative effect.
Medicinal: The medicinal uses of Nettle are reported worldwide. The most common medicinal use was as a diuretic, an astringent and a tonic. It is also a styptic - something which checks the flow of blood from the surface (acting very quickly); by the use of powdered root or softened and bruised leaves, Nettle has few equals in that regard. It was recommended for nosebleed that a small piece of fine cloth be moistened with Nettle juice and placed in the nostril. The juice of the Nettle is a complete antidote for its own sting. Likewise, the juice of Dock, particularly Yellow (Curly) Dock, has the same effect. There are many references to Nettle preparations involving the seeds and the flesh of the plant for a hair tonic - i.e. “restorer”.
Practical: The most outstanding use of Nettle is as a substitute for Cotton. The fiber of Nettle is similar to Hemp and Flax and thus it can be used for making cloth, sacking, cordage, etc. Nettle produces less fiber than Flax. It’s fibers varying from 3/4 to 2 1/2 inches long. The upper sizes are fibers equal the best Egyptian Cotton. Plants that grow in good loam, such as near ditches and other moist sources produce the best fiber. Nettle is so effective for making cloth that when Germany and Austria were short of Cotton in 1916 - 1918 during the Great War they resorted to collecting hugh quantities of Nettle. In 1916 alone 2.7 million kilograms were collected for cloth production. In 1917 The British analyzed some German overalls and found they were made of 85% nettle. It does not take dye the way wool does because of its microscopic structure, but there is nothing else close to it for making cloth when you are short of Cotton.
Other Uses: The plant makes great fodder once it has been allowed to wilt and begin to dry. Then the stinging effects have dissipated (although in some species of Urtica dissipation is incomplete). While a number of insects may feed on the plant, it is distasteful to flies and a bunch of Nettle near foodstuffs can keep flies away. However, a number of our butterflies need this plant as a host. A decoction of Nettle produces a permanent green dye - widely used in old Russia.
So, when you see these plants in the Garden, take another look and thank them for their past contributions to mankind but I suspect you will still avoid them in your home garden