The real hell of a tower block fire was bought sharply to our attention last week. As the surviving residents of Grenfell flats try to piece together their broken lives, the flames and smoke that has consumed their homes, their possessions, their community will live long in the memory.
There’s a plant that, in hot weather, has a toxic cladding too. Heat causes it to emit a sticky oil that when lit causes it to flare and flame. But unlike a shoddily built tower, the fire causes no lasting damage to the plant. Fraxinella; a Eurasian perennial herb (Dictamnus albus) of the rue family, with pure-white or whitish-pink flowers that appear from June to July, is famous for producing a flammable oil and is also called gas plant, bastard dittany, and burning bush.
Slow o’er the twilight sands or leafy walks,
With gloomy dignity Dicatamna stalks;
In sulfurous eddies round the weird dame
Plays the light gas, or kindles into flame
by Erasmus Darwin
(Grandfather of Charles)
Fraxinella, an upright, clump-forming, woody-based, herbaceous perennial features upright stems (typically growing 2-4′ tall) and fragrant, 5-petaled, white or pink flowers in late spring to early summer.
It’s elegant, glossy, light green leaves look attractive throughout the growing season and emit a pleasant lemony fragrance when rubbed or crushed. This foliage also contains an oil that causes an allergic reaction (usually a skin rash) in some individuals.
In the summer months, the whole plant is covered with a kind of flammable substance, gluey to the touch, and with a very fragrant, lemony aroma; but if it takes fire, it goes off with a flash all over the plant. The name “burning bush” derives from the volatile oils produced by the plant, which can catch fire readily in hot weather, or when a flame is put to it. Remarkably it flares and then extinguishes itself – without any damage to the plant.
In large doses, it is considered to be poisonous, causing phototoxicity. Simply from handling the plant, the oil produced may cause an allergic reaction; anything from a minor irritation to chemical-like burns.
(Not to be confused with the Bible’s burning bush – that is likely to be Rubus sanctus (blackberry bush).)
Like fire Fraxinella can burn and it can heal. This ancient plant, originally grown by the Romans, has been used in herbal medicine for centuries. An infusion made from the flowers and leaves has been taken for miscellaneous troubles; from constipation to to menstruation and cramps.
A root infusion was also popular for treating diseases of the head and associated fevers. Mixed with peppermint, it was used as a remedy for epilepsy.
With careful preparation it was also applied topically to treat various skin diseases like, scabies, impetigo, and eczema, possibly jaundice as well. And as a relief for arthritis, rheumatism, joint pain and inflammation.
While it is not as popular today as it once was, an infusion of the leaves is still commonly used as a substitute for tea and as a mild stomach tonic.
Garden Favourite: Fraxinella was introduced to Britain in 1596 from Germany. ‘This plant, for its beauty and fine scent, deserves a place in every collection.’
It takes a season or two to settle down after planting. Although plants grow well in light shade, full sun and still air help produce the most impressive display and strongest fragrance.
It can live, quite happily, for up to fifty years.
The Royal Horticultural Society has given it its Award of Garden Merit (AGM).
Featured image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQTZyS7BKV8