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Cloaked in dew

October 05, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

Early this morning, I headed out to the garden early to finish transplanting some perennials, but the night's rain put that task on hold.

A believer in following the old adage to "set wet and sow dry," I also know that when soil is this wet, there's a real danger of compacting it.

Foiled at planting, I wandered around the garden - standing on the lawn, of course - and was immediately taken with the sight of a shower of raindrops on the velvety green leaves of the Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis also A. vulgaris). On this gray morning, dewdrops glowed like pearls, certainly earning their description as "celestial water." On sunny days, even when there hasn't been rain the night before, dewdrops sparkle like diamonds strewn across the leaves of this plant.

Folklore tells us that maidens who venture into the garden on Midsummer's morning - the first day of summer - and wash their faces in this "heavenly water" on Lady's mantle will stay young and beautiful forever. Grazing horses and sheep enjoy snacking on the plant, but only while moist with dew.

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Maidens weren't the only ones who had reason to value this water. For centuries it was the liquid of choice for alchemists to add to the potions they concocted to turn base metals into gold. That, in fact, is where Lady's mantle gained its botanic name, Alchemilla. It is from Alkemelych the Arabic word for alchemy. Alchemilla, with it reputed mystical powers, was often referred to as "the little magical one."

In 1532, Jerome Bock dedicated the plant to the Virgin Mary and gave it its common name, Lady's mantle. He thought the plant was evocative of that holy Lady's cloak. Indeed, the leaves, folded like a fan as they emerge from the plant, open to reveal nine lobes with pinked edges, very much like a woman's cloak.

The plant grows into a foot-high mound. By early July slender, erect stems topped with clusters of tiny lime-green, star-shaped flowers emerge from the base. These flower stems make fine, airy additions to summer bouquets and, dried, provide pleasure in winter arrangements. I am not much given to spraying things with gold paint, but I am tempted to gild a few sprigs to add to my Christmas decorations.

Lady's mantle is not just a pretty face. Nicholas Culpepper thought it a "woman's best friend" and praised it for its wound-healing properties. The plant does have antiseptic and styptic (able to put a halt to bleeding) properties.

This plant, native to mountainous areas of Europe, seems to enjoy a trouble-free existence wherever it grows. In our area, when it is too wet, Lady's mantle may attract slugs, but they are easily dispatched. Some knowledgeable garden experts suggest that the plant may be invasive. This has never been a problem for me; perhaps because I'm constantly harvesting the flower heads before they can produce seeds. Every three years or so, I divide the plants.

Your Lady's mantle will be happiest if it gets some afternoon shade and sufficient moisture. It makes a fine border plant. And, as I have happily discovered, once established, does not seem to be overly attractive to rabbits.

There are several varieties of Alchemilla. One of my favorites is Alchemilla alpina. It has leaves that are deeply lobed with undersides that look like gray satin. It is only six inches tall but elicits much comment in the garden. Last year I planted Alchemilla mollis 'Auslese.' It is supposed to be taller than the ordinary mollis but thus far has not reached its full potential.

I have resigned myself to the fact that it's much too late for me to expect dew from Lady's mantle collected on Midsummer morning to keep me young and beautiful. However I am seriously considering creeping into the garden next year and applying it to my creaky knees.

Culpepper did say it was a woman's best friend.

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