Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Toothwort and toothache: a botanical old wive's tale.

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary concerns toothwort Lathraea squamaria, the parasitic flowering plant that depends entirely on hazel trees for its nutrition, since it is a plant without chlorophyll.
















There is no hint of the plant's presence until March, when its scaly flowering shoots, which look quite reptilian and menacing, erupt through the soil.


















They're attached to hazel roots and some, like those in the picture above, can appear in grass some distance away from the trees, revealing how far hazel roots extend underground. 



















After a brief flowering period, during which they attract bumblebee pollinators, the flowering  shoots soon set seeds and then by early summer they wither away.



































Almost every wild flower book that I've ever read explains that the plant's common name arose from the appearance of  its flowers, which resemble rows of discoloured teeth, and then go on to suggest that it acquired its name via the Doctrine of Signatures. This fanciful notion, which dates back to Roman times and the physician Dioscorides, claimed that plants to look like a part of the human body will cure that organ's ailments. So with it's toothy appearance, toothwort must surely be a cure for toothache....... 



































...... but there seems to be no evidence that anyone ever tried to use the plant in that capacity. In their scholarly work Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition (2004) David E.Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield could only find one slight reference, in Gerard's Herbal, to a medicinal use for the plant and that was to treat lung complaints. It seems that the use of toothwort in folk medicine for dental self-medication is one of those plausible myths that never dies but is endlessly repeated.

The Doctrine of Signatures owes much to the German botanist Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541) who, unsurprisingly, is best known by his shortened, Latinised name: Paracelsus. He refined the concept and it was later taken to absurd lengths by the English herbalist William Coles (1626-62), whose book Adam in Eden, or Nature's Paradise, woven together religion and botany, claiming that God created plants to look like body organs in order to signify their medicinal virtues to humans, extending the Doctrine far beyond the limits of credulity for all but the most devout.




12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the information, I will have to find some Hazel trees now in the hope to see this flower. Have looked all over this week for Butterbur, which was on this years list to find, found some to day...yay

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    1. toothwort is easy to overlook once other taller plants start growing around it. Glad you found butterbur - it's an impressive plant, isn't it? Popular with bees and butterflies too.

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  2. Wow--a plant without chlorophyll that seduces bumblebees--that is cool.

    Reminds me of our Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) in the Pacific Northwest.

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    1. We have a version of Indian pipe here - Monotropa hypopitys - but I've only ever found it once. I find these parasitic flowering plants really interesting.

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  3. Never seen one of these before Phil. What an amazing plant.
    They remind me a bit of Heather flowers, found on moorland.

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    1. It really is a weird plant. Some specimens can be quite tall, maybe 4-5 inches, but it soon becomes hidden in other vegetation growing up around it in spring.

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  4. You've got me wondering whether they have a scent, to attract the bees, or is it just being early and bright that attracts them?

    (Great to have more information and photos - many thanks.)

    countrydiaryfan

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    1. It is very attractive to bumblebees but I can't find any mention of it having a scent - but next time I passing I'll get down on my knees and see if it does have any fragrance. I did find a reference to the unusual taste of the nectar of the related purple Lathraea clandestina that is often cultivated and also attracts bumblebees - it was apparently very alkaline and had a taste of ammonia! So maybe I'll taste toothwort nectar and see if that's equally unusual!

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  5. Very interesting and amazing plants!
    Greetings from Poland

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    1. Thanks for visiting Dzial - and greetings from England!

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  6. Wow. I wonder if this is what I saw a couple of years ago at Whitworth Hall, Spennymoor (near gate into the deer park by walled garden). As for butterbur, masses and masses if it all along the riverbank near Shincliffe Hall (very local references, I realise. Apologies to those in Poland and elsewhere!)

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    1. Toothwort is quite well distributed so highly likely that's what you saw. The butterbur is flowering really well, isn't it?

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