What a peculiar name? Ploughmans Spikenard. I first came across this plant in a delightful little valley known as Ringstead Downs. This is a Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve and it is just inland from the North Norfolk coast. It is a chalk land habitat and the steep sided valley runs from East to West. This means that one slope faces South and as such is sunny and dry and the other slope faces North and is much colder, shady and damp. Consequently the flora on each side is quite different. Actually this species is not that common in Norfolk and East Anglia in general.
The slope had a lot of Ash trees growing on it and the NWT were carrying out a lot of management to remove the trees and preserve the chalk downland habitat. The Plougmans Spikenard seemed to prefer to grow in the partial shade on the South facing slope, in the regions were the trees had been cut back but of course cutting back an Ash only encourages it to shoot out, rather like coppicing so the NWT had on going management issues at this little reserve.
Incidentally I was once told that the Ringstead downs valley was somehow connected to the Rhine in geological terms. Prior to Britain separating from Europe (the original Brexit!) How much truth there is in that I do not know, possibly a bit of Norfolk blarney?
Anyway that was my first encounter with this plant, I thought Spikenard was an odd name but never investigated its origin, I vaguely thought it might be a reference to some medieval armament like a Pike staff. More recently I have come across it close to where I now live on an area of common land called Clearwell Meend this is actually very similar to Ringsted Downs in that it is quite steep, chalky in some areas and being invaded by Ash.
Recently a friend who is a Bishop was visiting, he is a keen naturalist, though birds are more his passion rather than wild flowers. We were out for a walk and I came across some Ploughman’s Spikenard, which I showed to him and he was most interested and questioned the name…Spikenard and then explained why. It is a perfumed oil and has been used in lots of religious ceremonies. Not just Christian. But particularly was referred to in the New Testament John 12: 1-10, six days before the Passover Jesus arrives in Bethany. In Bethany, Mary sister of Lazarus uses a pint of pure nard to anoint Jesus’s feet. He would know all this stuff being a Bishop, also he named one of their daughters Bethany….. So I was rather belatedly made aware of the meaning of Spikenard.
So what of the plant itself? Well from the above you will have determined that it likes alkaline soils and is tolerant of some shade. As you can see from the photos it has composite flowers which are yellow but the outer surrounding bracts are pink/purple. The flowers are quite small and sort of arranged in a loose umbell. The flower stem which is purple coloured and covered with fine hairs can get quite tall, over 1 M is possible, and the flowers are out in August.
This is a member of the daisy family and is a biennial. At the end of year one it will have produced a rosette of leaves which looks very similar to a foxglove at the same stage.
It is claimed that the name Ploughmans Spikenard is because Ploughmen used to hang it up in their houses to make the air smell nice. Though why ploughmen? do they have particularly sensitive noses? What did shepards and game keepers and pig men hang in their houses?