There are so many wild flowers in bloom that in this issue of Scilly-up-to-Date, I have decided to confine myself to the four members of the Fumitory family that grow so abundantly on our islands. Some consider them ”Beautiful little weeds with their delicate tracery of leaves and fragile flowers, as pretty as many that grow in cultivated gardens.” Yet because it was thought to be a sign of bad husbandry, it was used by Shakespeare when he described the garland worn by King Lear, ”Crowned with rank fumitory and furrow weeds.” For my part, I love them, although I could wish it were easier to differentiate the family members.
All the Fumitories have a marked similarity, with long, straggling stems, branching widely, and often attaining a metre in length. The lobed leaves, tending to occur in threes, are reminiscent of ferns, some say of maidenhair. Flower stems are racemes, a system of alternate flowers on a long head in which the lowest open first and may have reached the seeding stage before the buds at the tip are in flower.
Each individual flower has four petals. The top upper petal is well spurred at the back, the lower petals often boat or spoon shaped. The two side petals are so close as to seem joined to form one, so suggesting that the whole flower has only three petals in all. On either side of each flower is a tiny, almost transparent membrane. These differ, having definite, but varying smooth or toothed edges for each of the fumitories, needing a microscope to see, and therefore useless for identification with the naked eye.
I usually identify the flowers by method of elimination and for this purpose I will describe the last to open, first, (1) Pumaria Occidentalis, as the specific name implies, is the Western Fumitory which prefers to grow in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly rather than in other regions of the British Isles. Its two side petals are of such a deep red-purple as to give the appearance of a distinctive tongue, contrasting sharply against the stark whiteness of the other two petals. Comparatively large flowers, 12 – 20 in number and with medium spacing, result in a head roughly equal in length to the remainder of the flower stalk. (2) Ramping Fumitory, Fumaria capreolata, has somewhat smaller flowers, and the ’tongue’ again contrasted with the other two petals, although not as strongly. Its most distinctive feature is in the attitude of its open flowers. These slowly reverse the angle of growth from the initial stage, until they are virtually bending backwards. A head of approximately 20 is shorter than the rest of the flower stalk. The remaining two fumitories are the commonest and the earliest. (3) In the case of the Common Ramping Fumitory, Fumaria muralis ssp boraei, the specific name of muralis indicates its love of walls. The whole head of 12 - 15 flowers has a rosy flush, due to every petal being tinged with pink. They are evenly spaced and the head is roughly equal in length to the remaining stem. (4) The final member of the quartet, the Tall Ramping Fumitory, Fumaria bastardii, has also an overall rosy hue, but the pinking of each petal is far less marked and results in a more pallid effect overall. Wide spacing between individual flowers results in a head longer than the remaining stem.
Fumaria, the generic name of the whole family, is somewhat unusual. It derives from the Latin fumus, meaning smoke. In Greek it is similarly called kapnos, also, meaning smoke. Interestingly the old country name was ’Earth smoke’ in England, reflected in French by ’Fume de Terre’ and in German by ’Erdrauch’. Hypotheses for these are numerous. One suggestion - is that the tracery of the abundant, fernlike foliage gives the appearance of smoking ground. It was also observed that, when pulled up, it gave off a gaseous smoke, more suggestive of nitric acid than fire smoke. Presumably this smell was the reason Shakespeare called it ’rank’. Early herbals, such as a twelfth century book, quoted in Ortus Sanitas, improbably considers that the plant ”Propagates spontaneously from vapours rising from the earth” and not from seeds. The whole plant, when burnt, had the property of driving out evil spirits.
Finally, Dioscorides wrote that ”The juice, when used as an eye-wash, made the eyes weep as if with smoke.” (Which suggests to me a very good reason for not using it for this purpose!). I am more at one with Frederick Holmes who wrote a hundred years ago. ”All ends, alas!, as it began, in smoke and misty ambiguity.”
Culinary uses appear to be none, although other medicinal uses are found in herbals in addition to the dangerous eye-wash. My ”Medical Botany” of William Woodville, dated 1792 says ”The leaves have a bitter taste” and he and others give it as useful for opening obstructions and clarifying the blood, when taken internally, and externally for skin cleansing and clearing scales and itching. The archaic word tetters also occurs, although no longer in present day use. Some years ago I found it used in Derbyshire for eczema. It is interesting that modern herbalists still use it for these medical problems. For the skin the poet Clare wrote,
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