We looked at dozens of common wild flowers on our walk - many were used in the past for food, herbal health or day-to-day needs. Here are a few we looked at:
There are many plants of the pea family on our local open space. Here are a couple, though Gorse and Broom belong to this family too - the flowers of all provide good sources of food for insects, fix nitrogen in their roots, and, like their cousins the garden peas, have pods that are high in protein for wildlife.
Bush Vetch - Bumble and honey bees, weevils and beetles all feed on this plant, and some caterpillars eat its leaves.
Bird’s Foot Trefoil - The name comes from the seed-pods which look like a birds toes, this plant is also known as ‘Eggs and Bacon’ because the yellow flowers can be tinged with red. It is very good for insects and the leaves are the main food plant for some beautiful butterflies - the Common Blue, the Green Hairstreak and the duller ‘Dingy Skipper’!
Herb Robert - this very common wild flower also goes by the common name ‘Stinking Bob’ and if you gently rub a leaf, you will soon see why. Often the stems, and the leaves are reddish which led it to be associated with Robin Goodfellow, as mentioned by Shakespeare, and it was thought to bring good luck. The juice on your skin was used as a mosquito deterrent. Some herbal uses of plants are still very valuable but there was a practice in the past that was less reliable. This was the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ whereby the look of a part of a plant was taken to mean it was a useful cure for a condition that resembled it- because of the redness of this plant, it was used to treat blood disorders.
Stinging Nettles: Nettles are rich in minerals, the young tips of leaves make a tonic-tea in spring, while the leaves were often used as a ‘potherb’. For 1000’s of years, until cotton and silk were introduced, the fibres in nettles were used to make cloth. In the Second World War a green dye from the plant helped to create camouflage material. Nettles are really valuable for wildlife toomany insects feed on the pollen, the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterfly caterpillars feed on the leaves and birds eat their seeds.
Bluebells - Voted the UK’s favourite wildflower, we hold half the world’s population. Our native bluebell (which have flowers hanging from one side of the stem, and narrower leaves and stems) is under some threat from the bigger-flowered garden or Spanish Bluebell but most on Parkwood Springs are still true Bluebells (except nearer gardens), and haven’t yet crossed with the Spanish plants. Bluebells feed many insects, including moths, butterflies, hoverflies and bees. Those bees that are too big to reach inside the flowers sometimes ‘steal’ the nectar by biting through the petal at its base. Some birds do this with some of our wild flowers too. They get the food but don’t pollinate the plant because they don’t pick up pollen on their bodies and carry it to the next flower they visit! Bluebell seeds, as with Snowdrops and Primroses, are covered by a sweet substance which attracts ants. Ants carry the seed off to their nests where the coating is eaten by their larvae. The larvae get fed and the seeds get spread! In the Middle Ages the sap was used to fix feathers to arrows, as well as to bind books. Elizabethans used it to starch their ruffs and collars.
Garlic Mustard or Jack By The Hedge - There are big patches of this lovely plant around Parkwood Springs. It was also called ‘Sauce Alone’ and has a mild garlic flavour with at least 6,000 years of human use. The young leaves and flowers can be used in salads and sauces and there are many 17th and 18th century recipes for its use with lamb, fish and bacon. The leaves were cooked as a vegetable (pot herb) and it was used internally to treat sweating illnesses and externally as an antiseptic. I have it in the garden because it is one of the food plants for both the Orange-tip and the Green-veined White Butterfly.
May or Hawthorn: There are many myths and folk stories around this common hedge-plant/shrub and it is the origin of the saying ‘Cast not a clout (‘vest’) till May is out’. On the 1st of May thousands of women, including Samual Pepys’ wife but also those within living memory, would rise at dawn to bathe in the dew from the flower, to enhance their complexion. It was a fertility symbol and the origin of the ‘Maypole’. It was also associated with death and people would not bring it into their homes,. Recenlty, chemical analysis has shown that the flower contains the same chemical as decaying bodies and that clearly led to people associating it with death. It is a wonderful plant for wildlife - feeding 300 types of insects with its flowers and leaves, plus many birds and small mammals with its red berries (‘Haws’). Its dense growth provides shelter and nesting places for birds and mammals. On the way to school we would eat the very young leaf-buds, known to us as ‘bread-and-cheese’.
Ribwort Plantain: This common plant was a gene for many of us -you can pull out a stalk, loop it and shoot off the head, or use the stalk/flower head like a conker. Recent research shows, as with trees, it has a microrhizome-fungal relationship with fungi in the soil, which helps it fight pests and gain nutrients. It had many herbal uses, for skin and eye conditions and to staunch wounds. Antibacterial properties means its juices are said to be better for insect bites and stinging nettle stings than dock. The young flowerheads, before pollen appears, taste of mushroom. It also provide food for insects and the seed-heads are eaten by finches throughout autumn and early winter.