This may sound a perverse choice, given all the possibilities, not least autumn-flowering bulbs and corms (and even ivy, the flowers of which are still attracting bees and butterflies), but here goes, anyway.
Yet another crux of botanical nomenclature has arisen in my life, in the context of cracks between the paving stones in my garden. I have Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican daisy, Mexican fleabane – I wonder if it works: I could weave a garland for Max the Cat), which is good;
Geranium phaeum and forget-me-nots, spread from the flower beds (OK);
strawberries and Viola labradorica, adventitious but rather nice;
Allium ursinum (ramsoms: heaven knows where the first one came from), less good;
dandelions and random bit of rye grass, annoying;
and pellitory, completely infuriating and apparently indestructible.
I randomly asked on Twitter if pellitory is good for anything, and Celia Hart, print-maker extraordinaire (whose chief foe on the pavement cracks front seems to be the dreaded oxalis, as it is for my aunt in Essex) very kindly sent me a quote from Act III of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (in which I once played Pertinax Surly (typecasting, my friends assured me), though I don’t remember this bit – I suspect the text we performed from had been cut down/bowdlerised considerably):
Drugger. My head did so ache –
Face. And he was fain to be brought home,
The doctor told me: and then a good old woman –
Drugger. Yes, faith, she dwells in Sea-coal-lane, – did cure me,
With sodden ale, and pellitory of the wall;
Cost me but two-pence.
So, pellitory as a cure for headaches? I looked it up, and the results seemed encouraging. But on further rummaging, I discovered that several quite different plants bear the name pellitory …
Firstly, Anacyclus pyrethrum, known as pellitory, Spanish chamomile, or Mount Atlas daisy – from which you would correctly deduce that it is a plant of the dry areas of the Mediterranean, as well as Arabia and India.
As you would assume from this picture, it belongs in the Asteraceae family (and the flower looks indeed not unlike the Mexican daisy). It can be used as a hot food spice, and also appears in Aryuvedic medicine.
Secondly, Achillea ptarmica (wild pellitory, bastard pellitory, European pellitory, sneezewort, sneezeweed, fair-maid-of-France, goose tongue, sneezewort yarrow, white tansy…). A wild European ancestor of all the many garden Achillea hybrids, it makes you sneeze (ptarmica, from Greek πταιρω, to sneeze) and is poisonous to cattle, sheep and horses, producing alarming symptoms including drooling, spasms and loss of muscular control (all of which, I have to confess, I wake up with every morning).
I’m inclined to treat the suggestion that you can eat the leaves raw or cooked with some caution … (By the way, ptarmigans don’t sneeze: the word is thought to derive from a too-clever-by-half graecised rendering of Scots Gaelic ‘tarmachan’.)
Then there’s Dalmatian pellitory (Tanacetum cinerariifolium), which contains the insect-killing pyrethrum, and which can produce a severe allergic reaction in humans…
And finally we come to Parietaria officinalis (Linn. 1753), ‘pellitory-of-the-wall’, which is what the Latin word ‘parietis’ (gen.) means. The note to the scholarly edition of Jonson’s works identifies the plant thus: however, it’s not clear whether (a) Jonson believed it to be a cure for headache; or (b) he put this so-called remedy into the mouth of Abel Drugger, tobacconist and idiot, precisely because both the playwright and his audience knew that pellitory-of-the-wall is fit for nothing?
Which brings me back to my starting point. Is it good for anything at all? On the analogy of the study of spiders’ webs in the construction of very strong steel filaments, something might be made of its roots. Its ability to flourish above ground in all but the very hardest frosts, and then to bounce back as soon as it gets warmer, must be to do with an apparently deeply embedded and virtually indestructible root system. You can pull off the stalks and leaves as often as you like: regrowth is depressingly immediate, and remarkable, given the lack of moisture and nutrients in its chosen habitat. Would even a weed wand get rid of it?
Pellitory flowers are drab and verging on non-existent: I’ve never seen them attract an insect. The leaves are covered in very fine hairs, and so cling in fragments to your gardening gloves and clothing when you try to pull them up. It has the slightly negative virtue that it very rarely colonises or invades actual soil, preferring a completely barren home. But I suppose that I ought not be be so species-ist as to seek its total eradication. Apart from anything else, I’ve always been haunted by the Ray Bradbury story, ‘A Sound of Thunder‘, about the catastrophic consequences of an apparently minute environmental alteration – not that that will stop me going out when I’ve posted this to pull up handfuls more.