Wildflower of the Week: Primrose

The primrose (Primula vulgaris) is my favourite sign of Spring and the last of the flowers are now beginning to fade as Summer approaches.

This perennial plant is native throughout Europe and can be found in woodland, under hedges and on steep road verges. Though the flowers may appear as early as December in milder areas, in most places they flower from February/March to May.

The pale lemon yellow flowers are 2-3cm in diameter and each has five notched petals.and deeper yellow centres. The flowers are carried singly on hairy stems above a rosette of oval leaves, wrinkled and heavily veined, each leaf up to 30cm long. The flower gives way to a capsule containing many small brown seeds. These require a cold spell to stimulate germination.

The nectar of the primrose is a valuable food source for long-tongued insects like butterflies, including emerging hibernating small tortoiseshells. It is also the food plant for the caterpillars of the rare Duke of Burgundy Fritillary butterfly.

The name primrose is derived from the Latin prima rosa: first rose, as an early Spring flower. Other names include Lent rose, butter rose,Easter rose, though not a member of the rose family at all. In folklore the flower was associated with fairies. A patch of primroses marks a portal into the fairy realm. Placed on a doorstep the flowers bring a fairy blessing. Druids used primroses for protection from evil during rituals. A primrose garland would be placed on the body of a young woman who had died ‘in the springtime in her life” . Primroses would also be used to decorate the bed of newly weds, probably because of the association with, Spring, new life and fertility.

The name Butter Rose may come from an old practice of rubbing the flowers on cows’ udders to ensure good butter production from the milk. A poor show of primroses was said to be a sign that hens would lay fewer eggs.

Thomas Culpeper, the 17C herbalist, recommended primrose for its wound healing properties. It has also been used to treat gout, rheumatism, paralysis, toothache and skin problems.

Queen Victoria was said to have sent primroses to her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli regularly. On Primrose Day, April 19th, the flowers are placed on his grave and on the statue of him in Westminster Abbey.

It remains one of my favourite wildflowers and a true harbinger of Spring

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


	

Past Post Reboot: Wildflower of the Week: Snowdrop

I’ve seen lots of snowdrops when I’ve been out and about this week. To celebrate this sign that Winter is almost over, here’s a reboot of a post that originally appeared last year.

Here in Northumberland the snowdrops are in full bloom. They are a common wildflower here in the woods and verges, though not a native of Britain. Previously believed to have been brought here by the Romans, it is now thought that they were introduced here in the 16th Century, The Common Snowdrop (Galantthus nivalis) is indigenous across Southern and Eastern Europe to the Middle East.

The plants grow from bulbs, which soon multiply to form large clumps, making them a popular plant for gardens or to be naturalised in parkland. They are one of the first flowers of the year to appear, flowering mostly from January to April, though occasionally as early as November.

The flowers are preceded by strap-like leaves and the flowers hang bell-like, singly or in pairs at the ends of the stalk – the plant grows 7-15 cm high.

The flowers have six white petal-like structures known as tepals. The three inner ones are notched and marked with green, surrounding yellow stamens. The three pure white outer tepals are longer.

The plant is not edible – the bulb is toxic. Extracts of the plant have been used in medicine and one chemical component, galanthamine is being used to help in the treatment of Alzheimers Disease.

The plant symbolises hope (for milder weather to come) and purity and is associated with Candlemas, the religious feast of the Purification of the Virgin. Wildflower of the weekThis gives rise to the alternative name, Candlemas Bells. In Victorian times a superstition grew up that it was unlucky to bring snowdrops into the house – earlier accounts said this would cause milk to sour and eggs to turn bad, or even cause death – such unpleasant connotations for such a pretty flower!

It’s always reassuring to see the drifts of nodding white bells at this time of year, both in our garden and growing wild. Spring is on its way.

Wildflower of the Week: Snowdrop

It’s time for the first Wildflower of the Week post of 2021. I may not post one of these every week, especially early in the year when flowers are scarce, butI will post as many as I can.

Here in Northumberland the snowdrops are in full bloom. They are a common wildflower here in the woods and verges, though not a native of Britain. Though previously believed to have been brought here by the Romans, it is now thought that they were introduced here in the 16th Century, The Common Snowdrop (Galantthus invalid) is indigenous across Southern and Eastern Europe to the Middle East.

The plants grow from bulbs, which soon multiply to form large clumps, making them a popular plant for gardens or to be naturalised in parkland. They are one of the first flowers of the year to appear, flowering mostly from January to April, though occasionally as early as November.

The flowers are preceded by strap-like leaves and the flowers hang bell-like, singly or in pairs at the ends of the stalk – the plant grows 7-15 cm high.

The flowers have six white petal-like structures known as tepals. The three inner ones are notched and marked with green, surrounding yellow stamens. The three pure white outer tepals are longer.

The plant is not edible – the bulb is toxic. Extracts of the plant have been used in medicine and one chemical component, galanthamine is being used to help in the treatment of Alzheimers Disease.

The plant symbolises hope (for milder weather to come) and purity and is associated with Candlemas, the religious feast of the Purification of the Virgin. Wildflower of the weekThis gives rise to the alternative name, Candlemas Bells. In Victorian times a superstition grew up that it was unlucky to bring snowdrops into the house – earlier accounts said this would cause milk to sour and eggs to turn bad, or even cause death – such unpleasant connotations for such a pretty flower!

It’s always reassuring to see the drifts of nodding white bells at this time of year, both in our garden and growing wild. Spring is on its way.

Wildflower of the Week: Hedge Bindweed

I haven’t written a Wildflower of the Week post for a while as there are not too many wildflowers in bloom at this time of year. There is still Hedge Bindwood in flower however.

Hedge Bindweed grows rapidly, twining anti-clockwise as it grows upwards, smothering out other plants. On a warm day when it is growing rapidly, it can twine a complete revolution in an hour. It’s not popular with gardeners being a pernicious perennial weed. If you try to dig it out and leave the tiniest fragment of root behind it will grow back!

The plant is hairless with arrow or heart-shaped leaves.

The large white flowers are trumpet shaped, formed from five fused petals.

The flowers are popular as a source of nectar for bees, butterflies and moths, including night-flying moths as the flowers do not shut at night. Hedge bindweed is the food plant of the Convolvulus Hawkmoth.

The plant is toxic, containing alkaloid chemicals that have a purgative effect. It is also considered harmful to livestock and thought to cause colic in horses. The stems are tough so can be used as string in an emergency.

The plant has many country names including Windweed, Devil’s guts and Granny-Jump-Out-of-Bed. Children played a game, squeezing the calyx and making the flower “jump” off the end, giving rise to that name.

As one of the few wildflowers still about in October (and quite an exotic looking one) Hedge Bindweed is quite a welcome sight….unless you are a gardener!

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

Wildflower Of The Week: Dog Rose

The blossom in the hedgerow shrubs has changed through the seasons, from blackthorn to hawthorn and now to elder and the beautiful dog rose, which blooms throughout June and July. Our dog roses are actually a collection of several virtually indistinguishable species. The large flowers, up to about 50mm across, are white or pink, with golden yellow stamens. They have a mild sweet fragrance.

The leaves are toothed and arranged in two or three pairs along thorny stems. The shrub is straggly and grows to 3m or more if well-supported by surrounding hedge plants.

The roots are used in the horticultural industry in the propagation of garden roses. Shoots of the cultivated varieties are grafted on to dog rose root stocks.

The flowers are followed by oval orange-red fruits or hips. These are rich in vitamin C and can be used to make a tea or syrup. As well as a vitamin source, the syrup has also been used to treat gout, dysentery and as a diuretic. The irritant hairs on hips have been used to make itching powder. The roots were used in folk medicine to cure rabies. The flowers are used in skin preparations.

The flower, or at least a stylised version of it is a common feature in heraldry, often seen on coats of arms. Also known as sweet briar, the rose has symbolised love and beauty for millennia. In Ancient Greece the dog rose was often associated with the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, who was depicted as wearing a rose crown. The Romans bestowed an association between the dog rose and secrets. Anything said under places where roses were hung, would remain secret, giving rise the the phrase “Sub rosa”.

Occasionally reddish fibrous tangles appear on the stems of dog roses. These are known as Robin’s pincushions. and are caused by a tiny gall wasp laying eggs in in the stem. The gall shelters larvae of the wasp, which feed on the gall over winter to emerge as adult wasps in spring.

The dog roses I see in the hedgerows are a sign that summer is most definitely here!.

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