Like a virgin


The Early Virgin’s Bower clematis that is currently blooming in my garden


On a grotty, damp morning recently I was visiting a house for work and was taken into the back yard to look around. Creeping along the retaining wall was very pretty plant heavy with blooms and I remarked that it was uplifting to see it on such a miserable day. It had small dark green leaves and an abundance of delicate creamy white bell-shaped flowers and the owner said was a species of clematis. She explained that it would continue showing right through the winter, but didn’t know the full name of it.

When I returned home, I mentioned it to my mum, who is an experienced gardener, but my woeful description didn’t help her identify it. Not long after that, we took a trip to a local garden centre and toured in hope around all the clematis species on view, but couldn’t find the one I had seen. We gave up trying, and promptly forgot all about it. 

It was only today, back in my new house that, when I let the dogs out, I saw right there in the middle of the garden, a wooden arbour festooned with the very same plant. How I’d not noticed it sooner, goodness only knows, but harnessing the magical power of the plant-identifying app on my phone, I knew I would soon discover its name.

Ladies and gentlemen (drum roll please) the mystery plant is the grandly-named ‘Early Virgin’s Bower’. It is the prettiest of winter flowers and the little white bells are a welcome sight amongst the evergreen shrubs and leafless trees. I discovered that it is a Mediterranean creeping variety that needs to be supported by a trellis or other structure. It’s important to know that most (possibly all) species of clematis are poisonous, and that toxins are contained in every part of the plant. However, it is only really a problem if ingested, causing blistering in the mouth and stomach upset. Extensive handling can result in painful skin rashes, so it’s best to wear gloves when dealing with it.

It can also be a danger to animals if they eat it, which some over-curious pets might just do. However, it is extremely bitter in taste and therefore those tempted to try it will likely spit it out. It is not considered life-threatening to animals, but if they start displaying symptoms such as excessive drooling, vomiting and diarrhoea then the advice is to get them to a vet ASAP.

I tried to find out more about this quirkily-named creeper, thinking there may be folklore related to it, but when I checked in my reference books and online, I couldn’t find any mention of it. Instead, my search led me unexpectedly to Virgin Mary’s Nuts (if you have just experienced an inappropriate snigger, then you are as childish as me!). Virgin Mary’s Nuts are also called Sea Beans, Molucca Beans or simply Lucky Beans. 

These beans originate from countries in the Caribbean and South America and tend to wash up on the western shores of the UK, having hitched a ride on the Gulf Stream. They’ve been found since at least the 17th century, and the larger ones are meant to bring good fortune. In Richard Carew’s 1602 book ‘Survey of Cornwall’ he describes these ‘nuts’ being found on beaches alongside colourful sea shells and says they resemble a sheep’s kidney ‘save that they are flatter; the outside consisteth of a hard dark-coloured rind, the inner part a kernel devoid of any taste, but not so of virtue, especially for women travailing in childbirth, if at least old wives’ tales may deserve any credit.’

That last sentence could explain why they were given the name ‘Virgin Mary’s Nuts’, but they do sound an awful lot like kidney beans, which are thought to have originated in Peru. However, a single raw kidney bean can cause severe sickness, diarrhoea and stomach pains, so back then would they have known that unless they were boiled for at least 10 minutes they would be toxic? Or that if they were cooked at too low a temperature, the toxicity would increase? It must have been quite a risky business trying out new and exotic foodstuffs 400 years ago!

Thankfully, we don’t have to resort to beach-combing to source the key ingredients for our chillis, and also have the luxury of knowing that we can eat them straight from the can. 

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 9th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 7th December 2022

Dare you grasp the nettle?

Nettles can be dangerous to dogs, but don’t sting when they are very young

We are now firmly en route to summer, and one of the more annoying aspects of the increase in plant growth is that stinging nettles are starting to shoot up and, as I am often walking dogs on countryside paths, they can be a bit of a nuisance.

I was out with a little Shorkie (a Yorkshire terrier crossed with a shitszu), and she kept stopping to lick her paw. So I picked her up to see what was wrong, and couldn’t find anything. No nails were split, and there were no thorns embedded in the pad. However, I did notice that there were some nettles just beginning to peep through the undergrowth and came to the conclusion that they must be the culprits.

I have since found out that indeed, over-exposure to stinging nettles can have very serious consequences for dogs. If they run back and forth through a patch, not only can they get stung, but they can also ingest poisonous chemicals thrown into the air by the disturbance.

Dogs with thick skins, lots of hair and tough paw pads and noses are unlikely to suffer much, but thinner-haired and thinner-skinned breeds can be prone to nettle poisonings, so it pays to be aware of the symptoms. These include furious licking of the affected area, and high agitation after just emerging from the nettle patch. There can also be swelling and redness around the stings, shaking, drooling, vomiting, diarrhoea and even breathing problems.

If your dog displays any of these symptoms, take them to the vet immediately. Deaths from nettle poisonings are very rare, but the vet will advise you on how to make your pet more comfortable until the irritation subsides. There are lots of suggestions for at-home remedies online, but I’m not in a position to know how well they work, if they work at all.

Although nasty little blighters, nettles are very clever pieces of engineering by Mother Nature. Their leaves and stems are covered in tiny hollow hairs called trichomes which contain poisonous chemicals in their very brittle tips. The slightest touch causes the tips to break off, and they act like medical syringes, attaching themselves to the invaders and injecting toxins into the skin. We all know how that feels, that the pain intensifies in the first moments after the incident, and can be felt for many hours afterwards.

Usually, where you find nettles, you also find dock leaves, and growing up, I was told that if you get stung by a nettle, rub the area with a dock leave and spittle. I do believe it works, in that it offers some relief, although I can’t say if it would work on a dog and would only try it on milder incidents of stinging. In the old days, you were supposed to recite a charm as you rubbed the affected area to guarantee that it worked:

‘Nettle in, dock out. Dock in, nettle out.
Nettle in, dock out. Dock rub nettle out.’

Some believed that if you placed a some nettles under a sick person’s pillow, that would predict if that person would live or die. Stay green, and the patient would recover. Go brown, and the Grim Reaper was waiting in the wings. Others believed it was bad luck to speak aloud of the medicinal qualities of nettles. To ensure their healing powers would work, they had to venture out to gather them only at midnight.

In my dad’s archive, I found a piece where he tells us that some people believed it was the Romans who introduced nettles into this country, although that is not actually true. What is true is that they brought plants with them on invasions as it was very useful and easy to grow. It was woven into clothing and a highly nutritious source of food, packed with vitamins and minerals, that could be quickly cooked in a similar way to spinach.

So it has been with us for many, many centuries, and judging by how many I see on my walks, I don’t think it is yet under any environmental threat.

In my dad’s article, he quotes this poem about nettles:
‘Tender-handed stroke the nettle, and it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains.’

So who among you will dare to grasp the nettle?

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 8th April and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 6th April 2022.