Wednesday 28 November 2018

Aspen: in poetry, in folklore and in Byron's Gin

Aspen catkin
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
You might not immediately think of a tree whose timber is the number one choice for the manufacture of packing cases also being an ingredient in a rather exclusive artisan gin! But there's more to aspen (Populus tremula) than meets the eye - or the ear... 

Flora Celtica tells us that the timber has been used for making milk pails, herring barrels and all manner of furniture - and especially packing cases - and also that a yellow dye could be made from the leaves.

Less prosaically, the distinctive sight and sound of aspen leaves ruffled by the wind has inspired poets through the ages. William Faulkner's 'A Poplar' rather disturbingly likens the tree with its trembling leaves to a young girl "whose clothing has been forcibly taken away from her". But the most famous aspen poem is probably Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'Binsey Poplars', arguably one of the first poems with a modern nature conservation theme. The poet mourns the felling of his "aspens dear" and the "strokes of havoc" which caused the destruction of a "sweet especial rural scene". 

Aspen leaves
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
A more humorous, if less politically correct, association comes from the folklore of Roxburghshire, where Flora Celtica tells us that aspen was known as "old wives' tongues" because the leaves were constantly moving! 

Apparently the people of South Uist believed that the aspen was a cursed tree because Christ was crucified on a cross made from its wood, and that it trembled its leaves out of everlasting shame, although in other parts of Europe elder is believed to have played that role. Flora Celtica also notes that, for the same reason, an old aspen growing near the head of Loch Shiel "was visited every Good Friday for a thorough dressing down by the local people". It's hard not to feel sorry for that poor tree!

Aspen is reasonably easy to identify by its trembling leaves but the other poplars (Populus spp.) are much more difficult. There's a BSBI Handbook just for Willows and Poplars - wherever there's a BSBI Handbook for a group of plants, you know it's because they are tricky to ID! 

But there's no difficulty in identifying the delicious Melancholy Thistle expression of Byron's Gin: just look for a picture of the poet on the label. 

And don't forget, for every bottle of Byron's Gin sold, a donation will be made towards BSBI's Training 
programme so we can keep supporting the next generation of botanists. Slainte!  

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