I first experienced Trachystemon orientalis many years ago when I was Head Gardener at Myddelton House in North London. Among the neglected acres this bold, easy-going plant had loved the chance to romp all over the place and although it had almost certainly crowded out many rare and lovely exotics I did not begrudge it the space, largely because it had also certainly swamped out less worthy competitors such as ground elder and creeping buttercup.
Briefly, this plant has much to commend it. It grows in sun or shade, better with some shade, is not fussy about the soil, it has pretty flowers in early spring, has weed-smothering, bold foliage, is unaffected by slugs and snails, is deer-proof, is used as a food in Turkey, is popular with bees and looks good from April to October.
It is native to northern Turkey where it grows in deciduous forests and in damp places including beside rivers and streams. It is often collected, in March, and the flower stems are sold at markets to be used as a vegetable. The stems and young leaves have to be washed well because all parts of the plant are bristly and harbour dirt. They are then boiled and eaten though it should not be eaten in large quantities because of potentially toxic compounds that may cause diuresis (excess production of urine). Even so it is a popular vegetable in Turkey and it is reported that Turkish emigrants often grow the plant as a vegetable and they call it various names including Hodan, Galdirek, Kalduruk and Zilbit.
Trachystemon was first cultivated in the UK in the 1860s but did not make it across the Atlantic until 100 years later. It has found the conditions in the British Isles so much to its liking that it has escaped from gardens and naturalised itself. It is likely that it may have escaped in the NW USA too where the climate is similar to the UK and Ireland.
Apparently this plant has the common name of Abraham-Isaac- Jacob which is similar to the name given to other borage-family plants such as pulmonaria. It refers to the way the flowers change colour with age but it seems like one heck of a mouthful, especially when the flowers hardly change colour at all. Unlike some pulmonarias the flowers of trachystemon only change shade very slightly and are basically white and blue. Although small compared to the leaves, the flowers are very attractive and the buds open to starry flowers with five blue petals that curl back and twist in a manner unlike most other flowers, though they remind me of dodecatheon. As the flowers age they sometimes take on a pink tinge. The flowers are held on stout, hairy stems about 25cm high, before the leaves start to emerge but as the last blooms on the spikes open they are subsumed by a tide of large, coarsely hairy, bright green leaves. The plant spreads by creeping stems and although it probably does set seeds these are hardly necessary and any seedlings that did germinate would probably struggle under the shade of their parent’s leaves – unless the seeds have some clever method of distribution.
Trachystemon is a monotypic genus with just one species. This is a plant that can be really useful if it is planted carefully. Do not plant it beside delicate neighbours or you will struggle to contain it. But where you have a lot of bare soil under trees and want something more attractive than dead leaves it could be the perfect plant.