Wildflower of the Week: Bramble

The bramble or blackberry is a member of the rose family and not actually a single species, but an aggregate of some 2000 very similar micro species. It is a scrambling perennial shrub that is commonly found in hedgerows, woodlands and waste ground. It is happy in poor soil and quickly colonises untended or ungrazed land and is difficult to eradicate from a neglected garden. The shoots may grow to 6m long or even more.

The plant sends out viciously prickly biennial arching shoots that grow vigorously without flowering in their first year, bearing prickly toothed leaves, comprising 5-7 toothed and heavily veined leaflets. The shoots take root wherever they touch the ground.

In the shoot’s second year it does not grow in length, but produces flowering side shoots and smaller leaves comprising 3-5 leaflets.

The flowers, which appear from June onwards in groups on the side shoots, usually have 5 white or pale pink petals.

These are followed by the blackberries – technically not a fruit, but a cluster of drupes. These are green as they begin to develop, turning red through purple to black as they ripen. The ruit are easy to distinguish from the raspberry when they are picked – the raspberry detaches from the plant leaving its core behind on the plant so each picked berry has a hollow centre. The white core or torus of the blackberry detaches with the the fruit.

The plant is very important to wildlife. The flowers are popular with bees and the leaves are food for several species of caterpillars and deer enjoy grazing on them. The fruit are eaten by many species of birds and mammals who disperse the seeds in their droppings. The dense bramble thickets provide valuable cover and nest sites.

Man has used the bramble extensively too. Though we enjoy gathering the wild berries from our hedgerows, cultivated varieties have been developed to produce larger fruit with better flavour and without those vicious thorns. Preparations of the plant have been used in folk medicine for all manner of ailments: the leaves have been chewed to relieve bleeding gums; a tea made from all parts of the plant has been used to cure whooping cough and the roots used to cure dysentery and diarrhoea. The Ancient Greeks used it as a cure for gout. It has also been used to treat stomach ulcers. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and has been used against scurvy.

The berries leaves and shoot tips can be used for dyeing. Native Americans have used the stems to make rope. The plant also provides an impenetrable barrier to protect stock and property and keep large animals and enemies out.

Blackberrying, or foraging for the berries in late summer or early autumn is a popular pastime – at one time the autumn half-term school holiday was known as Blackberry Week. The fruit makes delicious jams, jellies, pies and crumbles, often in combination with apples. It is also used to make the French liqueur Creme de mur, which is the key ingredient of a bramble – a cocktail which also includes gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup.

Folklore decreed that blackberries must not be picked after Michaelmas Day (October 11th). After this the devil was believed to have spoilt the berries by trampling, fouling or spitting on them. After this time the fruit would often be mouldy or beginning to decompose. It was also traditionally planted on graves, to stop sheep grazing (or some believed to keep the dead in!)

As the blackberries ripen on our local hedgerows I’ll have to pick some. But what to make….jam? jelly? pies? I might even try making blackberry and apple gin liqueur – I tried it a few year back and it was delicious!

Have you picked any blackberries yet this year? What have you made with them?

Wildflower of the Week: Honeysuckle

The Common Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)is a vigorous perennial climber, that twines itself around hedgerow plants, shrubs and trees to a height of up to 7m.

Clusters of finger-like pink-red buds open into exotic creamy yellow blooms, tinged with pink and red. These appear from June to September and have a strong sweet fragrance, especially at night when the flowers open. The dark red-brown stems carry oval, pointed leaves in pairs and the flowers form at the shoot tips. They are tubular with upper and lower lips. These are followed by clusters of berries.

It is one of many species and cultivated garden varieties, including the very invasive Japanese Honeysuckle. The Common Honeysuckle is however a useful plant to both man and wildlife.The flowers provide a rich source of nectar for insects, especially bees, butterflies. Night-flying moths, attracted by the scent, in turn attract bats to prey on them. The tangle of growth provides valuable nesting cover and the bark strips away from the mature stems providing nesting material for several bird species and also for dormice. The berries provide food for many bird species, though are toxic to humans.

The honeysuckle is named for the custom of picking the blooms and sucking the honey-like nectar, but it has a number of other names, including woodbine, eglantine, fairy trumpets, sweet suckle, goats leaf and trumpet flowers. Shakespeare mentions it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle gently entwist…

Honeysuckle was said to protect against evil and, when grown around the door of a house, would prevent a witch from entering. The plant is said to symbolise loving affection and faithfulness and wearing it would make someone dream of their true love and bring luck in courtship. The Victorians were less approving, and forbade young girls from bringing the flowers into the home, believing that it would give them unsuitably erotic dreams!

The plant has many uses. Tree branches will take on a twisted form when honeysuckle entwines around it, making an interesting shape for carved walking sticks. The flowers are used in pot pour and perfumes and also to add a sweet honey flavour to jams and jellies, teas, country wines and flavoured liqueurs and gin.

in folk medicine it has been used to make a soothing remedy for coughs and sore throats, and to heal woulds and infections.. It is said to have anti-imflammatory properties, though these are as yet unproven.

At this time of year, honeysuckle provides a colourful and fragrant addition to our hedgerows and woodlands.

Wildflower Of The Week: Meadowsweet

At it’s peak now, Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) flowers from June to September, and is common in damp meadows, ditches and road verges, by rivers and streams, growing to about 1.5m on reddish stems. . It is actually a member of the rose family, though the frothy clusters of cream-coloured flowers give no clue to this. Each tiny flower has 5-6 petals and male or female flowers are on separate plants. the flowers smell faintly of almonds and are an important pollen source for insects.

Found from Europe to the Middle East, the plant was introduced to America, where it has become naturalised.

The dark green leaves however are, more like those of the rose, set in pairs along a leaf stem, toothed and more heavily veined, with a silvery underside. When crushed they can have an antiseptic smell on top of the same almond notes of the flowers.

The plant has many names, some of which indicate it’s many uses through the ages. It was used as a strewing herb, thrown on the floor to cover the mud, provide insulation and a pleasant scent when trodden underfoot. The flowers were used to decorate banquets and for bridal garlands, giving rise to the name bridewort. The herbalist Gerard said that the scent “make the heart merrie, delighting the senses without headache or putting off meat”. Meadowsweet was said to have been a favourite of Elizabeth I.

Although the name Queen of the Meadow or Pride of the Meadow, would suggest that the plant is named for its habitat, the alternative of meadwort is thought to derive from the use of the flowers to flavour mead. It has been used to add flavour to port, claret and beer, gin, sloe gin, jam and various desserts – some sources recommend using it in the same way as elderflower to make cordials, liqueurs and “champagne”.The flowers and leaves retain a scent and flavour even when dried, enabling use all year round. The roots yield a black dye.

Herbalists have also found many uses for this plant. Culpeper used it for fevers, wounds and eye irritations. It has also been used for colds, bronchitis, upset stomachs, joint problems and for bladder infections. Modern science has found one of the reasons for its useful medicinal properties: it contains salicylic acid, also known as aspirin.

This really is a versatile plant with a fascinating history.Wildflower

Everything Tastes Better with Elderflower

As I sat here sipping on a refreshing gin and tonic with a dash of my home made elderflower cordial, I remembered I’d drafted a post the other week and not got round to publishing it. The elderflowers are almost over here, but when they were in full bloom……

I’d been meaning to make elderflower cordial for ages. I love the flavour and two of my favourite tipples are elderflower gin and Thistly Cross Elderflower Cider. Last year I got as far as picking and freezing the elderflowers as they were at their best just before we went on holiday. I promptly forgot about them! The other day we picked the elderflowers and finally made the stuff.

We gathered some from the garden, then went to find some more along the country lanes, sticking to the quieter ones away from traffic pollution. By the time we had enough the car smelt amazing!

I looked around for recipes (there were loads online) and I settled on this one because the finished product keeps longer. You can find the whole thing here with lots of additional tips. The most important of these are that you pick the elderflowers mid-late morning. This means that early morning dew will have evaporated and the fragrance will be at its best – the flowers develop an unpleasant taste later in the day. The flowers are just shaken and picked over to remove any insects, but not washed. Also you need to sterilise the bottles and anything you use to fill them (jug, funnel, ladle etc). I did this in the dishwasher on a hot setting.

In brief, add 15 large elderflower heads (more if they are small), 50g citric acid, two thinly-sliced lemons and 2.5l water to a large pan, bring to the boil, cover and leave to infuse for at least 4 hours (I left it overnight). You can get citric acid at Lakeland and Wilkinsons/Wilco.

When your mixture has infused and your utensils have been sterilised, strain through muslin into another large pan, squeezing all the liquid out to extract all the flavour- I used a jelly bag for straining, (more usually employed making preserves). Add 1kg sugar, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then immediately pour the hot liquid into the sterilised bottles and seal. Store in a cool dark place and it should keep for a year ( the heating and citric acid preserves it), but refrigerate once opened. I got three good sized bottles from these quantities.

I’m really enjoying this taste of summer!

Wildflower Of The Week: Hogweed

Wildflower of the Week is back on the blog with Hogweed, that has taken over from Cow Parsley as the dominant large wildflower of our hedgerows and road verges. Both are umbellifers, with white, umbrella-shaped flower heads, but Hogweed’s flowers are a creamier shade, sometimes tinged with pink, and the whole plant is sturdier.

Cow Parsley (left) is a much more delicate plant with frothy pure white flowers; Hogweed (right) has creamier flowers and is a much sturdier plant.

Hogweed, also known as Cow Parsnip or Eltrot, is a biennial or perennial plant and grows to 2m high. The shoots and flower buds are covered in a leafy sheath when they emerge, opening to reveal a rosette of large, divided hairy leaves.

The flowers are carried on hollow hairy stems. They are rich in nectar and pollinated by insects. They have a rather unpleasant “farmyards” smell, possibly a reason for the hogweed name. The outer petals of the flower cluster tend to be larger. The flowers are followed by flat disc-shaped seeds.

The plant has been used in folk medicine as a sedative and an expectorant … in parts of Eastern Europe it was also traditionally used to treat gynaecological and fertility problems and impotence. Foragers pick the young shoots to cook as a vegetable, reporting it to be tasty and rich in minerals. The dried seeds can be used as a flavouring said to resemble that of cardamon. All however advise extreme caution for a a couple of reasons. First of all the young shoots are hard to identify when the leaves are not fully open so it is easy to confuse the plant with similar looking and extremely poisonous members of the same plant family. Secondly, hogweed sap contains chemicals called furanocoumarins. If you get these chemicals on the skin it becomes highly sensitive to UV light and develops blisters that may leave severe scarring. Foragers advise the use of gloves when collecting hogweed. People using a strimmer to cut down hogweed have reported getting the rash of blisters even through clothing and appear to have been sprayed with the sap. Scything (using a well-sharpened blade) is seen as safer, producing a cleaner cut rather than pulverising the stems.

Cases of skin blistering around the mouth have been reported in children using the hollow stems as pea shooters – to be discouraged!

The hogweed’s big brother, the non-native Giant Hogweed, which grows to 5m, has higher concentrations of the irritant chemicals and should be avoided at all costs. Classified as an “invasive alien’ under the WildLife and Countryside Act, it is an offence to cause Giant Hogweed to grow in the wild – landowners may be compelled to remove it from infested areas or face penalties.

This all makes me rather relieved that our area is populated by the smaller, native version!

Is your neighbourhood troubled by any invasive species?

NB Always follow these guidelines when foraging

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

Wildflower of the Week: Red campion.

It’s impossible to miss the tall clumps of pink-red flowers of red campion that are growing in profusion in hedgerows and woods at the moment and will continue to do so until August and well into Autumn and Winter if the weather is mild. This relative of the carnation is a short-lived perennial that produces copious seed that enables it to spread rapidly , especially in fertile soils.

The plant grows up to a metre tall, though usually 30-60cm high. with leaves and stems covered in softly downy hairs. The leaves are pointed oval in shape, carried in pairs on the stems.

The flowers carried in small groups at the end of the stems. Each has five petals and each petal has a central cleft. the calyx immediately behind the flower is dark red/brown and hairy. The plant is dioecious, that is a single plant carries flowers with either female or male parts, not both as in most flower species. On the female plants the calyx develops into a vase-shaped seed capsule full of tiny black seeds. The female flower produces a sticky substance that causes pollen from visiting insects to stick. The Latin name for the campion family, Silene, may come from the woodland god Silenus or from the word for saliva.

The red campion hybridises freely with the closely related white campion with resulting flowers in a wide range of shades of pink. Though I’ve never noticed this, you may come across flowers with a darker centre. This is caused by a fungal disease known as anther smut, producing dark spores on the reproductive parts of the plant

The plant is sometimes called the Adder Flower from it’s use in folk medicine to treat snakebites (though personally if I was in this situation I would prefer to seek professional medical advice immediately rather than take my chances with the plant!) The roots of plants in the campion family can be used to prepare a soap substitute, though the red campion is less known for this than it’s close relative, soapwort. The 16th Century herbalist, John Gerard said that the hairy stems could be used to make candle wicks. A century later, Nicholas Culpepper described a number of medical uses including the treatment of kidney stones and internal bleeding as well as to “helpeth those that are stung by scorpions or other venomous beasts”.

Another country name is Batchelor’s Buttons as unmarried young men would wear the flower in a buttonhole..

Red campion certainly provides a welcome splash of colour in late spring and throughout the summer.

As always, please remember these guidelines.

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

Wildflower of the Week: Garlic Mustard

In Spring, tall upright stems with neatly spaced leaves, topped with small clusters of white flowers, appear in the shade of hedgerows, giving this plant its other common names: hedge mustard or jack-by-the-hedge.

The plant is a biennial, taking two years to complete its life cycle. In its first, non-flowering year the plant forms a low growing cluster of heart-shaped, leaves, heavily veined with serrated edges. In the following year a single upright stem grows up to about 3 feet tall from this base. The leaves become more pointed and almost triangular in shape and are spaced alternately on the unbranched stem. They are a bright, almost lime-green colour, which really makes them show up a in shady areas (where they are growing in sunnier spots the leaves turn a darker green).

The flowers are tiny, each one with four white petals, arranged in a cross shape. The flower clusters form at the top of the stems and are followed by long seedpods.

Garlic mustard is native to Europe, Asia and parts of North Africa. Here in the UK it is an important food plant for both the orange tip and green-veined white butterflies, which lay their eggs on the plants and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. Introduced to the USA long ago, probably by early settlers for food the plant has become a serious invasive weed in some areas, with no natural predators to keep it in check.

Garlic mustard totally unrelated to garlic (it is a member of the cabbage family. The leaves do smell faintly of garlic when crushed and have a mild garlic flavour. Interestingly, Some people report an unpleasant bitter aftertaste, completely undetected by others. For those who do like the flavour, the young leaves can be chopped and added to salads and used instead of mint to make an alternative sauce to serve with lamb. Historically it was used to make a sauce to accompany sea fish – this gives another old name: sauce-alone. The seeds are mildly peppery and can be used as a mild alternative to commercial mustard.

Herbal and folk medicine has employed garlic mustard to treat asthma and other lung complaints and as an antiseptic. As with all foraged wild plants, it is important to follow some common sense safety guidelines

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

One of my favourite sights on a sunny Spring day is to see the shoots of garlic mustard standing to attention in front of a hedge or on a woodland edge, with a pair of orange-tip butterflies fluttering overhead.

Wildflower of the week: Dandelion

The grass verges are scattered with the shaggy mops of bright yellow dandelion flowers right now. That’s not such great news for gardeners. They are perennials that will grow back every year. The plants have long tap roots, that are difficult to dig out and can regrow from any fragments left behind. If that wasn’t enough, they are also great at dispersing their seeds, which will grow just about anywhere. But there is a lot more to the humble dandelion than meets the eye.

The deep tap roots will root in the tightest spots, like here between concrete and fence.

Although listed as a single species, there are actually over 200 hundred micro-species of dandelion, virtually indistinguishable from each other apart from being genetically distinct. The plants form a rosette of heavily toothed leaves – which gives them their name (dents-de-lion: lion’s teeth). The familiar flowers are carried on fleshy stems filled with with white sap. The flowers appear from early spring right through summer, and provide a source of nectar for insects, including bumble bees and butterflies, which is especially welcome early in the year when little else is in flower.

Peacock butterfly feeding on dandelion nectar

Flowers are followed by the fluffy round clusters of seeds (dandelion “clocks”), which are just starting to appear now. Each seed has a fluffy “parachute” attached, which carries it away on the wind. As children, we always used to pick the heads and blow away the seeds – it was supposed to act as a clock – the number of breaths it took to blow away all the seeds would match the time (allegedly)! Some believe that if all the seeds are easily blown away then you will have true love; if some stick behind then your lover has some doubts and reservations!

I was also told recently that children were once warned not to pick dandelions or they would wet the bed! This could have been parental scare tactics to avoid messy sap-stained little hands, although this may come from past use in folk medicine as a diuretic . That gives rise to some of the other old names for the dandelion: piss-en-lit and tiddle-beds. The sap is a folk remedy for warts, though it can irritate the skin too.. Traditionally it had many other culinary and medicinal uses, I’ve never eaten them myself, but the leaves are said to have a bitter flavour becoming stronger with age. Some people use fresh young greens in salads, pasta fillings, pesto and many other dishes. The dried roots have been used as a coffee substitute. Dandelions are also used to make country wines and still used commercially to make the dandelion and burdock soft drink. I’ve only ever fed them to childhood pet rabbits and guinea pigs! Fashionable as foraging is, it’s important to stay safe, use common sense. and respect the countryside.

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

Do you know any other old names, folklore or uses of the dandelion? I’d love to hear about them.