Flora and fauna: Strange and attractive plant from the Balkans
Honesty (Lunaria annua)
THIS is a colourful plant, flowering in April and May, and making a splash of purple amongst the surrounding greenery. It belongs to the family Cruciferae (the cabbage family), the name describing the petals that are arranged in the shape of a cross.
It is a native of the Balkans, and was probably introduced, like many other plants, by travellers at some time before the 15th century. In his herbal, Gerard refers to the plant as bolbanac, which is a Croatian word of obscure meaning. But honesty has many other names, most of which refer to the strange and attractive moon-shaped (hence the Latin Lunaria) seed pods: money plant, penny flower, silver plate and, in Norfolk, satin flower. And, as Gerard says, ‘among our women it is called Honestie’.
The seed pod, or fruit, which is almost circular, forms in summer and is about one inch across and made up of three transparent layers, the central one of which is satin-like. It is probably this transparency that earned it the name honesty. The fruit however has a tiny spike at the top which accounts for yet another name: pricksong-wort.
A virtue of the seed pods is that, being so attractive and lasting so long, they have become a favourite for indoor winter decoration.
Honesty flowers the year after planting, and was and is common in gardens, although Gerard also found it wild in the woods around Pinner in Middlesex.
Although usually purple, the flowers are occasionally white. It is frequently found on waste ground, and beside railway lines and roads where it has become a snack bar for insects. Working bees and butterflies with four inch long tongues collect the nectar, while smaller insects collect the pollen.
If all these visits fail to produce fertilised flowers, it will self-pollinate.
Honesty does not feature much in the herbals, although it is said that the roots are edible. However, an eccentric Swiss surgeon made a sandwich of bolbonac and sanicle leaves pressed with oil and wax as a treatment for green wounds. (Sanicle is a member of the carrot family, found in deciduous woodlands.)
The seeds of Honesty were also recommended for the falling sickness (one of the old names for epilepsy).
In Barnard Castle this plant can be seen on the footpath that runs up towards the prep school towards Mount Eff, and, a good deal less salubriously, along the riverside fence of the sewage farm.
Dr Richard Warren is a botanist from Barnard Castle