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 countrymansdaughter.com. 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