The annual gathering of Cotton Grass / Bog Cotton took place today – a day late but no great disaster.
I went up the hill this morning for my annual gathering of bog cotton or cotton grass, as it is also known. last year I had delayed going out to gather it, waiting until it was perfectly dry and just ready to drift on the wind (the fluffy seeds) when in the night I was awoken by sudden storm – wet and windy! I knew then that it would scatter the white cotton everywhere making it impossible to harvest. Sure enough, the next morning I marched up the hill to find it white, like there had been a frost or light falling of snow – but it was the bog cotton seeds, released by the plant or pulled away by the wind, scattered! That day I trudged back down and set my sights upon the later thistle and rosebay willowherb harvest, which are easier to find, being lowland plants.
This summer I have been paying close attention to the condition of the bog cotton and the weather, waiting. Last night was perfect: It had been dry for days, the wind was light but a new front was due, so the seeds were ripe for picking – still bunched on the plant so easy to gather but ready to release and dry! I should have gone. It had been a busy day and the forecast was for the winds to remain light, so I slept.
With a groan I again awoke to the sound of wind and rain. Surely not?! I set off up the fields, soon soaked by the wet grasses and made my way to a good, healthy patch of white tufts. There were still there. Some were gone, strewn across the ground, seeds that have escaped. The rest were there still, hanging on but soaking wet.
I got a bag full in 10 minutes and returned home, relieved and happy, my nose clear and scenting the distant cattle, the odd smells of things unseen. The cotton is now in a pillow case over the solid fuel stove, slowly drying so I can keep it dry and use all year, until this time next year. There is no supermarket for this sort of stuff -just like the old days, the weather and season matter greatly. Be lazy and stay in bed and you miss it for at least a year!
Bog cotton actually had many uses, one of which was as a stuffing for pillows, so my harvest over the fire looks appropriate! Of course, it has also been used like commercial cotton to make thread and cloth, described in the Great Exhibition of 1851 as “garments woven by crofting women … much admired for their beauty and fine texture” (the fabric, not the women, alas).
Bog cotton is also reputed to have miracle healing powers for the sheep that eat it, though I do not know how accurate this observation from the 19th century is.
There are a number of traditional Scottish stories that refer to shirts made of this plant, known locally as canach or caineachan. I’ll quote from Flora Celtica:
“such as the tale in which a girl refuses to marry her suitor unless he procures a gown of canach down.”
“In another story a prince is bewitched and becomes a creature, neither man or beast. His distressed father calls on the local maidens to weave 3 shirts from canach down but only one girl sees it through to the finish. When the prince receives his 3 shirts he turns back into his handsome old self and marries the lass, and they all live happily ever after.” (p159 Flora Celtica, Milliken and Bridgewater).
So what do I want with the downy, white seed heads? I have not the patience to weave a shirt, though I will try spinning some thread from it. I do not believe it shall make me more handsome – though I suspect the stories demonstrate just how hugely labour intensive making garments from this lovely, soft material would have been. It is hard enough to gather it, let alone clean it, spin it and then weave it. I sit here in my cotton t-shirt bought pre-made and I am grateful.
What I want the bog cotton for is making fire – as a very fine, fibrous plant material it is perfect for helping the most stubborn ember to glow bigger and grow into a ball of heat! A dry bag of it in my pack weighs next to nothing and it also makes fantastic down-like insulation, which could just save a hand from freezing – and in the outdoors that is the sort of advantage that might save my life – just being able to open a karabiner or a rucksack for precious food. I’ve been there so I speak from experience.
It is interesting to note how many plants associated with wet ground are helpful in making fire – how these are our friends and not weeds. Today we stick close to the land, rarely venturing out in a boat, be it on sea or a lake, so it is hard for us to imagine how our ancestors lived close to and on water. They had no roads, no metal tools – so they thrived at the water margins. Land we have either built cities on or drained for farming – little remains, to our loss.
Bog cotton is my friend!
Note: I only gather small quantities from any one location allowing natural processes of seed germination to carry on unhindered. To take too much from any one plant or area breaks to rules of aesthetics and nature (one and the same).
Bog Cotton is the common name of Eriophorium vaginatum.