Thursday, July 21, 2011

Green Grow The Rushes, O!

Juncus effusus 'Spiralis'

For centuries, rushes have been woven into the story of humanity.

Young, pliant and pithy, rushes have symbolized youth and regeneration.

Green rushes with red shoots,
Long leaves bending to the wind -
You and I in the same boat
Plucking rushes at the Five Lakes.

We started at dawn from the Orchid Island:
We rested under elms until noon.
You and I plucking rushes
Had not plucked a handful when night came!
- Anonymous, Chinese, 4th century. Translated by Arthur Waley

Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.

There's nought but care on ev'ry han',
In ev'ry hour that passes, O;
What signifies the life o' man,
An' 'twere na for the lasses, O.
Green grow, etc
- Robert Burns (1759-1796), Green Grow The Rushes, O!

Not to be confused with Burns's song, there was a traditional Christmas carol of the same name that was popular in ye olde England.

The lyrics of this Green Grow The Rushes, O! are somewhat enigmatic to the modern ear, though the symbols are based on Christian themes. Strangely, it was twisted to become a popular Sesame Street counting song.

In Victorian times, "the language of flowers" meant a lot. To them, rushes symbolized docility and domesticity, i.e. peace at home. Certainly, docility should follow marriage. It has, more than less, though life has always been a struggle. But why should rushes symbolize docility? Perhaps because rushes were common material, easily found and used in Asia and Europe around the home, woven into symbols, shades, mats, cushions, beds, carpeting and roofing. Their leaves were even dipped in tallow to serve as candle substitutes. Rushes could be found everywhere. Rushes on the floor, mixed with scented herbs made the home comfortable, welcoming and memorable.

According to Erasmus, rushes were over-used for carpeting in medieval Britain, and may have contributed to scourges.

On the other hand, rushes have been used for medicinal purposes such as reducing inflammation and fever, purging toxins, treating tumors, healing urinary tract infections, dispelling kidney stones, as a laxative, relieving respiratory infections, and sedation.

Though they are evergreen, rushes in autumn and winter look worn and show their age. As Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale wrote, sometimes that's how worn-out life and love appear.

When reeds are dead and a straw to thatch the marshes,
And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind
Like aged warriors westward, tragic, thinned
Of half their tribe, and over the flattened rushes,
Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak,
Blackens afar the half-forgotten creek,—
Then leans on me the weight of the year, and crushes
My heart.  I know that Beauty must ail and die,
And will be born again,—but ah, to see
Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky!
Oh, Autumn!  Autumn!—What is the Spring to me?

-Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Death Of Autumn

The world is tired, the year is old,
The little leaves are glad to die,
The wind goes shivering with cold
Among the rushes dry.

Our love is dying like the grass,
And we who kissed grow coldly kind,
Half glad to see our poor love pass
Like leaves along the wind.

- Sara Teasdale, November

Christina Rossetti imagined the floor around her death bed being strewn with rushes.

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
"Poor child, poor child:" and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.

- Christina Rossetti, After Death

Juncus effusus
"But WAIT," you might ask, "What about the boat of bulrushes which floated baby Moses out of site?"

This is where we get into the physical details of plants. Bulrushes, you see, are not rushes at all; they are members of the sedge family, Cyperaceae. A little poem helps me to tell sedges apart from rushes. “Sedges have edges; rushes are round; grasses are hollow right up from the ground.” Rushes are of the genus Juncus (pronounced JUN-kus), and include up to 300 species. The leaves emerge from clumps, are relatively long, roundish and pithy in the center. The flowers are grass-like, held high, sometimes feathery, sometimes star-like. Plant height differs by species and variety, but ranges between 6 inches and 48 inches. Rushes are found around the world, usually in wet or moist locations. Most grow in cooler climates, rarely in the tropics.

Because of their stark appearance, many rushes are excellent as ornamental plants adding verticality and textural interest to the water or bog garden. Juncus effusus, also known as Common Rush and Soft Rush, may be the best known. Several varieties with cork-screw shaped leaves are especially notable.

Rushes are very easy to grow. All they need is a wet spot. They thrive in full sun to partial shade, and are generally hardy in USDA climate zones 4 through 10. There is no need to till the soil; you can't till mud, anyway. Soil pH should be from 5.6 to 7.5. Wet soils are generally acidic because of the rotting vegetable matter - perfect for rushes.

Rushes can be planted directly into the soil. Space them 12 inches to 24 inches apart, depending upon mature plant size. (Plant the larger ones farther apart.) They can also be grown in submerged containers. In fact, submerged containers may be the best manner for those species that tend to spread extensively.

Beside the fact that rushes are ideal for water and bog gardens, they also attract some species of hungry butterflies either in larval stage or on the wing. For creating aquatic wildlife habitat, rushes are perfect. Gardeners interested in cultivating plants pertaining to history, medicine, literature and crafts will want to grow rushes. If you are establishing or adding to a water or bog garden, planting a rain garden to conserve run-off, or just trying to figure out what to do with that mucky spot in your yard, rushes are for you.

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