Yesterday, my blog post was about trees - yews and oaks in particular - so today I'm continuing with the flora theme and writing about a plant I've included in Before Beltane, the Prequel to my Celtic Fervour Series.
|blaeberry flowers- geography dot org dot uk|
Nara of Tarras is a priestess healer so it's reasonable to assume she's conversant with lots of plants which have both beneficial aspects, though also the opposite. When researching what plants might have grown in what we now call southern Scotland and northern England, the locations inhabited by my characters, it's useful to remind myself that those areas have varied topography. Some plant species grow plentifully in heathlands and high moorlands, those plants preferring acidic soil with poor levels of nutrients. Some of these plants may also grow in particular upland wooded areas.
Part of the fun of writing a novel for me is ensuring that if I include a particular plant, then I want to be sure it did grow 2000 years ago in the location I'm writing about. It's too easy to imagine a contemporary walk in a forest area, conjuring up an image of the perfect plant, but if it was introduced to Britain during more recent centuries, it would have no place in my novel set in AD 71.
I went looking for a plant which would be easily recognised in the early part of the year, when not in flower or berry, but which would have more than one use to the locals. The season matters because the incidents in both Lorcan and Nara's stories take place from approximately late January to early April.
One bush that was a useful size for my scene, and which was indigenous and would grow in northern locations, was the bilberry plant. This compact bush is also known as blaeberry in Scotland, and in the Welsh Borders they are called wimberry.
|bilberry plant -Wikimedia Commons|
The berries I describe, though without using the name bilberry, have small leaves with very small almost black/dark blue berries. The fruit tastes a little like blueberrries, but can be less tart. Bilberries have a short fruiting season, but I'm sure the locals in my novel would have known where they were growing and checking for them being in fruit would have been fairly routine.
What are useful properties of the bilberry bush? Different internet sites will produce a range of uses but it seems the bilberry could be used to help with urinary tract infections, and diarrhoea. I decided that Nara could have used bilberries to help some people at the Hillfort of Tarras get over some over indulgent drinking. I can only imagine that the strength of home brews some 2000 years ago was difficult to predict, and that if overly strong they might produce some fairly violent responses in the digestive system. Slightly 'off' cooked food would also have resulted in some dodgy reactions, and if the gut couldn't process it easily enough then perhaps something like bilberries helped ease the symptoms.
Bilberries are also great for using as a natural dye. When picking the fruits, the fingers and hands get easily stained and it is similar with clothes. When bilberries are used to dye cloth they can produce a lovely range of pale blues and pale lilacs.
In Before Beltane, Nara isn't at the stage of picking the berries, it's far too early in the year for that, but she does inspect a bilberry bush to see how soon the leaves can be picked for making an infusion/ 'tea' which she'd use to improve a patient's diarrhoea.
It's amazing what comes up when researching.