The devil's cups and saucers

Spring is sprung and this peculiar flower has appeared in the garden once again. It's Euphorbia amygdaloides or Wood Spurge.

Described botanically thus ' the yellowish-green flowers are borne on umbels with 5-10 rays and have robust kidney-shaped bracts, fused together to embrace the stem, and encircle one female and several male flowers without sepals or petals', the felicitously-named 19th century herbalist William Thomas Fernie came up with a more imaginative vision of 'a clever juggler balancing on his upturned chin a widely branched series of delicate green saucers on fragile stems, which ramify below from a single rod. Each saucer is the bearer again of subdivided pedicels which stretch out to support other brightly verdant little leafy dishes; so that the entire system of well-poised perianths forms a specially handsome candelabrum of emerald cup-like bloom.' (The leafy dishes measure no more than a centimetre across.)

The reproductive apparatus is very complex and if you are interested you can read all about it, accompanied by some fantastic images here - highly recommended to see what can be done with microscopic photography quite apart from details of the floral genitalia.

I find plant nomenclature fascinating as did the redoubtable Geoffrey Grigson (poet and writer with famously culinary womenfolk, wife Jane and daughter Sophie.) He recorded regional names for wood spurge that include: potatoes in the dish (Dorset), the devil's cups and saucers (Somerset), Virgin Mary's nipple (ditto). The latter name may be connected with the milky sap exuded by all the spurges - once used to treat warts and other skin diseases but unfortunately itself very toxic. (An elderly gentleman of my acquaintance assures me that the juice of sun spurge can be used to remedy erectile dysfunction but that the substance must be removed subsequently by dipping the relevant member in sour milk. Hmm.)

The generic name Euphorbium was applied by the 1st century King Juba of Mauretania who called the source of the medicinal latex after his Greek physician Euphorbus. (Whether he used it as a natural Viagra or not I don't know.)

Wood spurge grows wild in southern England but mine are likely to have been planted as garden flowers, the variety known as Mrs Robb's Bonnet. Mary-Anne Robb was a Victorian lady botanist. In 1891 she was invited to a wedding in Istanbul and managed while there to secure an unusual variety of wood spurge which she smuggled home in her hat box.
What's in a name? Quite a lot it seems.

Sign in or get an account to comment.