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  • William Tyler

Sago, Isle of Purbeck, Adders, Aphrodisiac, and Starch

A piece in John Lewis-Stempel's 'Nature Notes' in The Times last week caught my eye.


He was writing about Arum Maculatum, more commonly called 'Lords and Ladies'. He lists some other local names for the plant - Dog Cocks, Parson's Billycock. Stallions and Mares. You get the theme - nudge-nudge, wink-wink as the names refer to the sexual interpretation of the plant's looks.


Intrigued I referred to Vickery's magnificent 'Folk Flora'. Vickery lists local names galore, covering nearly five printed columns. It begins with Adam and Eve right through to Wild Lily. Hampshire gives us Bloody Fingers, Essex Cuckoo Cock, Devon Dog's Dibble, and Sussex Small Dragon. We should do all we can to maintain a knowledge of these ancient country names.


In addition to this long list of folk names for the plant, there was a widespread, but erroneous belief, that adders ate the plant to suck up its poison. Young women were advised not to touch it for fear of becoming pregnant. A good example of sympathetic magic, ie because the plant looks sexual then it will have that affect in real life. Untrue of course. However, as often in Folklore, quite opposite tales were told. Thus some believed that if you touched it it would act as an aphrodisiac. And, again as usual, there was a Christian godly version. In North Warwickshire it was said that the plant's spotted leaves were caused when it grew beneath Christ's cross and drops of his blood fell onto the leaves of the plant below!


Lewis-Stemple says that the plant's corms were used to make a thick drink when mixed with water/milk and rosewater or orange flower added for flavouring. It is Portland on the Isle of Purbeck most noted for this drink, hence it's name Portland Sago. It was also used in Tudor times for starching fashionable ruffs. Vickery quotes a 1824 visitor to Weymouth, '... in the island the roots of [Lords and Ladies] are dug in large quantities and when made into powder, many hundred weights are sold in Weymouth for starch and nourishment for invalids, and is also used in pastry, soups, puddings, etc.'.


In London in the 18th and early 19th centuries it was sold in coffee shops and by street vendors. Henry Mayhew in the 1840s says, 'The vending of tea and coffee, in the streets, was little if at all known twenty years ago, saloop being then the beverage supplied from stalls to the late and early wayfarers.'


But the drink originated in The Ottoman Empire where wild orchid corms were used, not arum maculatum.


As I always say, history is absolutely everywhere and there is so much more always to learn.

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