It’s the month of March in the year 1787.
The then 28-year-old poet Robert Burns, the anniversary of whose birth we Scots celebrate every year on 25th January. penned an epistle to ‘the Gudewife of Wauchope-House, Roxburghshire’ a certain Mrs. Scott. It is no longer possible to visit, or even to see, Wauchope farm house, which was demolished during the nineteen-thirties. But it is possible to read the epistle … ‘a writing directed or sent to a person or group of people, usually an elegant and formal didactic letter’ … which Burns, unsurprisingly, wrote in verse. And in that poem we find the words: “The rough burr-thistle, spreading wide / Amang the bearded bear, / I turn’d the weeder-clips aside, / An’ spar’d the symbol dear,” words which might be roughly interpreted as telling how the farmer-poet, finding a large, prickly European thistle while weeding a cropped patch of ground, refrained from howking it out because of its symbolic role in Scots culture.
Accordingly, it would be very appropriate to ornament the tables at a Burns Supper with thistles. However, flowering thistles are extremely hard to come by in Scotland in the month of January, so that idea is a bit of a non-starter. But wait a moment; many of the supper guests will not realise that the floral decorations are not thistles if the organisers use the similar-looking Eryngium, commonly called ‘sea holly.’ And, although sea holly is not usually found in flower in January in these parts, it is regarded as a superb plant for drying and subsequent use in floral arrangements; and dried Eryngium will be found in shops which specialise in supplying material to floral arrangers.
Originally from central and south-eastern Europe and from central Asia, Eryngium planum … eryngium comes from the Greek name for the plant, and planum means ‘with flat leaves’ … is not a salt-water plant. Indeed, it does not need to live beside the seaside at all, despite its common name, although it does like to grow in sandy or gritty, well-drained soil. Sea holly does thrive in central Scotland, although a constantly-wet winter such as we are having in 2015-2016 will try the patience of any plants in other than very free-draining soil. Kenneth Cox and Raoul Curtis-Machen, in their splendid book ‘Garden Plants for Scotland,’ published by Frances Lincoln Ltd. in 2008, wax lyrical about sea holly. “An irresistible architectural plant in the carrot family,” they write, “with metallic grey-blue holly-like leaves and flower cones surrounded by holly-like bracts. Bees and butterflies love them, and they are great for flower arranging and drying.”
Differing cultivars offer differing shades of the greens, blues and purples which are very Scottish in their incorporation into the colour schemes of so many tartans. Interestingly, continental European folk medicine found a number of homeopathic uses for sea holly, using it variously as a diuretic to encourage one’s body to get rid of excess water, as when there are problems with the kidneys; as a stimulant to raise levels of physiological or nervous activity in one’s body; and as an appetizer. It seems, however, that these alleged medicinal properties were not exploited by our ancestors here in Scotland.
And, since we started with words by Burns, let’s finish with another quotation from the same poem, this time in praise of the fair sex. “Health to the sex! ilk guid chiel says: / Wi’ merry dance in winter days, / An’ we to share in common; / The gust o’ joy, the balm of woe, / The saul o’ life, the heaven below, / Is rapture-giving woman.” Amen to that, say I; and now I’m off to enjoy haggis, neeps and tatties!