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Dr M’s uneXpected eXtreme botanists #1: Shakespeare

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Dr M’s occasional series highlights personages well known for various remarkable feats but whose eXtreme botanical skills are not so well known!

Number 1 in this series is Shakespeare, the Immortal Bard, famous for his poetry and plays but less so for his botanical skills!  

But Dr M says: think again with these lines from Henry V:

The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.

Dr M unpicks these lines below and finds them chock full of botany and grassland ecology, and demonstrates that the Immortal Bard had a pretty eXtreme understanding of the impact of agricultural neglect and abandonment on the botanical diversity of flower-rich meadows!

Shakespeare: The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover,

Dr M: The ‘even mead‘ is a well managed hay meadow overflowing with lovely wildflowers.  Linnaeus was not around then to impart the Latin binomials – just as well as they would not have scanned half as well as the lovely old vernacular names! – now known as Primula veris, Sanguisorba officinalis and Trifolium sp.

ShakespeareWanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,

Dr M: ‘wanting the scythe‘ – the meadows have been unmown for a while (there’s a war on afterall!) and the vegetation has grown up unchecked, coarse and rank. And without management (i.e. with ‘idleness‘) nothing flourishes (‘teems‘) but noxious weeds, here listed are Rumex obtusifolius (‘hateful docks‘), Cirsum arvense (‘rough thistles‘), Anthriscus sylvestris (‘kecksies – this delightful name refers to the hollow stems of Apiaceae, and so Heracleum, Torilis, Chaerophyllum even Conium are also possible here) and finally, Arctium minus (‘burs‘).

ShakespeareLosing both beauty and utility.

Dr M: Shakespeare concludes that through agricultural neglect and abandonment, the once ‘even mead‘ loses  both the beauty of wild flowers and the ‘utility‘ of the hay crop – a sad sight indeed and one induced by the ravages of war taking the farmers off to fight for King and Country and away from tending the land!

Find more  Shakespearean and Henry V analysis here.

The featured image is a lovely “even mead” at Runnymede, Berkshire, now managed by the National Trust for “both beauty and utility“, here being admired by three of Dr M’s recent field botany students. Not many “even meads” left now due to ploughing-up post WWII – so not exactly Henry’s Vs fault!

 

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