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Our resident ethnobiologist explores the secrets and treasures of Poland’s meadows and forests, including ...
2019-06-17 10:00:00
The Copse

Secrets of Nature (Summer 2019)

Photo by Matt Senior/Unsplash
Secrets of Nature (Summer 2019)
Secrets of Nature (Summer 2019)

The hot-blooded antidepressant

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The Polish word for St. John’s wort, dziurawiec, gets its name from the holes on its leaves, which are visible when held up to the light [dziura meaning ‘hole’ – trans. note]. Many of its common names in Polish also refer to blood – blood of Jesus, blood of Mary and hare’s blood. This is because the petals of the herb – and also the leaves in spotted St. John’s wort – are covered with reddish stains, as if splashed with blood. In addition, when immersed in oil or alcohol they release a red dye.

St. John’s wort has been ascribed with great power, especially in the Polish Carpathians, where it was believed that placing the herb by a child’s cradle would scare away bad female demons called mamuna or dziwożona, which sneaked up to the cradles to swap pretty children for their ugly ones.

St. John’s wort has long been used to treat various diseases, mainly those of the digestive tract. Today, however, there is much talk of its powerful antidepressant effects. It should be remembered that only fat- and alcohol-based extracts, such as tinctures, will have these effects. Tea brewed from St. John’s wort will only act as a placebo!

Pioneering gender

Did you know that the hardness of wood can be judged by the gender of its name in Polish? [Most male nouns in Polish end in a consonant, while female nouns tend to end in ‘a’ – trans. note]. The hardest trees are always male: yew (cis), hornbeam (grab), oak (dąb), ash (jesion), sycamore (jawor), maple (klon), beech (buk), and so on. Pioneer species, which are sown on abandoned fields and have light seeds and soft wood, are female: alder (olcha), willow (wierzba), goat willow (iwa), aspen (osika) and poplar (topola), for instance.

Also female are birch (brzoza), fir (jodła) and pine (sosna). Birch is a pioneer too, but it has medium-hard wood. Fir is not a pioneer, while pine can be – both species have fairly soft, light wood.

This reasonably rigid rule doesn’t apply to the names of alien tree species. For example, acacia (akacja) has hard wood, but its name is female.

A Native American delicacy near Kielce

The saskatoon is one of the tastiest fruits of early summer. Its lack of popularity could be down to its strange, long name, which in Polish (świdośliwa) sounds like some kind of Slavic monster. It’s not much better in Latin: Amelanchier – like the hero of a medieval legend. Couldn’t this shrub have been assigned a shorter and more ordinary name?

But let’s stop criticizing the name and get to the plant itself. This tall bush is found primarily in gardens in Poland. In spring, it is covered with white flowers; in late June and early July it produces red, black and blue fruits that taste like blueberries, which can be picked without bending down, as they grow at eye level. The plants are cultivated mainly in North America and are known to be a favourite Native American food. The first Americans dried them for the winter or added them to pemmican, dried meat.

The variant known as snowy mespilus (Amelanchier ovalis) grows in the wild in warmer parts of Europe (France, Italy, Croatia, Hungary) and used to be found in Poland in the Tatra Mountains. In the lowland forests of Poland, however, American species often run wild – the alnifolia, lamarckii or spicata varieties, for instance. I have seen entire fields of them in Łomianki near Warsaw, and near Stopnica in the Kielce region.

The pink invader from Kashmir

One of the most invasive plants to have appeared in Poland in the last few decades is Impatiens glandulifera, or Himalayan balsam. This beautiful annual plant with dark pink flowers comes from the Kashmir Valley in the Himalayas. Long cultivated in Polish gardens, it often escapes and runs into riverside fields. Himalayan balsam is most widespread in the south of Poland, where the rainfall is higher than in the north, as it likes a humid climate (the dry weather of the last few years has done it some damage).

Fortunately, this is not just a weed. It has very tasty seeds and is also rich in unsaturated fatty acids. While it’s an invader in Poland, it’s a food source in Kashmir. In China, Himalayan balsam is called wild sesame because the seeds have a similar taste and appearance. There is also a native edible balsam in Poland with beautiful yellow flowers, which is slightly smaller and grows mainly in forests. The most widespread species of balsam in Poland is the small balsam, but it has such tiny flowers and seeds that collecting it is pointless.

And the Latin name Impatiens (as well as the Polish name niecierpek – ‘impatient’) comes from the fact that the fruits shoot their seeds a few metres away as soon as they’re touched.

Poppies and cornflowers

Why do poppies appear in different places, then disappear just as quickly? And why are there fewer and fewer of them? Well, the poppy is a plant with small, light seeds. It germinates only where the soil has been broken up. That’s why we often find poppies on arable fields or construction sites. They also used to grow in bomb craters, hence the poppy being a symbol of World War I and Remembrance Day (11th November) in the UK, and the Polish military song “The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino” (“Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino”).

In the past, cereal crop fields blossomed red in June. Now, however, the fields are sprayed with herbicides in spring to eliminate the dicotyledonous flowers. Poppies, cornflowers, corncockle and chamomile are disappearing, and these days they can only be grown in a garden. However, cultivators should remember to dig the soil every year in order to encourage new seeds to germinate (the poppy is an annual species). Fortunately, poppy seeds are very hardy; they can live in the soil for several dozen years, maybe even longer. So if we plough a meadow that was a field 50 years ago, poppies will appear. And one more thing: poppies don’t like acidic or poor soils – they develop best in soil that’s rich in nutrients, hence the Polish saying: “Many poppies in the field, the farmer expects a decent yield”. Where the soil is poorer, cornflowers tend to dominate.

The cornflower was the favourite flower of Kaiser Wilhelm I; it symbolized Prussian virtues and the unification of Germany. Perhaps that’s why it later became an emblem of the Nazis – in Austria, where the NSDAP was illegal until 1938, it was worn as an identifying sign. It is also currently used by the nationalist Freedom Party of Austria. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful flower represents such a dark episode in history.

Mycophiles and mycophobes

In the mid-20th century, spouses Valentina Pavlovna Wasson and Gordon Wasson coined the term ‘mycophilia’ to describe peoples such as Poles (and Pavlovna’s compatriot Russians) who are crazy about mushrooms. They also created the opposing term ‘mycophobia’, or fear of mushrooms. Many mycophobic communities can be found in Germanic countries, as well as in the Amazon.

My doctoral student Marcin Kotowski conducted field research for several years on the subject of mushroom picking among the inhabitants of Poland’s Mazovia region. As a result, we have compiled the longest list of traditionally eaten fungal species (over 80) that has ever been recorded in any part of the world. Let’s just hope that as many of Mazovia’s residents as possible keep exploring beyond the boletus and the chanterelle. The results of this research can be found in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine.

The benefits of the bract

The moment of harvest is extremely important – if we choose correctly, our linden tea will have an exquisite aroma. Lindens are now blooming earlier than before: the large-leaved usually in June, and the small-leaved in late June or early July. The flowers of the latter, although smaller, are much more aromatic, so this is the species to look out for.

The flower should be picked when it’s fully developed (i.e. when it has opened and has visible pistils and stamens that have not yet wilted). Break it off along with the little yellow leaf-like bract underneath it. This ensures ingredients of the highest quality. Use a handful of dried flowers per cup of tea. Add boiled water and brew for around 10 minutes.

Drawing from the archives (nr. 1165/1967)
Drawing from the archives (nr. 1165/1967)


Translated by Kate Webster

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