Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Duke of Argyll's Teaplant

I was strolling down Daventry's London Road earlier today when my attention was caught by a scrambling shrub, cascading over a hedge of hawthorn. It was Lycium barbarum, otherwise known as the Duke of Argyll's Teaplant.  it is an untidy plant but can add interest to an otherwise 'ordinary' hedge. Despite being an introduction it is quite widespread and I have been familiar with it since my youth. Its curious name relates to a spot of confusion which arose way back in the 1730's when the  3rd Duke of Argyll, a keen plant collector, was sent a specimen of this shrub. It was incorrectly labelled Thea (Tea) and apparently he planted it as such.
Lycium barbarum scrambles over a hedge. London Road, Daventry.
20 June, 2017
The true tea is a Camellia, Camellia sinensis, with quite different flowers; the duke's plant was a member of the Nightshade Family, Solanaceae, and one assumes that as soon as his 'tea' flowered he realised his mistake. Although the Solanaceae includes tomatoes, sweet peppers and potatoes, one might suspect that Lycium is poisonous but the berries are perfectly safe to eat and have become quite popular, being marketed as Goji Berries. The public have been led to believe that they are a 'superfood' yet there is little evidence to back up this claim. Over the decades this species has garnered a host of common names, including Chinese Wolfberry, Barbary Boxthorn and - goodness knows why - the Matrimony Vine.
A closer look at the flowers on the same shrub.
If only the duke had realised the potential of his strange plant. Mind you, the family didn't suffer from the mistake; the present Duke of Argyll, in his home at Inveraray Castle, is said to be worth £115 million. Spare a penny for a cuppa tea, guv?

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