Part of my doctoral research on brambles in Wytham, back in 1974, involved clipping all the above-ground growth from one-metre square plots, a somewhat painful task. During the June harvest I first encountered what is now one of my favourite plants – Herb Paris. As I was cutting my way down through the bramble canopy I suddenly saw what had been hidden by the leaves – a strange-looking plant with a single stem, four leaves coming off at the top, a few wispy threads forming the petals and the beginnings of a black berry. It did not seem the sort of thing that should be in an English woodland at all, far too exotic, but there it was.
Herb Paris in Wytham; an eighteenth century map of the area – the Great Wood is upper left, Marley Wood lower right.
Eustace Jones noted in the 1959 management plant that in Wytham, Herb Paris was ‘widely distributed in Marley Wood and the Great Wood below the Calcareous Grit scarps, and is almost confined to ancient woodland.’ He had identified it as an ancient woodland indicator, more than ten years before the term came into use! My patch had been marked up on a map by Mick Southern in the 1950s and is still there, but there is an even more impressive example of its continuity in one site from Northumberland.
Mick Southern’s plant map from the 1950s – the dark patches in the Great Wood are Herb Paris.
Herb Paris, Paris quadrifolia also formerly known as the oneberrie, was first properly described in England by William Turner, the father of English botany (c.1508-1568). Some had called it leopardsbane, but he thought the two were different plants (the modern leopardsbane is Doronicum pardalianches) and writes: ‘The herb that hath bene taken for lyberdes bayne, groweth plentuousely besyde morpeth in Northumberland in a wod called cottyngwod’. I had been told that both the wood and the plant were still there; Peter Marren, then of the Nature Conservancy Council, had tried (unsuccessfully) to make the site an SSSI in the 1970s because of its botanical history. So, I decided I would pay homage to this first record on my way back from a trip to Edinburgh. There was no wood actually called Cottingwood on the map, but the area of Morpeth with that name did have a small piece of ancient woodland along a burn, which a local dog-walker confirmed was called Cotting Wood.
The first appearances of Cotting Wood were not promising!
The flora seemed to indicate conditions too free-draining and acid for Paris (brambles, broad buckler-fern, honeysuckle); there were signs of old planting (sweet chestnut, horse chestnut, wild cherry amongst the oak and birch); a series of ridges and hollows across the slope might be natural slumping, but I feared that they were probably past mineral working; there were various tracks created by mountain bikers.
Dropping down the slope to the burn, the flora perked up.
In the end forty-two species were seen in about half-an-hour, including broad-leaved helleborine, sanicle, primrose and wood-anemone. There were wet alder flushes filled with large horsetails and sedges, and hazel and ash along the burn with dog’s mercury, enchanter’s nightshade, wood-avens. Appropriately, given that Turner was a herbalist, there were patches of goutweed naturalised on the slumping banks of the burn. It also looked right for Herb Paris.
And there it was, nestling on the edge of the horsetail flushes. The leaves were starting to go over, but some of the plants had plump glossy fruits. It is still thriving where it was found nearly 500 years ago. Turner is also remembered in Morpeth (even by the dog-walker) with a little exhibition in the museum and a part of a memorial garden named for him. I wonder how many other plants are still where they were first described?