Flora and fauna: Don't turn your nose up at Stinking Bob
Herb Robert – Geranium robertianum
OF the many nicknames for this plant, perhaps Stinking Bob is the most descriptive since, if you are weeding, your hands will end up with an odour resembling burning tyres.
Another of its names, Red Robin, probably refers to the red stems, red-tinged leaves, and very pretty, perky pink flowers which appear throughout the year. Other local names like Death-come-quickly, Storksbill, Fox Geranium and Squinter-pip (Shropshire) may leave you wondering. The name Herb Robert has been explained as a reference to abbot and herbalist Robert of Molesme.
It is a member of the Geranium, or Cranesbill, family, so called because the seeds are borne in a long beak-like structure resembling a bird’s bill. The seeds are enclosed in spoon-like cups at the base of the bill and the spoon handles shrink unevenly while maturing. The outside dries more quickly, loosening the cup, so the seeds are flung well away from the plant – somewhat in the manner that walkers hurl balls for their dogs from extended cup holders.
Herb Robert is extremely common, found almost everywhere except in deep woodland. When exposed to dry, bright conditions, such as in this picture of the plant on a wall, it becomes an attractive alpine-like specimen.
However, allow it to flourish in damp, shady places and it can expand and spread to become a monstrous weed. The stems break at the touch, leaving the stem base behind to grow again.
Geographically, Herb Robert is found all over the country, and is so widespread that, in various of its different habitats and climates, it is probably evolving into new species. In the 1950s, Arthur Clapham et al identified three distinct varieties in their Flora of the British Isles. There are also decorative horticultural varieties, Celtic White being a particularly attractive alba form.
The active ingredients of the plant are tannins, a bitter compound called geraniin, and essential oils. According to some books, this plant is a panacea. Look in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and you’ll find there’s scarcely an organ in the body, or an illness or complaint that can’t be at least improved, if not cured, by using extracts of Herb Robert.
(Crushed leaves rubbed onto the body are even said to repel mosquitoes.)
However, the stench alone might well send most sufferers rushing straight back to the pharmacy in preference.
Dr Richard Warren is a botanist living in Barnard Castle