Friday, July 9, 2010


Along the lane to our unit there are several stands of milkweed or euphorbia. Its clumps of small yellowy green cup-shaped flowers (they are really bracts, or modified leaves) contrast with the dark green of the leaves. A cut stem oozes a milky sap which is apparently poisonous - it always looks nasty, but it is toxic though in small doses it was used as a herbal purgative.

When I was gardening in our previous place I always wore gloves when I cut the euphorbia there from overhanging the steps. I have never liked wearing gloves. Somehow you lose the intimacy of handling the plant or the soil. But I did for this task.

That old plant and those down the drive match the pictures in our garden books of euphorbia robbiae, introduced into Europe in 1890 by a Mrs Mary Anne Robb of Hampshire, England. A keen plant collector, she went to a wedding in Turkey. Seeing this unusual plant, she got her guide to dig it up. As she had no other container, she placed it in her hat-box to take it home. What happened to her hats is not recorded. The plant’s nickname is Mrs Robb’s Bonnet.

About the time Mrs Robb was travelling in Turkey, Flora Thompson was leaving home to work in the nearby town's post office. She describes the arrival locally of a novelty. “It was on Jerry’s cart [he called each Monday with fish and fruit] tomatoes first appeared in the hamlet. They had just been introduced into this country and were slowly making their way into favour. The fruit was flatter in shape then than now and deeply grooved and indented from the stem, giving it an almost star-like appearance. There were bright yellow ones, too, as well as the scarlet; but, after a few years the yellow ones disappeared from the market and the red ones became rounder and smoother as we see them now.’

‘At first sight, the basket of red and yellow fruit attracted Laura’s colour-loving eye. “What are those,” she asked old Jerry.’ ‘Love-apples, my dear. Love-apples, they be, though some hignorant folks be calling them tommytoes.’ [Laura tried them and liked them. Most of her peers continued to turn their noses up at this new-fangled thing] Thompson concludes with her own prejudice. ‘Most people today would prefer them as they were then, with the real tomato flavour pronounced, to the watery insipidity of our larger, smoother tomato’.

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