Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Alkanet or dyer’s bugloss (Alkanna tinctoria; syn. Anchusa tinctoria)

Old English sources do not recommend very many plants for harvest in the early spring. Anchusa or alkanet is one of the few suggested for spring harvest; the Old English Herbarium recommends harvesting the plant in March. Even bearing in mind the differences in flowering time between England and southern Europe, March seems an unusual time for harvest. Culpeper suggested that the root would be at its peak before the plant bolts. Dioscorides (Book 4, Chapter 23) stated that the reddish root became astringent in the summer and would then dye the hands. Dioscorides also noted that one type of anchusa (Book 4, Chapter 24) had red roots with a juice similar to blood around harvest time. Flowering times in England are around July through early August (Culpeper) or from June through October (The British Flora Medica, or, History of the Medicinal Plants of Great Britain), while in southern France the plant is reported to be in bloom in April through June. Perhaps March was intended more as a time to dig the plants for division than as a time for harvesting the roots.  The Plants for a Future entry suggests spring as a good time for dividing alkanet. So I could imagine an Anglo-Saxon herbalist getting slightly stained fingers during plant division in March and more deeply stained fingers while harvesting the juicy roots during the summer.

Anchusa, from Liber IV, Cap. 23 of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, Manuscrit Grec 2179 (MS Grec 2179), folio 78v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Plant identifications for this ninth-century manuscript in Greek are taken from Bonnet, Edmond. 1903. Essai d'identification des plantes médicinales mentionnées par Dioscoride: d'après les peintures d'un manuscrit de la Bibliothèque nationale de Paris (Ms. Grec No. 2179). Janus 8: 169-77, 225-32, 281-85. Bonnet identifies this image as Anchusa (my transcription from the Greek).

 Van Arsdall and other sources identify the plant in Chapter 168 of the Old English Herbarium as anchusa or alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria; syn. Anchusa tinctoria), also known in English as dyer’s bugloss. There are many related plants, but this species is native to southern Europe and was known in England at least from before 1600 according to The British Flora Medica, or, History of the Medicinal Plants of Great Britain (Benjamin Herbert Barton and Thomas Castle, 1838). Philip Miller (The Gardeners Dictionary, 1835) indicated that the plant was cultivated in England prior to 1596. John Gerard (Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes; 1597 edition, pp. 656-657) reports that he found alkanet growing on the island of Thanet, though it is not clear which of the several described types was there. Culpeper mentioned Rochester in Kent as one of the places where alkanet could be found. Despite the entry in the Old English Herbarium, I have not yet found evidence that dyer’s bugloss was actually grown in England during Anglo-Saxon times. Perhaps the root was imported into England. It is also easy to imagine that the plant could have been introduced to Britain by the Romans, at least on a small scale, and could have persisted in places like Thanet and Rochester.

Benjamin Herbert Barton and Thomas Castle . 1838. The British flora medica, or, History of the medicinal plants of Great Britain. London, Cox.
From plate 1

 The only medical usage mentioned in the Old English Herbarium is as an ingredient in a burn ointment. This particular application is also among those recommended by Dioscorides and Pliny (Natural History, Book 22, Chapter 23). Other old medical texts likewise list relatively few medical usages. Alexander of Tralles only suggests it for a helminth infection accompanied by a fever (Brunet translation, volume 2, p.106). The most common usage of the plant both in historical and modern times appears to be as a coloring agent. The roots are a purplish color and yield a reddish or purple color when used in alcohols, oils, waxes, and foods. Wood stains are produced from the plant, and textiles and soaps can be dyed in various shades of purple.

The flower itself is an attractive shade of bright blue and would make an interesting addition to almost any garden. One photograph is shown below, and the galleries of photos at Flowers in Israel and Fleurs du sud de la France supply additional striking images. I would like to try growing it, but I have not yet been able to find seeds of Alkanna tinctoria at any supplier.

Alkanna matthioli growing in Torreilles (France, Roussillon). Photo by Jean Tosti. File from the Wikipedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Synonyms for Alkanna matthioli  include Alkanna tinctoria and Anchusa tinctoria (see http://www.tela-botanica.org/bdtfx-nn-2898-synthese)

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