Brenan M Simpson has written a delightful book, Flowers at My Feet, published by Hancock House Publishers, that would be of particular interest to gardeners in the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Simpson is a resident of Mayne Island, one of our the Gulf Islands, and his book deals with plants that can be found growing wild in our little corner of the world, both those that are native to the region and those that have immigrated here, much like ourselves, from various other parts of the world.
Plant essays total about eighty, and each begins with an historic literary quotation relating to the plant, usually poetic, and is followed by fascinating descriptions of its origins and habit, enlightening us to its place within the voluminous plant families and describing its characteristics and historical significance. Of particular interest is his explanation of the naming of these plants, in both the Latin naming system and the common names that are more familiar to most of us; it is indeed rare to find an author as knowledgeable about the botany of plants as to their nomenclature and history.
Mr. Simpson’s humour also shows through throughout the book and makes for a very enjoyable read – much recommended.
We will reprint more of Mr. Simpson’s plant profiles in months to come, but for today we have an excerpt covering the Dogwood family, appropriate in that it is the floral emblem of British Columbia.
Flowers at My Feet
Brenan M Simpson
Then a very great war-man called Billy the Norman,
Cried Damn it, I never liked my land;
It would be much more handy to leave this Normandy
And live in yon beautiful island.
Thomas Dibdin, The Snug Little Island
What have dogs got to do with dogwoods? Absolutely nothing!
One fine spring morning in the year 1026, Arlette, the beautiful young daughter of a French tanner, went down to the stream outside their cottage to wash her clothes. As she knelt in the sunshine, scrubbing away, Robert Duke of Normandy came riding along and was so struck by the girl’s beauty that he instantly asked her to come and live with him at his castle at Falaise. Although Robert was already married, Arlette went with him, bore him a son the following year, whom they named William, and lived with him until his death seven years later.
William was an only child and as he grew up, he became determined that he should inherit his father’s lands and titles. However, the local nobility despised ‘William the Bastard’ as they called him and tried to persuade France’s king that the inheritance should not go to Robert’s illegitimate offspring. But William retaliated against them with such ferocity that King Henry gave in to him, if only to put an end to all the bloodshed, and confirmed his title to be William, Duke of Normandy.
Robert had a sister, who in her own way was just as ambitious as her nephew. As a young woman, she had crossed the English Channel, married King Ethelred, had by him a son named Edward and, when Ethelred died, had gone on to marry his successor, King Canute.
After Canute’s death, Edward came to the throne, a pious and God-fearing man who spent so much of his time on his knees, confessing his sins, that he has come down to us in history as Edward the Confessor. He married but had no children and, back in Normandy, Duke William saw his chance. A quick visit to Auntie Emma, a chat with Cousin Edward and William returned home to Falaise, certain that Edward would name him as his successor to the throne of England.
But things didn’t work out that way. As Edward lay dying, his wife convinced him to name her brother Harold as the future king and, on January 5, 1066, on Edward’s death, Harold claimed the crown.
William was not the only one to be angered by this. In exile in Norway, Harold’s half brother Tostig was seen by the Norse king as a much better prospect for Viking control of England than was Harold. Accordingly he equipped an invasion force to depose Harold and replace him with Tostig, who had sworn to be his vassal.
Meanwhile William was not letting the grass grow under his feet. He, too, raised a huge army to invade England and place him on the throne, which had been promised to him.
Tostig landed first, advanced to York but was met and beaten by Harold’s English army at the battle of Stamford Bridge. But before Harold and his soldiers could even get their breath back, word came that William had landed in force at Pevensey Bay on the south coast. Harold collected his weary troops and marched them 200 miles south to London in seven days, where he raised reinforcements, then on again to take up position on the evening of October 13, 1066, on a hillside outside the town of Hastings, only eight miles from Pevensey Bay, blocking the invaders’ route to London.
The next morning, the well-rested Norman army attacked. All day the battle raged, the Norman cavalry and archers pouring everything they had against the densely packed English lines, which would not break. As evening approached, William changed his tactics and ordered a sham retreat. Most of the jubilant English broke ranks and rushed downhill after the enemy, leaving Harold surrounded only by his personal bodyguard. But a small group of Norman archers had remained in hiding while their comrades pretended to flee. A volley of arrows was shot high into the air and one of the shafts struck Harold in the eye, inflicting a mortal wound. And William the Bastard became William the Conqueror for the rest of time.
What has all of this got to do with dogwoods? We’re getting to that.
William was not a rich man. He did not have the money to equip, transport and pay a large army, so he had come up with the original scheme of making the invasion of England a business enterprise in which he sold shares to other French nobles in return
for their supplying men, horses and ships. If he won the English crown these shares would pay a dividend in the form of captured English estates. So, after the battle, many of these old manors became occupied by new French masters and their families, whom they had brought to England to avoid the costs of maintaining homes in both countries. The common laborers on these estates remained from the previous English owners and had to adapt themselves as best they could to their new overlords.
In those days, before the advent of modern methods of cookery, meat was often cooked like kebabs are today, in small pieces, skewered and roasted over an open fire. The skewers were called ‘prickes’ for the simple reason that they were pricked through the meat. Since skewers should be made from a strong wood, which neither imparts a flavor to the meat, nor leaves splinters, one particular shrub had been found by experience to produce the best timber for the job. The wood had come to be known as ‘pricke timber’ and the shrub as the ‘pricke timber tree’.
The new Norman landowners didn’t speak English and had no intention of learning the language. They had brought with them as part of their military armaments a narrow, pointed, steel weapon which they called a dague. Their English servants had to use this word when they talked to their masters, but pronounced it as ‘dagge’, which soon became the word which stays with us today, a ‘dagger’.
In the kitchens of the manor houses, where pig became porc, sheep became mouton and oxen was boeuf, a pricke began to be called a dagge too, because of its similarity to the weapon’s blade, coupled with a rather limited vocabulary of French words on the part of the kitchen staff. In turn, the pricke timber tree became the dagge timber tree, then, as timber gave way to wood in common terminology, the dagge wood tree. Within a couple of centuries people called it the dogge wood tree and eventually it ended up as we know it today, the dogwood tree and Dagwood remains only as the name of Mr. Bumstead of cartoon fame.
I suppose that it wouldn’t have sounded quite right to have had the pricke timber tree flower as the provincial emblem of B.C. So, for what it’s worth, thank you Arlette.
Hancock House Publishers has a catalogue of books that would appeal to a wide range of our members and visitors. Books relating to gardening can be found at http://www.hancockhouse.com/products/GAR_index.htm.