Reed

(Phragmites communis) Useful for bedding of animals, and also for thatching, for this is the most durable of all for roofing. It may be the most expensive, but it has a life of up to a hundred years, provided the roof pitch is forty-five degrees or steeper (Jenkins. 1976). For centuries the reed thatcher (med

Latin arundinator) has been a different profession from the straw thatcher (cooperator). In Somerset, they used to call it Pole-reed (Elworthy.1888), possibly a corruption of pool-reed, but it is usually known to thatchers as Norfolk Reed (Jenkins. 1976). Around Abbotsbury, in Dorset, where the thatching tradition has been strong until recent times, it is known as Spear (Nash & Nash). Coopers at one time used specially grown reeds to put between the staves to make a barrel watertight. Delivery men apparently carried supplies of reeds in case barrels sprang a leak during transit (Brill).

The simplest, and probably the most ancient, musical instrument is made from reeds, and called variously Pan-pipes, Shepherd's Pipes (though these were usually made from oat straw), or Syrinx. The reeds are of different sizes, placed side by side, each stopped at the bottom end (F G Savage). Children in the Fen country used to put the leaf between their palms and blow, to make a piercing whistle (though that is a universal occupation, using virtually any leaf). Another pastime there was to make boats out of the leaves. "You took the leaf with its hard little stalk still on it and folded each end back. Then you split the folded ends into three and tucked one of the outside ones through the other outside ones, leaving the middle one flat for the little boat to sail on, and the stalk would stick up in the middle like a real little mast" (Marshall).

In Shakespeare's time, reeds were symbols of weakness, for they are tossed about by the wind, bending to a superior force (Ellacombe), hence also its use as a symbol for imbecility (Grindon). It is also, in Christian art, an emblem of the Passion, for Christ was offered a sponge soaked in vinegar on the end of a reed (Ferguson).

The rootstock is edible, and has a sweet flavour. Dry them first, then grind them coarsely and make porridge of them (Loewenfeld). They are used in China for fevers and coughs (Geng Junying). The practice of passing a ruptured child through a split sapling, well known in Britain, is actually done with a reed in Portugal. The child's injury will heal while the injury to the plant heals. There is the usual ritual to be observed; in this case it had to be performed at midnight on St John's Eve (23 June), by three men of the name of John, while three women, each called Mary, spun, each with her own spindle, on one and the same distaff (Gallop).

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