Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Our Lady's Mantle

Our Lady's Mantle! When I musing stray
In leafy June along the mossy sward,
No flower that blooms more fixes my regard
Than thy green leaf, though simple its array;
For thou to me art as some minstrel's lay,
Depicting manners of the olden time,
When on Inch Cailliach's isle the convent chime
Summoned to Vespers at the close of day.
"Tis pleasant 'mid the never-ending strife
Of this too busy, mammon-loving age,
When Nature's gentler charms so few engage,
To muse at leisure on the quiet life
Of earlier days, when every humble flower
Was known to all, and cherished as a dower.
- James Inglis Cochrane (1863)

Yes, there was a time "when every humble flower was known to all", or and least to many, and cherished as an endowment. (I would have expected it to be during Cochrane's time, but apparently he thought not.) Often plants were prized for their medicinal and symbolic values; Lady's Mantle was among them.

From the time of Dioscurides, physicians believed that plants which resembled in some way a body part, for example, might be useful to treat a related malady. They reasoned that the Creator had so fashioned plants to give some clue to their usefulness. Each useful herb was regarded as a divine gift. This philosophy has been largely rejected in modern times, but it has been shown that many old remedies based upon the doctrine of signatures actually do treat successfully as herbalists expected and demonstrated. Skeptics believe it merely coincidental.

Lady's Mantle was probably so named for the resemblance of its leaves to women's cloaks, flaring and ruffled. Because cloaks covered and protected women, it was no stretch to expect that Lady's Mantle had many applications for women's health. Indeed, it does. The herb is an astringent and styptic, was (and is still) used to tone female reproductive organs, treat prolapse, hemorrhage and excessive menstrual bleeding.

Lady's Mantle is of the genus, Alchemilla (pronounced al-kem-ILL-uh), and it is this name that alludes to other fascinating notions. Alchemilla refers to the herb's use in alchemy.

Alchemilla leaves hold dew drops like tiny diamonds or pearls around the leaf margins, and this gave rise to superstitious beliefs; among them that collected dew was useful in love potions, and when dropped into the eye could enable one to see fairies.

As you might expect, Our Lady's Mantle, glistening with its diamonds and pearls, also came to symbolize the covering of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was this contemplative image that apparently set Cochrane to musing about the convent chime at Vespers on Inch Cailliach's (Cailleach's) isle (aka The Island Of Old Women) and the quiet life.

(By the way, Cailleach was a hag of mythological proportions storied among Irish and Scots, which makes it more interesting that a convent was established on the Isle. Maybe the convent was meant to sanctify the place, or maybe the presence of mysterious nuns birthed the myth. But I'll leave that alone for now.)

There are about 300 species of Alchemilla, but few are widely cultivated. Those that are share generally the same characteristics and cultural requirements.

The plants possess a mounding habit, from 18 inches to 24 inches in height and width. Foliage is herbaceous. Round, lobed leaves arise from a basal woody stem. Small flowers held above the mound are chartreuse and lack petals, but they are produced in such quantity that they are quite charming. Bloom season is late spring to mid-summer.

Alchemilla is perennial and hardy in USDA climate zones 3 through 8. Soil should be humusy, slightly moist and well-drained with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.5. Plant them in full sun to partial shade, though gardeners in warmest climates should provide afternoon shade. Water regularly.

When conditions are agreeable, Lady's Mantle produces lots of seeds which germinate readily. So you could find yourself with plenty of plants to give away. To avoid re-seeding, dead-head spent flowers.

I recommend Alchemilla for naturalizing in shaded gardens, heritage and heirloom gardens, medicinal herb gardens, and even fairy gardens. Alchemilla is an excellent companion plant for narcissus and tulips.

Alchemilla is not resplendent in her raiment, but is certainly "one of Nature's gentler charms." She may lead you, also, "to muse at leisure on the quiet life of earlier days."

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