Rapunzel’s plant at risk

Spiked rampionOne of the German fairy tales collected some 200 years ago by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm concerns a childless couple who long for a baby.

When the wife eventually becomes pregnant she develops a craving for a food plant that happens to be grown by the sorceress who lives next door. Her husband is caught stealing the plant, but the witch grants him mercy on condition that the newborn child is given to her.

When the growing child also steals the plant, the witch locks her up in a tall tower.

Although British children may not be familiar with the opening of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, most have probably heard the rest of the story of the incarcerated Rapunzel and her long golden hair.

The plant concerned, Phyteuma spicatum, has the English name spiked rampion, but across much of continental Europe is known as white rapunzel.

The plant is spectacular when in bloom, with unusual oblong spikes of creamy white flowers. It grows to about 45cm and has deeply veined heart-shaped leaves.

Phyteuma spicatum was formerly cultivated for the culinary and medicinal properties of its root, which resembles a gnarled turnip and was boiled as a vegetable or eaten raw in salads. The name rapunzel is a diminutive of rapus, Latin for turnip.

The earliest British reference to the rampion is in Gerard’s Herbal of 1597. On its medicinal properties, Gerard tells us: “Some affirme that the decoction of the roots are good for all inflammation of the mouth and almonds of the throte and other diseases happening in the mouth and throte, as the other Throte warts.”

More than two centuries later, Samuel Frederick Gray, in his 1821 ‘Supplement to the pharmacopoeia’, described the root as astringent and used in quinsy (ie, peritonsillar abscess, a complication of tonsillitis).

Spiked rampion grows wild in Britain but has now reached critically low levels and may be at risk of extinction. It is restricted to a handful of sites, all in East Sussex, with probably fewer than 300 plants remaining in total.

Earlier this month (May 2010) the conservation charity Plantlife announced that it is and hopes that it will be adopted by nurseries and gardens in southern England.

The charity is also appealing for volunteers to become “flora guardians”, willing to keep an eye on the spiked rampion or, indeed, on any of 100 other threatened plant species.

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