( Originally Published 1933 )
The burnet, also called Poterium sanguisorba, L., is a hardy plant native to Europe and Asia, and naturalized a little in this country, and is sparingly cultivated here for the young leaves. It is included because it is one of the old-time herbs and not for its beauty, or present-day value. The plant forms rosettes of leaves, which spread out low on the ground, eighteen to twenty-four inches across. Because of the sharp-pointed leaf margins, it is reminiscent of the old-fashioned silks finished off that way. Root. The root is woody and spreading.
Stem. The flower stems rise from the heart of the plant twelve to fifteen inches high, are ridged, hairy, and branched, and bear little leaflets along them.
Leaf. The leaf stems are thin, begin at the root, and have one furrow and three ridges and the leaves are compounded into opposite, oval, rounded leaflets, set in pairs along each side of the stem. The margins of the leaflets are notched regularly as if they had been pinked on a machine, and each leaf turns inward from either side of the midrib. They are glaucous, lighter below and darker green above. They smell of fresh greens, and taste pleasantly, as hay smells.
Flower. The flowers come in June in my garden and are rose-red, less than one-eighth of an inch across and are borne in an inflorescence somewhat like a green pine cone, about three-quarters of an inch high and half an inch across. The lower flowers are staminate and the upper ones bisexual, and as the lower ones ripen their stamens hang down like tiny, untidy-looking threads.
Seed. The fertile flowers produce a four-sided brown and wrinkled seed.
Variety. Burr mentions three varieties, the hairy-leaved burnet, the large-seeded burnet, and the smooth-leaved burnet.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
Burnet does not seem to go back to ancient history. Josselyn speaks of it, and Eleanour Rohde tells this story about it: It is called Chabairje (Chaba's slave) in Hungarian and thereby hangs the tale. Its virtues were first discovered by King Chaba who, after he had engaged in a terrible battle with his brother, is said to have cured the wounds of fifteen thousand of his soldiers with the juice of this plant.
Bailey says it is mentioned as a sheep forage.
Medicine. It is not in any pharmacopoeia as far as I know, but the pulverized, dried roots are said to be astringent, and good for cases of internal hemorrhage.
Food. The leaves are supposed to convey the flavor of fresh cucumbers, but either our climate or my palate may be to blame for not detecting this. Formerly the leaves were steeped in cool tankards and the Pennsylvania Germans used it in a drink called cool cup: A few of the leaves added to a cup of wine, we are told, "helpe to make the heart merrie." We picked the young leaves and put them in with the lettuce for the salad, where they added a pleasant flavor. The old leaves are hard and a little tough.
The plants come readily from seed, or they can be propagated by root divisions. They are quite hardy and not the least finical. Vilmorin says it does not require much attention and others say it likes a chalky soil. It did not flower much the first season from plants started in-doors in March and transplanted later. At first I thought the rosettes of leaves would make a pretty ground cover, but the flowers are so uninteresting and untidy looking that I have removed it from the decorative part of the garden. In Europe it is sometimes used as an edging to other vegetables.