Flowering Scilly

Hedge Veronica (Hebe x Franciscana) Scrophulariaceae

During the winter the majority of our wild flowers take their seasonal rest. Fortunately for us the mild island winters ensure that some flowers continue to brighten even the darkest days with splashes of colour.

Whilst looking for the flowers at our feet, some consideration should be given to the many bushes which give a sparkle to the scenery all through the winter months with a scattering of flowers. One such is the Hedge Veronica (Hebe x franciscana).
When the major industry of Scilly was flower farming most fields were tended by hand. In the past the flowers were sent to market open and needed considerable protection from the salt-laden and often strong, stormy sea-winds. Consequently the minuscule fields had high hedges, which on Scilly are invariably referred to as fences. Many of these wind-break bushes had their origins in other lands; Escallonia from South America, Tamarisk from the Mediterranean, Pittosporum crassifolium, Coprosma repens and also the Hedge Veronica, all from New Zealand. It is the last mentioned, the Hedge Veronica, that produces flowers throughout the year and it particularly noticeable now.

The development of flowers, more resistant to the salt winds and the fashion of sending them to market in bud resulted in the enlargement of fields, since high bush protection was not so essential. This was also necessary to allow for economical mechanisation with the rising cost of expensive hand labour. Even so, fences were still retained around many of the enlarged fields. Hedge Veronicas were often amongst these. The bush had the added advantage that it seeded well and managed to spread by rooting and colonising waste areas, so that which had been specifically introduced as a cultivated plant became part of our islandsí wild flora. In its home country of New Zealand it grew in profusion on hillsides and cliffs and consequently was well placed to adapt to Scillonian conditions. It is an evergreen shrub with stalkless, leathery oval leaves. The conspicuous heads of purple flowers rise up from leaf axils, each individual floret of the head having four petals of unequal size. Originally many were garden hybrids and had been carefully bred to give a wide range of colours beyond their natural purple and white, so that every shade from deepest purple, through lilac, blue and burgundy, to palest pink and white can be found. The self-seeded bushes, escaping from cultivation, tended to revert and to produce paler flowers than their parent plants.

When first introduced from the Antipodes, they were known as Hedge Veronicas, belonging as they do to the same group of the Scrophulariaceae as the Speedwells, also called Veronicas, although the latter family, scarcely overtop our feet, so small are they. Careful inspection of individual flowers show a marked similarity. The name Veronica was given to them as a reminder of the Saint because, in the words of Rev. Friend, writing in the last century "The flowers were thought to display in their form and markings a representation of the Kerchief of St. Veronica, impressed with the features of our Lord. (She wiped his face as he carried his cross to Calvary.) The seed capsules are also very similar, being separated botanically by small details of thickness."

Picture of Hebe

Nowadays, Hebe is the name more commonly used. Hebe was the maiden who was cup-bearer to the Gods on Mount Olympus. She supposedly tasted the heady liqour and unused to it, slipped in an ungainly fashion. Because she exposed more of her anatomy than was considered seemly, she was removed from her office and was superseded by the most beautiful youth Ganymede (probably an excuse as Zeus was attracted to him. The sexual proclivities of the Gods were often suspect). Hebe was offered the lesser job of harnessing the peacocks to the chariot of Juno and eventually was married off to Hercules, by whom she had two sons. In spite of this, Hebe is usually represented as a young virgin, crowned with flowers. A writer commented that it was "Hoped her garments were now sufficiently secured."

From a culinary point of view the Hebe appears to have no uses. Miss Tiddy of St. Agnes wrote in an old Scillonian magazine that she saw "an islander cutting a load of Veronica bushes for his donkey to eat. The donkey preferred Veronica to oats." I am told by an old islander that his grandmother gave it to the cows to clear out their bowels and she was not averse to giving leaves to children for the same purpose. This is possibly correct, as it was believed that the Maoris of New Zealand used the leaves for stomach upsets.

As a final note, I have seen island children break off the tightly-budded leaf tip. The upper leaf was then half-turned backwards to form a sail, leaving the lower part as a keel, so making a tiny boat. I wish we had retained the original Maori name for the plant and then we could say: "I am just going to sail my Kokumuka Boat!"

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