Of The Arbutus, Box, Yew, Holly, Pyracanth, Laurel, Bay, &c.
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
1. The arbutus, (by us call'd the strawberry-tree) too much I think neglected by us; making that a rarity, which grows so common and naturally in Ireland: It is indeed with some difficulty raised by seeds, but propagated by layers, if skilfully prun'd, grows to a goodly tree, patient of our clime, unless the weather be very severe : It may be contriv'd into most beautiful palisades, is ever verdant: I am told the tree grows to a huge bulk and height in Mount Athos and other countries : Virgil reports its inoculation with the nut ; and I find Bauhinus commends the coal for the goldsmiths works ; and the poet rbutean harrows, and the mystick van.
One thing more I think fit to add ; That it may be convenient once in four, or five, or six years, to cut off the strings and roots which straggle into the borders, with a very sharp spade, that they may not prejudice the flowers, and what else one plants in them.
I need not speak much of the uses of this tree, (growing in time to considerable stature) so continually sought after for many utensils, being so hard, close and pondrous as to sink like lead in water, and therefore of special use for the turner, ingraver, carver, mathematical-instrument, comb and pipe-makers (si buxos inflare juvat Virg.) give great prices for it by weight, as well as measure; and by the seasoning, and divers manner of cutting, vigorous insolations, politure and grinding, the roots of this tree (as of even our common and neglected thorn) do furnish the inlayer and cabinet-makers with pieces rarely undulated, and full of variety. Also of box are made wheels or shivers (as our ship-carpenters call them) and pins for blocks and pullies ; pegs for musical instruments ; nut-crackers, weavers-shuttles, hollarsticks, bump-sticks, and dressers for the shooe-maker, rulers, rolling-pins, pestles, mall-balls, beetles, topps, tables, chess-men, screws, male and female, bobins for bone-lace, spoons, nay the stoutest axle-trees, but above all, Box-combs bear no small part,
In the militia of the female-art ; They tye the links which hold our gallants fast, And spread the nets to which fond lovers hast.
3. The chymical oyl of this wood has done the feats of the best guajacum (though in greater quantity) for the cure of venereal diseases, as one of the most expert physicians in Europe has confess'd. The oyl asswages the tooth-ache. But, says Rhodoginus, the honey which is made at Trevisond in box-trees,
(I suppose he means gather'd among them ; for there are few, I believe, if any, so large and hollow as to lodge and hive them) renders them distracted who eat of it. Lib. xxiii. cap. 25.
4. Since the use of bows is laid aside amongst us, the propagation of the yew-tree (of which we have two sorts, and other places reckon more, as the Arcadian black and red ; the yellow of Ida, infinitely esteem'd of old) is likewise quite forborn ; but the neglect of it is to be deplor'd ; seeing that (besides the rarity of it in Italy and France, where but little of it grows) the barrenest grounds, and coldest of our mountains (for Aquilonem & frigora taxi) might be profitably replenish'd with them : I say, profitably, for, besides the use of the wood for bows inlayers, and for the parqueté-floors, most gladly employ it ; and in Germany they use to wainscot their stoves with boards of this material: Also for the cogs of mills, posts to be set in moist grounds, and everlasting axel-trees, there is none to be compared with it ; likewise for the bodies of lutes, theorbo's, bowles, wheels, and pins for pullies ; yea, and for tankards to drink out of; whatever Pliny reports concerning its shade, and the stories of the air about Thasius, the fate of Cativulcus mention'd by Caesar, and the ill report which the fruit has vulgarly obtain'd in France, Spain, and Arcadia. But, How are poor trees traduc'd ?
5. The toxic quality was certainly in the liquor, which those good fellows tippl'd out of those bottles, not in the nature of the wood ; which yet he affirms is cur'd of that venenous quality, by driving a brazen-wedge into the body of it : This I have never tried, but that of the shade and fruit I have frequently, without any deadly or noxious effects : So that I am of opinion, that tree which Sestius calls smilax, and our historian thinks to be our yew, was some other wood ; and yet I acknowledge that it is esteem'd noxious to cattle when 'tis in the seeds, or newly sprouting ; though I marvel there appear no more such effects of it, both horses and other cattle being free to brouse on it, where it naturally grows : But what is very odd (if true) is that which the late Mr. Aubrey recounts (in his Miscellanies) of a gentle-woman that had long been ill, without any benefit from the physician ; who dream'd, that a friend of hers deceased, told her mother, that if she gave her daughter a drink of yew pounded, she should recover : She accordingly gave it her, and she presently died : The mother being almost distracted for the loss of her daughter, her chambermaid, to comfort her, said, surely what she gave her was not the occasion of her death, and that she would adventure on it her self ; she did so, and died also : Whether all this be but a dream, I cannot tell, but it was haply from these lugubrous effects, that garlands of taxus were usually carried at funerals, as Statius implies in Epicedium vernae: However, to prevent all funest accidents, I commend the tree only for the usefulness of the timber, and hortulan ornament. That we find it so universally planted in our church-yards, was doubtless some symbol of immortality, the tree being so lasting, and always green : Our bee-masters banish it from about their apiaries.
One thing more, whilst I am speaking of this tree ; it minds me of that very odd story I find related by Mr. Camden, of a certain amorous clergy-man, that falling in love with a pretty maid who refus'd his addresses, cut off her head ; which being hung upon a yew-tree 'till it was rotten, the tree was reputed so sacred, not only whilst the virgin's head hung on it, but as long as the tree it self lasted ; to which the people went in pilgrimage, plucking and bearing away branches of it, as an holy relique, whilst there remain'd any of the trunk left, persuading themselves, that those small veins and filaments, (resembling hairs between the bark and the body of the tree) were the hairs of the virgin : But what is yet stranger, that the resort to this place (then call'd Houton) (from a despicable village) occasion'd the building of the now famous town Hallifax, in York-shire, which imports holy-hair : By this, and the like, may we estimate what a world of impostures, have through craft and superstition gained the repute of holy-places, abounding with rich oblations (their de voto's).
Pliny speaks of an old lotus tree in a grove near Rome, which they call'd capitale, upon which the vestals present (as our nuns) were us'd to hang their hair cut off at their profession : Plin. lib. i 6. c. 43.
But that is nothing to this.
I may not in the mean time omit what has been said of the true taxus of the ancients, for being a mortiferous plant : Dr. Belluccio, President of the Medical Garden at Pisa in Tuscany, (where they have this curiosity) affirms, that when his gardners clip it (as sometimes they do) they are not able to work above half an hour at a time, it makes their heads so ake : But the leaves of this tree are more like the fir, and is very bushy, furnish'd with leaves from the very root, and seeming rather an hedge than a tree, tho' it grow very tall.
6. This English yew-tree is easily produc'd of the seeds, wash'd and cleans'd from their mucilage, then buried and dry'd in sand a little moist, any time in December, and so kept in some vessel in the house all Winter, and in some cool shady place abroad all the Summer, sow them the Spring after : Some bury them in the ground like haws ; it will commonly be the second Winter e're they peep, and then they rise with their caps on their heads : Being three years old, you may transplant them, and form them into standards, knobs, walks, hedges, &c. in all which works they succeed marvellous well, and are worth our patience for their perennial verdure and durableness : I do again name them for hedges, preferable for beauty, and a stiff defence to any plant I have ever seen, and may upon that account (without vanity) be said to have been the first which brought it into fashion, as well for defence, as for a succedaneum to cypress, whether in hedges, or pyramids, conic-spires, bowls or what other shapes, adorning the parks or larger avenues, with their lofty tops 30 foot high, and braving all the efforts of the most rigid Winter, which cypress cannot weather ; I have said how long lasting they are, and easily to be shap'd and clipp'd ; nay cut down, revive : But those which are much superannuated, and perhaps of many hundred years standing, perish if so us'd.
7. He that in Winter should behold some of our highest hills in Surrey, clad with whole woods of these two last sort of trees, for divers miles in circuit (as in those delicious groves of them, belonging to the Honourable, my noble friend, the late Sir Adam Brown of Bech-worth-Castle, from Box-hill) might without the least violence to his imagination, easily fancy himself transported into some new or enchanted country ; for, if any spot of England,
8. But, above all the natural greens which inrich our home-born store, there is none certainly to be compar'd to the agrifolium, (or acuifolium rather) our holly so spontaneously growing here in this part of Surrey, that the large vale near my own dwelling, was anciently call'd Holmes-Dale ; famous for the flight of the Danes : The inhabitants of great antiquity (in their mariners, habits, speech) have a proverb, Holmes-Dale never won ; ne never shall. It had once a fort, call'd Homes-Dale Castle : I know not whether it might not be that of Rygate ; but leaving this uncertain, and return to the plant, I have often wonder'd at our curiosity after foreign plants, and expensive difficulties, to the neglect of the culture of this vulgar, but incomparable tree ; whether we will propagate it for use and defence, or for sight and ornament.
Whose numerous leaves such orient greens invest, As in deep Winter do the Spring arrest.
Which makes me wonder why it should be reckon'd among the unfortunate trees, by Macrobius, Sat. lib. III. cap. 2o. others among the lucky ; for so it seems they us'd to send branches of it, as well as of oak (the most fortunate, according to the Gentile theology) with their strenae (new-year's gifts) begun (as Symachus tells us) by K. Tatius, almost as old as Rome her self.
But to say no more of these superstitious fopperies, which are many other about this tree, we still dress up both our churches and houses, on Christmas and other festival days, with this cheerful green and rutilant berries.