Signage Attack

I’m rather fond of the hop vine, a cosmopolitan plant found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The plant is easy to overlook, as from a distance the flowers and cone-like fruits are painted with muted shades, from green to straw to brown as they mature. The species, Humulus lupulus, has a characteristic growth habit and distinctively-shaped leaves, and once you familiarize yourself with the plant you will recognize it easily, and from a distance.

Of course carefully-bred varieties are grown around the world for flavoring beer, one of our legacies from Europe. The layered papery fruits, botanically known as strobiles, contain a pungent resin which has bacteriacidal properties which at one time helped prevent contamination of beer during the brewing process. Beer-drinkers over the centuries came to associate the bitter flavor imparted by hops with quality in beers, and now the flavor is the main reason the use of hops survives. There are now other and more reliable means available for controlling bacteria. Before the use of hops became common British brewers once made use of that common weedy mint Ground Ivy as a beer flavoring agent. We’ll never know, but I’ve long wondered: who first had the idea of throwing some hops into the wort, and how long did it take for the idea to spread to the Continent?

I was driving down a gravel road near Payson, Illinois yesterday. I saw a nearly-obscured sign supporting a profuse viney growth; it looked like a hop vine, so I pulled over and had a closer look. The sign was leaning as if the vine were about to pull it down and digest it at its leisure:

The message conveyed by the sign is still partly visible, a speed limit warning, I imagine. I wanted to get a close-up shot of a cluster of strobiles but the wind was gusty, the bane of a plant photographer. I patiently waited for a lull as I steadied the wavering vine with one hand. By chance one shot of many turned out fairly well:

Notice the layered structure, myriad bracts arranged in a shingle-like overlapping array. People in vehicles driving by regarded me curiously; I could imagine a brief conversation:

“What the hell is that guy doing by that sign?”

“You’ve seen him around, I’m sure. He’s that new paper delivery guy; I saw him in a cemetery the other day. I wonder what he’s up to?”

“Taking photos, I guess. But of an old sign?”

[wryly, head shaking] “Takes all kinds, don’t it?”




Filed under Natural History, Photos, Quincy

5 responses to “Signage Attack

  1. bev

    Interesting piece and such a funny but fine photo to illustrate the growth habit of a hop vine. I did not realize hops were originally added to beer for a functional purpose other than taste.

  2. Thanks, Bev!

    I imagine it was a constant battle to keep beer worts from turning to vinegar or whatever, way back in the days before the existence and powers of bacteria were discovered.

  3. bev

    I’ve had a long-standing interest in ethnobotany and always find it a wonder how certain plants were discovered to be cures for a particular condition. Did someone with a bad headache suddenly realize that it went away shortly afyer chewing on a birch twig? Did native healers conduct clinical trials on the leaves of a bunch of different plants. This one works but the other ten don’t, and that particular one over there will kill you deader than a door nail!

  4. Thanks for this post — I’m abashed to admit, as a homebrewer, that I wouldn’t recognize hops in the wild. But then, I rarely use hops, preferring other bittering agents which also have anti-microbial properties, especially mugwort, yarrow, and roasted dandelion root. Hops were in use for centuries on the continent before they were adopted in Britain, where other herbs were more popular. Malted barley is cloyingly sweet, so much so that some of that quality remains even after fermentation, so it’s natural that a whole range of bittering herbs, roots, and trees (if the form of twigs, bark or fruit) were used to balance the flavor. Brewers must’ve quickly discovered that such practices helped preserve the beer, too. But even weak, “small” beers designed for rapid, daily consumption (untreated water tended not to be potable in the premodern era) would be brewed with hops or other herbs.

  5. Joan

    Lovely pictures, Larry. I know not of hops or brewing, but certainly enjoyed the knowledgeable narrative. Now I do know about taking a picture of plants on a windy day by steadying them with one hand. The problem arises when I forget to crop that part hand out. Also tips of shoes keep magically appearing in my flower garden photos. Elves, no doubt.

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