Heather (Calluna vulgaris) Bell heather ( Erica cinerea) Cross-leaved ( E.tetralix)
To see the heath-flower withered on the hill,
To listen to the woods expiring lay,
To note the red leaf shivering on the spray,
To mark the last bright tints the mountain stain,
On the waste fields to trace the gleaner's way,
And moralise on mortal joy and pain,
Sir Walter Scott
Qualities of Heather
Ur that is Heath.
Terrible tribe in cold dwellings, mould of the earth, Heath.
Completion of lifelessness, the grave.
Growing of plants.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Heather Fact File
Heather (Calluna vulgaris) Bell heather ( Erica cinerea) Cross-leaved ( E.tetralix) Ur (Gaelic/Ogham name)
Heather- clad moors lift the spirits and speak of a unhindered freedom, of true love and of the soil and earth which it hugs with a protective embrace. Ur, the ogham name for heather is associated with the soil and the earth, confirming the heather’s relationship with the earth as its stems root into it forming a natural bed.
This has been used as an analogy in stories of lovers using the heather clad moor to lie upon as well as a practical usage as bedding in the past. To bed someone in older times was to make a lasting commitment, a meaningful relationship of unconditional love.
In the great epic – the pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne they finally embrace each other on a bed of heather collected by Diarmid. A Scottish ballad talks of a passion a women has for Black Jack Davy preferring to lie with him on heather-clad moors as opposed to a comfortable bed at home.
King Henry in a folk song beds a hideous hag on the green heather to be greeted by a fair woman of beauty the following morning. This is an age-old tradition of the King giving respect to all aspects of the sacred land no matter how beautiful or ugly.
Ur can also mean ‘new’ which may point to an acceptance of death. In Scotland they speak of the white sleep- a dead person awaiting new life . As with the hideous hag we see things turned around again when working with heather as death is seen as a new birth into another life and birth as a death to a previous life.
Maybe this is why the Gaelic word for heather, ‘Fraoch’ means fierce or war-like as it is the warriors that risk all to die and return in glory into a new life in Celtic traditions. Fraoch is a famous Irish warrior whose wife Boand is daughter to Aoife and Chulainn who are both legendary warriors of high repute.
Fraoch heather ale is probably the oldest style of ale brewed in the world, brewed since 2000BC in Scotland.
Calluna vulgaris is the most common of the three heathers mentioned above. The word Calluna comes from the greek meaning ‘ to brush’ and this species is ideal to make brushes and brooms and is also the heather most commonly referred to as ling. Ling comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lig meaning fire, and therefore reminds us of its use especially in Scotland for a fuel. In fact in Scotland the word 'ling' refers to any rush or coarse grass growing on the heath. This heather has purple flowers which are occasionally white.
Heather flowers are a great source of nectar for bees producing prize honey. The red grouse will feed upon the young shoots and the birds will feast upon its seed.
The bell heather is the main species cultivated for garden use, a much shrubbier habit with bright bell like flowers. The cross-leaved heather is very similar but grows in wetter areas and its leaves are borne in fours (tetralix incorporates the greek word for four) as opposed to three borne by the bell heather. These whorls of four leaves form a cross when looked down upon and also fold down to conserve moisture by lessening evaporation.
Heather has been used to make robe and thatch as well as brooms and brushes and strong ale. Medicinally it is said to help ease the pain of migraine and menstruation.
Gorse Ulex europaeus
Old stone pits with veined ivy overhung,
Wild crooked brooks o'er which is rudely flung
A rail and a plank that bends beneath the tread,
Old narrow lanes where trees meet overhead,
Path-stiles on which a steeple we espy
Peeping and stretching in the distant sky,
And heaths o'erspread with furze-bloom's sunny shine
Where wonder pauses to exclaim 'divine!'
Qualities of Gorse
Onn that is furze.
Helper of horses, wheels of the chariot, wounding, whin.
Strength of warriors, fierceness.
Gentlest of work.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Gorse challenges all pre-conceptions and promotes the concept of complete freedom. You now have the choice to stay under the protective shade of Pine or move out into the open and confront your fears!
Gorse Ulex europaeus (Latin) Onn (Gaelic/Ogham) Whin/Furze (Folk names)
'While gorse is in flower, Britain will not be conquered’
Gorse is a common sight on British heathlands growing well on those acid sandy soils near the coast as well as further inland. The above saying may well be true, for to not have gorse in flower would be a sad day for Britain as there is always gorse somewhere with flower upon it. These extremely prickly bushes have bright yellow flowers which exude a wonderful fragrance and on a calm summer’s day you can hear the ripe pods bursting.
There are so many reasons to praise that which is common. I could not sing the praises of Gorse more eloquently than John Claire in the opening poem above:
And heaths o'erspread with furze-bloom's sunny shine Where wonder pauses to exclaim 'divine!'
Our heaths are often known as commons and in the South of England we are blessed with a unique survivor of the common law system and the supreme place for lichen in Europe, the New Forest. The New Forest is a perfect place to experience what Wordsworth calls 'The harvest of a quiet eye'.
In common things that round us lie,
Some random truths he can impart,
The harvest of a quiet eye
That broods and sleeps on his own heart.
Gorse supports a wonderful array of heathland birds, its sharp spines protecting the nests of linnets, whinchats, stonechats and the now rare Dartford warbler. This protective uplifting side to gorse is reflected in traditional stories of golden-haired women such Eithir and Niamh who will whisk you off into fair lands where nothing fades but glimmers with a golden sheen. This may also be true of the powerful Goddess Adraste who Boudicca is said to have called upon to fight the Romans as she is a strong-willed , battle- ready, golden haired war Goddess!
Gorse calls us to destroy that which no longer serves and to start again from scratch just like the practice of burning heathland to regenerate new growth.
The flowers in decoction can help jaundice, kidney stones and other obstructions.
Please come and comment and share on this blog in celebration of the British Flora.
Whitebeam Sorbus aria
Beacon of hope, boundary marker,
Effervescent glow, the Whitebeam.
Pure white flowers, soft hairy leaves,
Gentle presence, the Whitebeam.
Stands alone, cannot be pinned down,
Wild, untamed, the Whitebeam.
Limestone cliffs, babbling brooks,
Rolling landscape, the Whitebeam.
Hard timber, bow-wood,
Gentle warrior, the Whitebeam.
As a young man walking the downs I will never forget my first sight of the whitebeam in full flower. It stood like a shining beacon of hope and its memory is forever etched in my mind. It announces its presence in the spring with effervescent silvery white leaves giving the tree a look of a candelabrum. At this time I was unaware of its bewildering array of forms refusing to be pigeon-holed into one neat species.
The sorbus genus consists of many species including the rowan (S.aucuparia), the true service tree or whitty pear ( S.domestica) which is considered to be Britian’s rarest tree and the wild service (S.torminalis) which has more maple-like leaves and small pear-like fruits. In addition to these species there up to 18 rare or endemic species of whitebeam specific to a range of places from Devon to the Wye valley and the Isle of Arran to Wales and Ireland. Please find a full list at the end of this blog.
The whitebeam is an ideal amenity tree as not only does it look striking for much of the year with its silvery-white leaves and white flowers followed by red berries and autumnal golden leaves, it also grows on dry chalky soils resisting drought as well as pollution.
Traditionally the whitebeam is used for the making of gogs from its very tough wood as is the hornbeam tree ( beam meaning tree in Anglo-Saxon). Its over-ripe berries can make a syrup to flavour venison and its wood can also make bows.
A beautiful tree consisting of rare truly wild species in some of the last remaining unaltered areas of England such as on the Avon gorge and the Wye Valley. It truly is a beacon of hope urging us to continue to preserve the few true native tree species of our English Countryside.
Apomictic Whitebeams endemic to the British Isles:
Sorbus arranensis – Isle of Arran only.
Arran Service Tree – Isle of Arran only.
Sorbus pseudomeinichii - Isle of Arran only.
Lancaster Whitebeam - Lancaster only.
English Whitebeam - Great Britain and Ireland only.
Bristol Whitebeam - Avon Gorge only.
Devon Whitebeam – Devon, Somerset, Cornwall and Ireland only.
Ley’s Whitebeam – Brecon Beacons only.
Lesser Whitebeam – Brecon Beacons only.
Sorbus leptophylla – endemic to UK
Sorbus wilmottiana – endemic to UK
Bloody Whitebeam – Exmoor only.
Sorbus subcuneata – coastal North Devon and Western Somerset only.
Cheddar Whitebeam – Cheddar Gorge only.
“No Parking” Whitebeam – North Devon only.
Llangollen Whitebeam – Llangollen only.
Irish Whitebeam – Ireland only.
Leigh Woods Whitebeam, Leigh Woods only.
Bird's-foot trefoil Common Hemp-Nettle Rosebay Willlowherb
Poetry of flowers- In Praise of Weeds
Delicate wonderful blooms of tenacious power, soft lush growth wherever it flowers.
Over rubble and concrete, plastic and glass, nature regenerates, cares not if you've asked.
Green fresh growth encapsulates beauty, every tiny flower tells a story.
Showing no fear they grow where they can, covering the waste produced by man.
Plants create beauty. When land is cleared when concrete is laid, plants create beauty.
I look upon the humble plantain hugging the earth with its drab thick leaves and unnoticeable tiny white flowers. Its Latin name ‘Plantago’ means ‘sole of foot’ and the Native Americans call it ‘white man’s footprint.’ These names indicate its role as a first colonizer when land is cleared rather like birch and bramble. When nature starts to re-generate of its own accord it’s time to take note, step out of the way and allow the voice of nature to speak through. As a human I am far more dispensable than the smallest insect and lowliest weed and if I am humble enough to learn from nature I can then begin to fulfil my true role as a caretaker of the earth.
A neglected concrete platform is covered with a stunning array of Hemp-nettle, Bird’s Foot Trefoil and Mullein. An old bomb site from World War Two has a spectacular display of Rosebay Willowherb and the deep purple flowers of Self- Heal amongst the pure white clover and daisies creates a breath-taking display on the un-cut grass sward. However due to its common presence each plant is cut, poisoned and removed at every opportunity.
‘In common things that round us lie some random truths he can impart
-The harvest of a quiet eye that broods and sleeps on his own heart’
Plantain increased in number around 4000BC when the first infestation of elm disease started to infect our early elms. Rosebay Willowherb before World War Two was more associated with mountainous regions in Scotland and the common Self-Heal is a beautiful plant with many healing properties. These so-called weeds all have key roles in the welfare of this planet. Neglected farm land becomes a wooded landscape in as little as 30 years but not without first becoming a mess of bramble and nettle.
Great classic poets speak in rapture of the common plant. John Clare states:
‘My wild eye in rapture adores every feature. Ye are dear as this heart in my bosom is to me.’
Patrick Kavanagh states in one of his poems:
‘I knew them all by eyesight before I knew their names. We were in love before we were introduced.’
I hope in a more serious scientific conservation movement we continue to praise, love and cherish plants for their beauty. We preserve that which we love far more vehemently than that which we know is good for us!
The poetry of flowers therefore is a celebration of the common plants we are all indebted to and is my offering to their continued presence. I also offer my hands which will continue to sow their seeds.
Why not spend more time in nature this year and simply enjoy its company.
Qualities of Pine
Ailm, a Fir tree, a Pine tree.
Loudest of groanings that is wondering, Ailm or ah is what a man says while groaning in dis-ease or wonder.
A, beginning of the weaver’s beam, ahh.
Beginning of answers.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Pine is the wisdom accumulated through years of experience and represents high states of elevation.
Pine Fact File
Pinus sylvestris ( Latin) Ailm ( Ogham/Gaelic name)
Pine woodlands often form what is known as high forest where trees are allowed to grow unhindered by the practices of coppicing and pollarding. Pine is associated with the moors and open areas of Britain as well as colder climates and free draining mineral soil (peat).
The scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is a native to all of the British Isles but the true native probably now only grows in Scotland in places such as Loch Rannoch which is still home to the rare wild cat and at one time home to packs of wolves up until at least the 1700s. Today pine woods such as these are still home to a number of specialist species such as the red squirrel- our only native European species, and birds such as the crossbill and goldcrest.
Pine is associated with the Winter Solstice or the period of time known as Christmas. In Europe great fires were lit of pine to welcome back the light and they may well have been decorated with shiny objects to also attract and encourage the light to return. This festival simply marks the longest day ( 21st December) and therefore from then on the light is returning. The rising sun is often depicted as the birth of a solar deity such as the Mabon, Oak king or Jesus. This is probably why the Pine is associated with rebirth and the image of a crane nesting in its boughs is indicative of new life.
Pine trees will grow up to a 100ft with long tap roots that will enable the tree to cope with strong winds.
The wood is yellowish and fairly soft and has been imported into Britain including Scotland since early times. The main historical use of its timber was as scaffold poles to build structures like churches for instance.
Pine timbers can be found in Ely cathedral which probably started out as scaffold poles before being integrated into the structure. The timber was also used in its own right in the form of tongue-and-groove boards rather like Baltic oak to help build the doors of York Minister and Lakenheath church in Suffolk.
In the 1500s an extra storey was built of pine on an otherwise oak property. It has also been used to make chests and strong boxes, pit props, railway sleepers, telegraph poles, furniture and ship masts. Pine resin has many uses including sealing wax for violin bows, to coat the insides of beer casks, a glue, and as sealant for boats known as ‘brewers pitch’.
Pine when used as medicine is a powerful bronchial disinfectant, antiseptic and expectorant. It is an effective stimulant and a treatment for bladder and kidney problems, gout and skin diseases.
Its needles and buds can be taken as an infusion (cup of tea) for bronchial infections, cystitis and rheumatic ailments. The same infusion could be massaged into aching joints. An alternative to tea is to make a syrup which can be used as a bronchial tonic. Finally the same ingredients could simply be inhaled as a steam bath to help clear your sinuses etc…
Ailm is the old name for Pine and the root meaning of this word can be interpreted as ‘that which goes forward’ and ‘will or desire’.
The tall pine on the summit of the hill with its fresh-heady scent and tall gracious form can be seen as a symbol of elevation and positivity. It calls us to use our will as a positive force and to know things from our own innate wisdom that has accumulated through life’s experiences.
Breathe fresh positive life into all situations with Ailm, the Pine tree.
Field Scaboius Knautia arvensis Small Scabious Scabiosa columbaria Devil's bit Scabious Succisa pratensis
Poetry of flowers- Scabious Knautia Arvensis
Perfect purple flowers of unfolding love,
As buds unfurl they predict the direction of the heart.
Each bloom a pin cushion of fifty flowers,
Unfailing beauty covers the chalk downland.
Untainted pure expression of long-lasting love,
Scabious cures the itch of the unfailing heart.
Scabious is aptly named as a cure for the itch or scabies which also extends to other skin irritations including eczema. Our wildflower nursery will be cultivating the plant first for its beauty, then as a worthwhile food plant for caterpillars and moths and also to make skin-curing ointments. In the late spring the foliage will be steeped in oil in a sunny position to create an infusion of its valuable skin soothing properties. This oil mixed with beeswax will create a long-lasting ointment for the skin.
This plant of dry fields, pastures and grass banks is a most attractive species, its beautiful flowers enlivening the grass swards. Young ladies would give a name to each bud on the plant and as they unfurl the most perfect flower would be chosen as their suitor given rise to the name ‘bachelors buttons’.
Each flower is made up of fifty individual flowers which also gives the plant the folk name of pin-cushions and pins and needles which it resembles.
A beautiful plant which has great value as a food plant for butterflies and moths and a source of nectar for many invertebrates. The male stamens actually wither before the female stigmas mature to avoid self-pollination. The seeds are distributed by ants and although goats and sheep will graze the plant, cattle dislike it.
Field scabious closest relative is the small scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) which as the name applies is a smaller species with more finely divided leaves. These fine leaves may be the reason it has the Latin name of ‘columbaria’ which is derived from dove or pigeon which may refer to its leaves resembling bird’s feet or its dove-coloured flowers. Its long roots spread deep into the soil of the dry chalk where it grows.
Devil’s –bit scabious () more compact flowers create an exurbriant display for all to see. The
Devil was so frustrated with all the ailments this plant cured he bit part of the root off leaving it short to this day. The long roots were not actually neeed in the same way as the small scabious as it grows in wet areas across the country.
Poetry of Teasel
Johnny prick the finger, brush and comb,
Many are the folk names teasel owns.
Venus lip and Venus basin,
For she traps insects for her nutrition.
Sacred water she collects in cups,
Refresh one’s eyes with a healing touch.
She teases out the fibres of finest wool,
Pink and white flowers decorate this useful tool.
Teasel Dipsacus fullonum
Teasel is a marvel that even Lewis Carroll would struggle to create in his exceptional stories.
A green spiky armoured plant that traps insects in small cups and grows a brush upon its head. The brush is decorated with tiny pink and white flowers made of four delicate petals borne on long tubes. Pretty golden birds feast upon its seeds called goldfinches and the plant provides sacred water and soothing roots. It seems wonderland is right under all our noses!
This distinctive tall plant grows in waste areas, on the edges of fields and woods and on the banks of streams. It is a biennial growing from 4 to 6ft high. A dense prickly flower head appears on top of this upright plant dwarfing the largest of thistles. It is known as the brush and comb plant for it is as if nature decided to create a natural brush. Eventually a cultivated variety with additional hooks known as the fuller’s teasel (D.sativus) was created. The fuller’s teasel however is not an ordinary brush but a specialist tool used for raising the ‘nap’ of woollen cloth in the manufacture of velour and cashmere. This variety of teasel is especially grown in Somerset.
Teasel is a contender for our own native venus fly trap. The Romans were well aware of this calling it names such as venus lip and venus basin. These names refer to cup-like structures which are formed around the stem by the leaf bases. In these cups insects are trapped and it may be possible that the plant makes use of the nutrients released from the dying insects. For the herbalist this is sacred water for easing inflammations of the eye and as a cosmetic to ‘render the face fair’ ( Culpeper 1616-1664). The fresh plant in flower made into a tincture can be used to ease inflammations of the skin and its roots as an ointment to cure warts.
The doctrine of signatures written by Paracelsus (1493-1541) and probably employed by much older indigenous believe systems states that God created disease and the plants with which to cure it. Each plant has a signature that indicates its use if we look closely enough, such as Prunella vulgaris which has a flower shaped like a scythe and is therefore used for cuts. I don’t recommend you look too closely at this huge inflamed plant that cures warts and soothes inflammations.
Teasel is yet another example of the fascinating and extraordinary weeds that surround us.
Poetry of flowers
Join me to explore the flora of the British Isles on this blog. My intention is to attempt to capture the unique quality and beauty of each species of flower, tree or shrub. For every species featured I will be growing many more wildflowers to celebrate the joy of their existence, their intrinsic conservation value and bewildering array of uses. For nearly 30 years I have noted, studied and explored wildflowers in the field much to the patience of the walker beside me. To share this passion is a heartfelt plea to respect, preserve and care for all British Wildflowers no matter how common they seem.