February 03 2021

Alchemy is the magic and (pseudo) science of changing one substance into another, like changing another metal into gold. Strangely enough, there is a plant named after this idea-Lady’s Mantle or Alchemilla mollis, meaning gentle, or soft, alchemist. Supposedly, the water droplets that accumulate on the leaves were used in the process of changing lead into gold, thus the name. The common name comes from the imagined similarity between the scalloped leaves and the cloak of the Virgin Mary, thus Lady’s, not ladies. Though the plant is also a good herb for women, so we’ll allow a little leeway here.

Those wonderful water droplets are formed by a process called dewetting which is basically water pulling itself into droplets rather than spreading across the leaf surface. This must have been magical to people from long ago who couldn’t explain why this should happen.

Plants are alchemists of a sort, changing sunlight, water and nutrients from the soil into, well, plants. To the tune of hundreds of thousands of species. Where would we be without photosynthesis! Plants take carbon dioxide and water, add energy via chloroplasts absorbing sunlight and produce sugars and oxygen. Just what we need. Life is good, really, really good.

Lady’s Mantle makes a nice edging for a shady garden path. Not only for the soft green leaves and their delightful water droplets, but it also has bright frothy chartreuse flowers. I’ve read that it can seed itself around a bit too freely, but I can’t attest to that. I always pick off the dried flowers stalks when they turn brown because they look messy and detract from the leaves.

This is another plant that comes to us from a foreign land, in this case Turkey and the Carpathian Mountains. Ah, those intrepid plant collectors! There was a day when it was easier to bring plants into the US before all the regulations. I know they brought unwanted and harmful pests with them, but our lives are richer with all the diversity. Aren’t we glad we have avocados, oranges, lavender and endless flowers and trees from all over the world to brighten our days.

For me, knowing how and why something works doesn’t diminish the magic, it merely deepens the wonder of how all those millions and millions of details should come together and produce this (or any) plant.

Alchemy, indeed.

Lady’s Mantle, Alchemilla mollis, or Alchemilla vulgaris, perennial, zone 3-7, 1’-2’wide and tall.