Saturday, May 30, 2009

Whiskers and Hairs

Some pond margins around these parts are taking on a distinctly whiskery look at the moment. After remaining intact all winter, the club-shaped seed heads of reedmace Typha latifolia are finally disintegrating, sending out clouds of plumed seeds just when cotton-sedge Eriphorum angustifolium is coming to the end of its flowering period. The white tassels on cotton-sedge are formed from bristles around the tiny flowers and these elongate once the flowers are pollinated and the seeds begin to develop. C. Pierpoint Johnson’s snappily titled Useful Plants of Britain and Ireland: A Treatise upon the Principle Native Vegetables capable of application as Food, Medicine, or in the Arts and Manufactures, published in 1863, records some interesting folk-uses for these plants. Apparently coopers used to sandwich reedmace leaves between the staves of barrels, to render them watertight. The author also reported recent attempts to use cotton-sedge 'hair' as a substitute for imported cotton and described how, although the spun thread was ‘very tolerable’ the fibres are more brittle than genuine cotton. Enthusing on its potential, Pierpoint Johnson went on to predict a bright future from this by-product of Britain’s bogs: “Some very fine cloth was made a short time ago .... with this vegetable hair,” he reported and speculated that “as it can be collected at very low cost, it is not improbable that it may eventually be brought into extensive use”. Another of those Tomorrow’s World inventions, then, that never made it into production.


  1. Fascinating and informative post Phil. I always learn so much when I visit.
    The Cotton Grass looks so delicate.

  2. Thanks Keith, there are some extensive bogs up in Northumberland that are covered in cotton-sedge at this time of the year - from a distance it almost looks like a fall of snow.