Monday, 4 August 2014

Enchanter's Nightshade

With such a compelling name, Enchanter's Nightshade must surely have magical powers. Its Latin name Circaea lutetiana was given to us by Carl Linnaeus, that intrepid genius of the imaginative epithet. 'Circaea' comes from Circe, a powerful enchantress in the Odyssey, and 'lutetiana' presumably from the ancient Gallic town of Lutetia, which is now Paris.

A plant of shady places, the white flowers of Circaea lutetiana shine like tiny candles in the gloom of woods and hedges. The contrast between its large, robust-looking leaves and its spindly, fragile-seeming stalks fitted spaciously with small, luminous flowers is remarkable. Its large leaves seem equipped to harvest as much of the scanty daylight as they possible; its flowers seem devoted to the art of luring micromoths. Linnaeus, who had an eye for the mythic and erotic dimensions of the plant world, has cast the plant is the role of an attractive Parisian enchantress - all libido and lace.

Enchanter's Nightshade and Cuckoo-Pint

The plant has been slipping in and out of my thoughts for the last few days - not entirely sure why. Perhaps it is because I found some Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) recently in Norfolk, and have been meditating on its name. Perhaps it is fallout from a relationship with a certain lady in which I feel powerless to move in any direction that satisfies my heart. The painting of Merlin and Nimue by Burne-Jones comes to mind - the enchanter finds himself enchanted. 

I came across Circaea lutetiana yesterday in a Devon hedgebank - a high bank sheltered by trees with a magnificent view over hilly South Hams countryside between Harberton and Totnes. It was keeping company with Arum maculatum, otherwise known as Lords-and-Ladies or Cuckoo-Pint. The one a spindly complex of dull green and flickering whiteness; the other a stalk topped by lurid orange knobs. The two could hardly be more different.

I am not sure what sorcery Enchanter's Nightshade can work. Perhaps it has the power to manage painful separations.
      Yes, thou art gone! and round me too the night
      In ever-nearing circle weaves her shade.
                                          [Matthew Arnold, 'Thyrsis']
Perhaps it is just a light in dark places.

Meanwhile, cloud shadows move over the Devon landscape, and life moves on.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

A bleak and beautiful blog. Photos and illustrations are gorgeous.