Posted by: Merlin PJ3 SEP 2009
One of the most useful works of reference for Merlin when writing this column is Culpeper’s ‘Complete Herbal’. Merlin’s copy, far from being an original, is a paperback edition from the Wordsworth Reference Series of books published by Wordsworth Editions.
This publisher became notorious in the 1990s through its “£1 Classics” series of paperback reprints of classical books. These cost just £1 in the days of the net book agreement, which fixed the price of both paperback and hardback books.
On opening his copy of Culpeper to research for an article, Merlin read: “You call it ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ — so you may, / Though the Red Flower, not prostrate, only droops, / As we have seen it here from day to day, / From month to month, life passing not away; …”.
Hang on! That doesn’t sound like Culpeper, even though his language is quite poetical. Merlin realised that he had picked up by mistake the collected poems of, yes, William Wordsworth, by the same publisher and with covers of a similar shade of green.
The plant we know as love-lies-bleeding is Amaranthus caudatus, an annual belonging to the family Amaranthaceae.
The modern A caudatus is thought to have come from Central America but its exact origin is unknown. Its seeds are edible and at one time formed an important crop in some parts of South and Central America.
There are many garden varieties, most of which contain a number of betacyanins, which give the flowers their red or purplish colour.
The red colour was at one time extracted from the flowers to use as a dyestuff. However, the modern colour known as amaranth is an azo dye. Also known as E123, it can be used as a colourant in foods and cosmetics.
It is, however, banned in some countries, including the US, because of concerns that it may be carcinogenic.
As a young, naive, hospital pharmacist, Merlin made large quantities of glycerine of thymol mouthwash, which was coloured bright pink with amaranth.
This amaranth was almost certainly the plant extract and not an azo dye as its colour proved to be rather unstable — but therein lies a story for another time.