Wildflower of the Week: Blackthorn

The frothy white blossom of the blackthorn has been in flower for the last month, standing out against the blackish twigs and branches, which have yet to come into leaf.

This shrub can grow to 4m or more and can be found in woodland or scrub, practically anywhere that the soil is not acid, but mainly grows in hedgerows, where the dense, thorny growth makes it an impenetrable barrier and protective nest sites for birds.

A member of the rose family and closely related to the plum and damson, the blackthorn is a native to Europe and Western Asia.

The flowers are hermaphrodite, each bearing both male and female parts and with five petals. They are the first flowers to appear in our hedgerows, arriving before the leaves and a welcome source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects early in the year.

The small leaves are narrow and oblong shaped, tapering to a point and with toothed edges. They are the food plant for the caterpillars of several species of moths and butterflies, including the rare black hairstreak butterfly. In autumn they turn bright yellow.

Also appearing in autumn are the sloes, round purple-black fruit with a bloom that gives them a blue tinge, each about 1cm in diameter. The sloe has a large stone and little flesh, but they do provide a valuable food source for birds, particularly for members of the thrush family.

Sloes are incredibly sour, but sweeten slightly after the first frosts. In years where frosts damage the flowers and prevent the fruit from setting (or it is too cold for pollinating insects) the sloe crop is scarce. The fruit are used in sloe gin and can also be made into jams and jellies. You can read about how we make our own sloe gin here . If you have the patience to remove the stones from the fruit after they have been strained out of sloe gin (by which time they have absorbed a fair amount of alcohol, the flesh can be stirred into melted chocolate and left to set on a baking tray: delicious!

The wood of the blackthorn burns well and as it grows straight is used for walking sticks and tool handles. It was also said to be the wood of choice for witches’ staffs and wands and had an association with witchcraft.

Traditional medicine has used preparations of the plant used for cleansing the blood, for digestive disorders and rheumatism.

I always look out for the first blackthorn blossom to appear every spring, with the hope of a good crop to make sloe gin later in the year.

Don’t forget the following when picking any parts of a wild plant.

  • 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: Gorse

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) is a member of the pea family that grows as a shrub up to 3m tall, and is found on rough ground, moor, heathland and coastal areas. The plant is native to Europe and North Africa, but has become an invasive weed in parts of the USA, Australia and elsewhere. It is also known as furze or whin.

The plant is covered in sharp spines up to 3cm long and can be seen in flower all the year round but is at its peak right now, covered in golden yellow blooms with a keeled structure typical of the pea family. They have a sweet coconut scent and are a valuable source of nectar for bees, butterflies and other insects.

The country saying  “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion” comes from the year-round flowering habit. A sprig added to a bridal bouquet symbolises fertility.

The flowers are followed by dark brown hairy pods, each carrying about three seeds, which are ejected as the pod splits open.

The spines (which are modified leaves) make gorse an effective hedging plant, forming a dense impenetrable barrier to livestock, but also protective cover for wildlife including nesting birds.

In traditional medicine a tea made from gorse flowers has been used as an antidepressant. 17th Century herbalist, Thomas Culpepper described a decoction of the flowers as effective against jaundice and as a diuretic and cure for kidney stones. The flowers also yield a bright yellow dye. Being edible they can be used in salads and to make a tea or syrup.

The straight stems of gorse wood make good walking sticks. it has also been used to make brooms and chimney sweeping brushes.

The plant burns fiercely with a great heat and was popular for firing bakers ovens and kilns. Gorse fires spread quickly but even when burnt to the ground will regenerate quickly from the roots.

On warm spring days a walk past a gorse hedge certainly fills the senses, with those vivid yellow flowers alive with buzzing bees and the air suffused with that coconut fragrance.


Making the Most of Nature’s Harvest: Sloe Picking (With a Bit of Knitting)

Yesterday morning was beautiful. We found ourselves close to what we refer to as The Sloe Motherlode. On a quiet lane up to a farm, there is a wide verge full of blackthorn bushes. Autumn berries have been profuse everywhere. Down here there were also spectacular hawthorn bushes…

… a tree laden with crab apples…

…and a massive crop of sloes

K went off to pick fruit while I sat in the car with my knitting. I made some 2 colour brioche hand warmers for myself earlier this year. With winter approaching, K has requested some to keep his hands warm when he’s sea fishing – he needs to keep his fingers free to tie lures. I chose a machine washable acrylic yarn in a neutral fawn shade. I think the soft squishy texture of brioche will be really cosy. I cast on this project at the beginning of the week so I have something portable for knitting on the go.

The view was great. Of course I can’t disclose the location. Friends in the area know where it is but we have to protect our sloe source!

In a matter of minutes, K had returned with over 3 pounds of sloes. He got most of them standing on the same spot as the bushes were covered with fruit. I didn’t get much knitting done at all!

The sloes have gone in the freezer, ready to make sloe gin. Some say that sloes shouldn’t be picked until after the first frosts. Ironically there was a frost this morning., Ripeness is not an issue but freezing causes the berry skins to split so they give up their juice easily when they steep with the gin and sugar. We’ve only just bottled the drink we made with last year’s harvest. You could say it’s a sloe process!

Not a bad way to spend a morning!

Making the Most of Nature’s Harvest: Bramble and Apple Gin

Bottling up the Sloe Gin the other day reminded me of some photos we took a few weeks ago. Even in late August the beginnings of a bountiful hedgerow harvest were in evidence. Back then the sloes were turning from green to blue-black.

They seem to briefly take on an interesting turquoise shade when they are half ripe

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the blackthorn bushes were laden with blossom rather than fruit. In this strange year time has passed in an odd way. Somehow the hours pass slowly and the days pass quickly. This was taken in March.

Dog rose featured in one of my Wildflower of the Week posts . The roses were replaced by bright orange hips.

In the same way, the hawthorn blossom of May has given way to berries that will be enjoyed in the weeks to come by the birds, especially hungry new arrivals migrating here for the winter. In August the hawthorn berries were just starting to ripen and are now turning a darker red.

The blackberries/brambles have been amazing too. We pick some every year, but the crop seemed particularly prolific. We picked almost 3 pounds of fruit in a relatively short space of time, getting our fingers stained in purple juice and covered in tiny prickles. The fruit has been in the freezer since then.

It’s not just the hedgerow fruit that is abundant right now. The apple tree in my mother’s garden is so laden with fruit that the branches are drooping under the weight, even though several bags of apples have already been picked. We have an apple tree with plenty of fruit too, but they all seem to be near the top, well out of reach!

With last year’s sloe gin bottled, that freed up some Kilner jars. With this in mind and such a plentiful supply of apples and blackberries, I decided to make some bramble and apple gin.

There were quite a few recipes online. Some had added vanilla, but this one from Larder Love involved bayleaves. It made me think of the Jo Malone Blackberry and Bay fragrance which is rather nice. The apples didn’t need peeling or coring either – I’m all for that!

I increased the quantities proportionately as I had a litre of cheap gin instead of the standard (750mls) bottle used in the recipe.. This was enough to fill two 1 litre Kilner jars, which had been sterilised. I used

  • 300g blackberries (mine were straight from the freezer)
  • 300g apples, unpeeled, uncored, roughly chopped
  • 266g sugar
  • 2 small bayleaves
  • 1litre cheap supermarket own brand gin

I split the fruit and sugar between the two jars and added a bayleaf to each, then topped up with the gin. Then I sealed the jars and shook them to dissolve the sugar, repeating every so often until fully dissolved. Within a few hours the brambles were releasing their juice into the mixture, turning it red. The jars will now stay in a cool dark place, to be shaken up every so often (light makes the gin turn brownish). In a couple of weeks it will be ready to strain, bottle and drink – much much quicker than slow sloe gin!

I’ve already made some apple pies, frozen some and given a couple away. But what else shall I make? Chutney? Jelly and jam? All suggestions welcome!

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