Sunday, April 29, 2012

You saxy thing!

Size isn't everything.

Nestled in the grass by a public footpath that runs across the Royal St George's Golf Course (Grid Ref. TR 36110 58171) is this little jewel.

Rue-leaved saxifrage is small. It's very small; only a few centimetres tall. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer adorableness. Tiny starry white flowers. Stems blushing red. Sticky glandular hairs. This is a botanical delicacy.

I'd seen this lovely saxifrage a month or so before on top of an old wall.

It likes growing on old walls. Its botanic name is Saxifraga tridactylites. Tridactylites means 'with 3 fingers'.  The basal leaves in the photo below, are indeed  '3 fingered'.

Saxifrage is from the Latin saxifragus, meaning 'stone-breaker'. Whether saxifrages were named for a habit of growing in rocky places or on walls, or for their use as a herbal remedy for 'stones', is hard to discern. What is certain is that some plants were chosen as remedies, based on the Doctrine of Signatures. The logic of this doctrine runs thus; plants are giving us clues; they resemble the part of the body they could be used to treat or have characteristics of the disease they might be taken to cure. Examples are;

  • Pilewort (lesser celadine) for piles; the roots look like piles
  • Lungwort (Pulmonaria) for lung disease; the leaves are spotted likes lungs
Basing medical use on such characteristics is laughable today but ancient medicine had little else to go on. Saxifrages grow in/on stones so they are hinting that they might be useful for the hapless patient with kidney stones. Thank goodness for the Age of Enlightenment.

BTW, the old wall the rue-leaved saxifrage is on is at Ightham Mote, a 14th century moated manor house near Sevenoaks (owned by the National Trust). We didn't have time to go in but peeked over the wall and took photos from the public footpath.

Ightham's on the (ever-growing) list of places to go back to.

Why rue-leaved saxifrage? Well, for a start, it's not related to rue.

Rue, Royal College of Physicians Garden, July 2008.

But looking at rue leaves...

...the resemblance to the miniature saxifrage is evident.

RueRuta graveolens, is a strong-smelling herb; graveolens means heavy smelling. It was used as a herbal remedy for various ailments in ye olden dayes. But, if you ate it, you'd surely rue it. Rue stinks and nothing would induce me to eat it or drink it. Just as well really as it contains various unpleasant toxins. Furanocourmarins are chemicals known to be photodermatoxic (makes skin susceptible to UV light) and are also toxic to liver and kidneys. Skin contact with rue can cause irritation or burns. Pliny the Elder noted that if you gathered rue you needed to protect your hands. The following symptoms are experienced on ingestion; stomach ache, vomiting, confusion, convulsions and possibly death. See The Poison Garden for more information.

But it's a pretty flower and keeps witches away (they must not like the smell either).

Rue is in the Rutaceae family.

In Gibraltar earlier this year we found narrow-leaved fringed rue, Ruta angustifolia.

Rue was well known as a herb and a number of unrelated plants are named 'rue' for their superficial resemblance to it. Meadow rue, Thalictrum flavum is a lovely plant with creamy flowers that grows in damp meadows.

Meadow rue, Wicken Fen, July 2009

Its leaves are 'rue-shaped'.

Meadow rue, Wikipedia (Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber)

Like meadow rue, lesser meadow-rue, Thalictrum minus, also has rue-shaped leaves. Here it's growing on Devil's Dyke (in Cambridgeshire, on a bank overlooking Newmarket racecourse).

Lesser meadow rue, Devil's Dyke, July 2009

An even more dainty relative of these non-rues is Thalictrum alpinun, alpine meadow rue, a plant I've only seen in Teesdale growing by a stream on Cronkley Fell (blogged here). The leaves again are rue-like.

An even more unrelated rue-leaved plant is wall-rue, a spleenwort fern, Asplenium ruta-muraria. It's found on limestone rocks and in the mortar on walls. It's very distinctive with little toothed leaves.

And finally, this is goat's rue, Galega officinalis. It's not related to rue and doesn't look anything like it. It is so named because it was apparently fed to goats as galactogogue (promotes lactation). Rue (true rue, Ruta) was known to Pliny as a powerful abortifacient.

Galega officinalis was used as a herbal remedy for diabetes. Chemicals isolated from the herb (galegine), and other closely related chemical compounds, were studied. This work led eventually to the discovery of oral antidiabetic drugs, specifically metformin.

Please pardon me. I've travelled far, far away from the little rue-leaved saxifrage on the wall at Ightham Mote.....

...and in the rough on the Sandwich Bay golf course.

I'll be back to look at it again once this dratted rain stops.


  1. Lovely post Mel, I wish I could fill my blog pages with as much interesting and readable material.

  2. Thanks for the compliment Nigel. Much appreciated :-) I'm glad you are enjoying the blog. I'm certainly enjoying Kent...even though the botany season is on hold with all this rain. Mel

  3. Hi Jan. Thanks :-) There's always something to find out about - something I'd not noticed before. Nature-spotting is such a great hobby. Mel

  4. Another great interesting blog Mel, I am learning a lot from you, and also how to make my own blog more interesting. Lis