black hairstreak butterfly, blackthorn, bluebell, herb robert, medicinal plants, Patrick Barkham, poisonous wildflowers, ramsons, wild garlic, woodland flowers
Spring is progressing rapidly and now at the end of April, the great majority of woodland plants have come into flower, racing to achieve the maximum amount of light possible before the leaf canopy thickens and blots it out. In a more ‘normal’ year, they would reach their peak in May in southern England and a little later further north, but this year everything seems to be happening that bit earlier.
In local woodlands Ramsons, or wild Garlic has been showing blooms for several weeks now and is fast approaching its flowering peak. A wild relative of chives, all parts of the plant have a characteristic garlic or onion scent, and where there are masses of them their pungent scent fills the air; you can often smell their presence before seeing them.
Ramsons, Wild Garlic – Allium ursinum
Other common names include buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, and bear’s garlic
Native to Europe and Asia, Ramsons may be found growing in deciduous woodlands with moist soils, preferring slightly acidic conditions. It is a perennial herb, growing from a narrow white bulb that produces two or three oval-elliptic leaves with pointed tips and long stalks that twist through 180 degrees. The leaves are similar to those of the lily of the valley and where the two plants are known to grow together, care must be taken not to confuse them should you be picking them to eat; those of the lily of the valley are highly poisonous.
Ramsons leaves are edible and are fashionable currently as ‘foraged food’; they have been traditionally used as an addition to a green salad, boiled as a vegetable, added to soup, or as an ingredient for pestoin lieu of basil. The bulbs and flowers are also very tasty.
Bluebells are probably the most characteristic of all woodland flowers. The magnificent carpet of blue its massed blooms produce, sometimes spreading throughout an entire woodland is a glorious spectacle. It epitomises spring woodlands, but is also a special feature of the British Isles and a rarity over most of continental Europe, either because the winters are too cold or the summers are too hot and dry.
The flowers are indisputably beautiful and release a lovely perfume, but the small bulbs they spring from are rather poisonous if eaten. Traditional medicinal uses of the bulb are based upon their diuretic and styptic properties. The toxic substances they contain also made them useful for a more unusual and practical purpose, as a source of glue used in bookbinding; apparently the toxins discouraged silverfish from eating them. The toxicity may also be the origin of the superstitious belief that anyone who wanders into a ring of bluebells will fall under fairy enchantment and die soon after. Now I must confess that last little snippet of superstition was passed down in country areas well into my childhood- we lived on the edge of a wood, part of which was (happily still is) carpeted with bluebells in May and I spent many happy hours wandering through them. I was always very careful to make sure there were none growing in a ring.
Shrubs and bushes form the under-story level below the trees – they are woody but not normally tall enough to reach the woodland canopy. The blackthorn and hawthorn are two closely related shrubs, both members of the rose family and both contributing a great deal to our countryside. The blackthorn is usually the first of the two to flower and is familiar for its mass of white flowers produced in early spring before the leaves appear and for the purple sloes in autumn.
The Blackthorn or sloe – Prunus spinosa is native to Europe, western Asia, and locally in northwest Africa. It is also locally naturalised in New Zealand and eastern North America.
It is a deciduous large shrub or small tree growing to 5 m tall, with blackish bark and dense, stiff, spiny branches. The shrub protects itself from animal consumption with particularly long and very tough thorns, which has led to a long traditional use as boundary hedging around fields in Northern Europe and Britain, to contain animals.
Blackthorn is the larval food plant of several butterflies, including the Black Hairstreak (Strymondia pruni), which feeds on both the leaf buds and mature leaves of the shrub. This butterfly is a rare species in Britain, restricted only to ‘a narrow belt of mature woodland areas, between Oxford and Peterborough.’ Diversifying a little, there’s a fascinating account of one man’s quest to find this butterfly, together with the rest of our British species in a book I have in my collection titled ‘The Butterfly Isles – A Summer in Search of our Emperors and Admirals’, written by Patrick Barkham. I’d love to know if anyone else has read it; I really enjoyed it, but it seems to have had mixed reviews.
Back to the plants. I’ve mentioned Dog’s Mercury in an earlier post, but didn’t say anything about it. It is actually quite an interesting one as its a bit of a beast appearing alongside the host of beauties featuring in our woodlands at this time of year.
To begin with the name, a ‘dog’s’ plant is traditionally one with no medicinal uses and it may have obtained this name to contrast it with annual mercury which was used in cleansing enemas. Other slightly less common names are ‘Adder’s Meat’ and ‘Lasting Mercury’. The Mercurialis is open to some debate, although most sources I have come across favour Pliny who said the plant is named after Mercury, the messenger of the gods, who discovered it. The word ‘mercury’ itself is, however, said to be related to ‘merx’ meaning ‘wares’. With its alleged property of being able to determine the sex of an unborn child, it may be that this plant was traded and was ‘merx’.
The plant is poisonous; it contains methylamine, trimethylamine, saponins and a volatile oil. This would give it emetic and purgative properties, meaning consumption would most probably lead to nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Larger doses cause lethargy, jaundice, painful urination (apparently by making the urine acid) and coma before death. Reported instances of poisoning are few, perhaps because the plant is not particularly attractive and also because it had no tradition of medicinal use.
Another of my all-time favourite little woodland plants is also beginning to appear, the pretty delicate and highly aromatic little Herb Robert. It is a common species of cranesbill in Europe, Asia, North America, and North Africa, and in Britain it is by no means confined to woodlands and may turn up anywhere it can get a hold, even on stony seashores.
The pungent aroma of the leaves is said to act as an insect deterrent and it does seem to be that no insect pest bothers it; it has traditionally been used in bedding for animals for that reason.
Herb Robert is known to have many medicinal qualities, it is astringent, antibiotic, antiviral, styptic, tonic, diuretic, digestive, sedative and antioxidant. Of these properties, the main action of the herb is regarded to be astringent, which gives it the ability to treat external conditions such as bruises and skin irritations. From medieval times the herb has been applied as a compress to stop bleeding and heal wounds and because of its astringency it is also used to treat diarrhoea.
Pingback: Dances with bluebells and rain | Miss Apis Mellifera
Emily Heath said:
Loved all the old names and superstitions.
Thanks Emily, some of the old names and their connotations are great aren’t they? It’s a pity we’ve become more serious and ‘proper’ about natural things, it seems to have detached us from it don’t you think?
Finn Holding said:
You’ve got a really nice mix of biological fact, myth and local information which makes for a fine read! I was particularly interested by the toxic glue from bluebells, I didn’t know they had been used for bookbinding. And I didn’t know that the humble herb robert had so many medicinal uses. Fascinating stuff!
Thank you Finn, I only recently learnt from one of the old nature books I have that silverfish even ate books, so for me the bit about the bluebell glue tied in nicely with that too. You may also be interested to look at research into the properties of Herb Robert in connection with certain cancers too.
Another wonderful post – my mother was usually very good at identifying plants, nothing botanical mind, just common names, but sadly she’s no longer with us, and it’s amazing how much you forget – you’re doing a great job of reminding me of some and introducing others – thank you.
Thank you for your lovely comments and I’m glad to have evoked what I hope are happy memories of your mother. It’s my dad that passed on his love of plants and general love of nature to me but I don’t seem to passed it on to my own brood, although they do occasionally read the blog!