The heart of any traditional botanic garden is an array of reference beds, stocked with systematically arranged plants. Since the earliest days of scientific study, comparing plants with their near relatives, to discover their distinctive features and confirm their identification, has been essential to the teaching of botany. The École de Botanique – ‘a school without walls under the open sky’ – contains the reference collections of the Paris Jardin des Plantes, established in 1635 and rearranged five times since to reflect new developments in botanical classification. I took a detour through the garden today and stopped to admire the teasels.
Dipsacus laciniatus Dipsacus sativa Dipsacus fullonum
I grew up with teasels as a familiar wild plant and early on picked up the knowledge of their industrial past. I think there was some family history mixed in with the botany, as some of my great grandparents worked in Suffolk horse hair weaving, but sadly I’ve forgotten the connection and can no longer ask those who knew. In case the fact has past you by, the dry, prickly heads of teasels were used for bringing up the nap on newly woven fabric, particularly woolen cloth, and were so well adapted to the task that their use persisted into the twentieth century.
The École de Botanique has a thriving display of three different species of teasel. The cut-leaved teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus) which comes from southern Europe and Asia, looks pretty much like the wild teasel found in Britain (Dipsacus fullonum), except for the different leaf shape. Dipsacus sativa is technically a strain of D. fullonum, selected over the centuries to give longer, stronger heads with good hooks, ideally suited to industrial use. The plant label in the garden has ‘Industriel’ engraved in one corner.
The French name for the common, wild species is more poetic. ‘Cabaret des Oiseaux’ (or cabaret of the birds) beautifully describes the colourful, fluttering activity round a stand of teasels when they are visited by a party of finches, feeding on the plentiful seed.