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

An Unexpected Visitor

The weirdest thing happened today. We got some beautiful flowers sent from some dear friends for our wedding anniversary the other week, but alas they were ready for the compost bin today. As K went to pick up the vase to dispose of the flowers he noticed what he first thought was a dead leaf from the bouquet that had fallen into the empty glass vase next to it. It was actually a BAT!!!!. We couldn[t believe our eyes. We can only think that the unfortunate creature had flown in last night when the back door was open when the dog was in the garden and somehow got trapped in the vase. It’s a pipistrelle – our smallest and commonest bat species.

We took it outside and worked out that it was probably dehydrated after its ordeal. so K tried offering it some water from a teaspoon, which it lapped up.

It had crawled into a corner between some bin bags of garden waste ready to go to the tip.

After it’s drink the bat really perked up and crawled around the patio, then started to climb up the wall.

Unfortunately it fell off but seemed ok and crawled behind a flower pot. We are hoping it’s ok and just resting until nightfall.

Many years ago we used to volunteer to support our local licensed bat expert, monitoring roosts. He usually had at least one sick or injured bat being nursed back to health so K and I had seen these amazing creatures close up before, but son and daughter hadn’t and they were both fascinated too. It was such a privilege to see our little visitor. I’m just waiting to see if it gets active again at dusk.

Do you get any interesting wildlife in your garden?

UPDATE: We went to check on the little bat after it went dark and I’m pleased to report that it’s gone – hopefully back to lead a normal life!

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: Cow Parsley

From April to June our hedgerows, road verges and meadows are filled with the frothy white flowers of cow parsley. It is the earliest to flower and one of the most common of a large plant family, the umbellifers, which all have similar shaped flower clusters or umbels, made up of tiny individual flowers on stems radiating from a single point in a sort of umbrella shape. The family includes several food plants and culinary herbs, including carrot, celery and and parsley, but also some extremely poisonous species such as hemlock and fools parsley and also hogweed which has a highly irritant sap that can cause quite severe burns.

The flowers are carried on metre high hollow stems. As they appear quite early in the year, they are are a great food source of both pollen and nectar for insects.

The leaves are arranged alternately along the stems and are fern-like: triangular and finally divided. When crushed they smell of aniseed.

Cow parsley spreads rapidly, producing large quantities of seed and also though spreading rhizomes. It is on the increase in the UK. Like the nettle, it enjoys fertile soil and increased agricultural fertiliser use has benefited it. This may be to the detriment of smaller plants that become smothered out by the taller cow parsley. It is considered an invasive species in parts of the US.

The plant has a variety of old names. including hedge parsley, wild chervil, keck, lady’s lace and Queen Anne’s lace. In some parts of the UK it has the rather gruesome name of mother die or mummy die. Children would be told they would lose their mothers if they brought it in the house – to deter them from picking it and the highly poisonous hemlock that it resembles.

Though cow parsley is edible, eating it or using it medicinally is not to be encouraged in case it is mistaken for its deadly relative. It has also been used as a mosquito repellent.

The lacy flowers certainly make very pretty addition to our hedgerows in late spring and early summer.

Wildflower of the week: White Dead-Nettle

Commonly seen on road verges and on disturbed land, the white dead-nettle resembles the stinging nettle, but, as its name suggests, has no sting. It is a short to medium height perennial. The leaves (closely resembling those of its stinging relative) are heavily veined, toothed, slightly hairy and heart-shaped, arranged in pairs on square, often reddish stems.

The flowers form in whorls round the stems immediately above each pair of leaves. They are lipped and white, slightly tinged with green. A rich source of nectar, the flowers are popular with insects, especially bumblebees. The blooms have evolved to be pollinated by the larger bees – only they have a long enough proboscis to reach the base of the flower where the nectar is and they are the perfect size for their backs to brush against the stamens and stigma of the flower, depositing and collecting pollen as they feed. The nectar is protected by a ring of hairs that stop smaller insects crawling inside, though some reach the nectar by cheating: they bite a hole in the base of the flower!

As the flowers die the calyx of each remains, forming a spiky cup that holds the developing seed.

White dead-nettle’s popularity with bees gave it one of its old names, the bee nettle. It is also known as white archangel as it was said to come into flower around the feast day of Michael the Archangel. From a certain angle the stamens resemble two human figures and this gave rise to the name Adam-and-Eve-in-the-bower.

The flowers and young shoots can be used in salads or the leaves cooked as a vegetable. Traditional medicinal uses for the plant were for staunching wounds, curing haemorrhage, reducing excessive menstrual bleeding, and also as a tonic to lift the spirits.

White dead-nettle has been in bloom since March and will continue until Autumn