The nature of things
PERIWINKLES, Vinca minor, are making themselves known now, spangling the ground with their small, blue-violet stars. Look closer: the blunt-ended petals frequently have a slightly leaning stance, suggesting rotational movement, like the sails on an old-fashioned windmill—a result of the way the flowers open like an unfurling umbrella.
Like snowdrops, lesser periwinkles escaped from gardens at some point in the distant past so that wild colonies have established themselves here and there across the countryside, often decorating hedgebanks and copses. A small-leaved, sprawling evergreen that spreads itself by dropping roots into the earth at regular intervals from its groundhugging, wiry stems, it gained a reputation for immortality. In medieval England, people about to be executed therefore sometimes wore it as a crown or garland.
Despite toxic properties, it was also prescribed medicinally and ‘to staunch bleeding at the nose in Christians if made into a garland and hung about the neck’.
The greater periwinkle, Vinca major, bears larger flowers, but, in both kinds, there are numerous variations in flower colour, from white to shades of blue, dark maroon and deepest purple, as well as variegations in the leaves (bottom left).
The vibrant pink Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus, which makes a small upright shrub, is one that won’t escape into the countryside this far north, however, requiring tropical or subtropical temperatures for its outdoor survival. KBH
Illustration by Bill Donohoe