Foxglove. Digitalis purpurea.
“ Foxglove, foxglove, what do you see?” The cool green woodland, the fat velvet bee; hey Mr bumble, I've honey here for thee!
Foxglove, foxglove, what do you see now?” The soft summer moonlight on bracken, grass ,and bough; and all the fairies dancing as only they know how.
Cicely Mary Barker
In woodland ecology terms the foxglove is known as a ‘shade evader’ waiting for a clearing in the woods for its seeds to germinate and it then causes an eruption of colour from its tall single stem. A stately plant common in our British woodlands.
Foxglove has a deadly reputation, its reckless usage leading to illness, children’s deaths and even the death of geese which led the people of Orkney to shun its use for human ailments. This terrible reputation didn’t just stop at herbal usage. It was noted a Staffordshire man in the summer of 1914 remarked that the foxgloves he saw looked like soldiers and would bring about war!
A procession of foxgloves in Hartland, North Devon is still held in memory of St Nectan. who when killed by robbers left a trail of blood from which foxgloves sprang up from.
Maybe this caution of foxgloves continues in folk lore due to its associations with faeries. The word ‘glove’ may be derived from the Anglo Saxon word ‘gliew’ which is a musical instrument with small bells and the word ‘fox’ may mean ‘folk’ or ‘the little folk’ leading to other names such as fairy bells or fairy thimble.
Such a delightful looking plant attracts the little folk in the form of children who inflate the flower and burst it giving the plant the name pop dock.
If a wasting illness is affecting someone a bath of foxglove is recommended as a faerie cure. Some may have taken the plant to promote intoxication which may well result in them visiting the realms of faeries. Bells traditionally have magical properties and create altered states enhancing a further connection with foxglove’s reputation with the magical realms.
Despite all these connections with faeries and death it still is a plant that has been used extensively in folk tradition as an all purpose salve, a cure for tuberculosis, coughs, colds and sore throats as well as a disinfectant and remover of pests such as rodents and insects in the house. It has also been used as a fresh poultice for wounds.
It is widely used and most known for its diuretic ability and especially its ability to slow the pulse and save people from heart failure. This use which is widely applied in the medical world today has been credited to William Withering who actually learnt of this plant through the many herbalists before him. He was most impressed when the medical herbalist Mrs Hutton cured a patient of heart failure after college physicians had failed.
Today the chemical digitalis derived from foxglove is one of the leading cardiac drugs whilst modern herbalists do not use the actual plant anymore. However although I am in no position to recommend its use
there are many old recipes from herbalists and Irish Medieval monks who used it extensively. They would have prescribed it in such a way that it treated the patient as a whole therefore reducing the risk of its toxicity. Current research is pointing to the modern synthetic version of digitalis to be more toxic than the original plant.
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Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis) and Hairy Bittercress (C.hirsuta) ideal for spring salads.
Lady's Smock Cardamine pratensis
Where the grass is damp and green,
Where shallow streams are flowing,
Where the cowslip buds are showing,
I am seen.
Dainty as a fairy’s frock,
White or mauve, of elfin showing,
‘Tis the meadow-maiden growing-
Cicely Mary Barker
On the edge of an ancient woodland I used to visit in my teens was a brook and a wet meadow cheered by ragged robin, lady’s smock and a hedge of Blackthorn.
Lady’s smock is a delicate looking yet hardy plant, a spring addition to wet areas. Its subtle white or mauve flowers and soft foliage warm the heart in April through to June. It may be the time of year that it flowers that gives it the name of Cuckoo flower or the fact that it is home to the substance known as cuckoo-spit ( which is made from froghopper bug nymphs).
It's spring blooms also give rise to associations with milkmaids, their smocks and to the Virgin Mary.
Older spring traditions remind us to respect the lady of the land as picking the plant can lead to a snake bite and bringing it indoors can cause a lightning strike. Folk traditions urge us to treat her bounty with respect, the snake is a sign of spring and the lightning a reminder of elemental power.
This plant is closely related to Hairy bittercress ( Cardamine hirsuta) a very common weed which is a tasty alternative along with Lady’s smock as a salad. I may be the only person who grows bitter cress and chickweed in a poly tunnel but it does ensure an early salad crop.
In medical literature, as in the writings of John Ray, the plant is given a reputation for nervous afflictions ( as is mistletoe) believed to help with hysteria as a powerful antispasmodic. We would expect more evidence of this in folk traditions which speak of its ability to help fevers in the Highlands and for headaches in Gloucestershire.
The plant is rich in vitamin C which is probably why it has been used to ease scurvy and is a good tonic for coughs. Traditional uses also include breaking stones, restoring appetite, helping digestion and warming a cold and weak stomach.
Soft curls of innocent love,
Subtle blooms of a maiden’s heart.
Pink and white flowers of gentle persuasion,
Amongst rough coarse grass and buttercup invasion.
Crisp cold winds,
And wet meadows,
Are suffused with beauty,
As she softly spreads,
Fresh new excitement,
Springs quickening pulse,
Tenacious young growth,
Love forever unfolds.
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Aspen Populus tremula ( Latin) Eadhadh (Gaelic Ogham) Aspris (Greek)
Black poplar Populus nigra White poplar P.alba
Horrible grief, test tree or Aspen.
Distinguished man or wood.
Kinsman to the Birch, Aspen.
Additional name for a friend.
Book of Ballymote 1391
The Ogham name Eadhadh is most commonly associated with the aspen which is our only native woodland poplar. In North America it one of the oldest living organisms in the world as the same root stock is producing new shoots as it has done since the last ice age.
In this country (UK) I have visited several aspen woodlands that have probably been created by one rootstock.
In Utah (USA) one single aspen is thought to cover an area of 106 acres!
In the British Isles however, the tree as an individual trunk only lasts 50-60 years before succumbing to heart rot. Its root system can live for much longer but is easily killed by other tree competitors as aspen is shade intolerant. This tree has a history therefore of benefitting from human interference as it grows well in a coppiced wood and especially when deer eat other tree species which would have otherwise suppressed it.
Due to modern practices of planting and neglect the aspen is now in decline. Aspen does not easily reproduce from seed as the seed has to germinate within a week and needs to be exposed to prolonged immersion in water. The suckers it produces do vary and some experts claim to be able to tell the difference between male and female trees. One notable variation is the ‘giant aspen’ which grows in Suffolk and Essex to a much larger size than the usual species. Although Aspen will grow happily in wet soils that do not drain such as clay, it has been shown to deal more effectively with drought than ash or birch in the dry summers of 1975-6. It seems to avoid habitats where there is water movement such as plateau or valley alder woods, preferring more stagnant water habitats. Aspen is a tree of cold climates and with birch and sallow was one of the first trees to colonise Britain after the last ice age.
Aspen has soft white wood which perishes easily and is poor building timber. Although ignored by the modern forester there are a surprising amount of references to it in medieval documents maybe due to the fact it grows well in coppice woods, and all timbers at that time were put to use. It was considered to be one of three non-coniferous softwoods (alder and black poplar being the other two), and therefore sometimes incorporated into building structures such as homes and windmills. As a specialist wood it can be used for carving and sculpture but was traditionally used for arrow shafts and clogs. In fact authorities were actively encouraging its use for arrow shafts in the 1400s due to a plentiful supply.
Aspley Guise (Beds) and Stonham Aspal (Suffolk) are places named after the aspen and may indicate the tree was more common outside of a woodland habitat than it is today. Eadhadh , the Gaelic name for aspen, can be translated as ‘most buoyant of woods’ and indicates its use for the making of oars and paddles. Aspen flowers before it comes into leaf and is wind- pollinated.
Aspen is known as the trembling tree ( P.tremula) and Christian lore states that the tree shudders at the thought that its wood was used for the crucifix. Other traditions equate the movement of its leaves ( due to its long flat leaf stalks) to speech and language. Some would say it is whispering or communicating with spirit or it can hear from afar and is stirred by what it hears. The tree therefore can be seen as an entrance to Other-worlds and used for divination.
In the ancient Celtic system of the Ogham it speaks of the tree as the Test Tree and a later common phrase ‘to tremble like an aspen’ could be related to this. To face fears and highlight your weaknesses takes great strength, are you prepared to tremble like an aspen to move on in your life?
Oscar, a Celtic warrior from Irish literature, had to kill the High King against impossible odds to protect his kinsman. He is likened to an aspen and described as ‘no way daunted despite terrible injury’.
In our own lives the fear is more likely to be standing up to what we believe in or being ourselves no matter what the outcome. Are you prepared to face loneliness, humiliation or loss of material wealth to be true to yourself?
Shields have also been made from this tree and the Greek word for aspen (aspris) means ‘wood to make shields’ reminding us of its connection to warriors and going forth. This tree can therefore help us find the courage to face our fears as well as testing us before moving on.
Aspen is the knowledge that you are never too advanced to feel fear and shake with grief. This is the realisation that will take you to a place of protection and an advancement of knowledge.
Our other native poplar is the black poplar (P.nigra) referred to in Medieval documents as ‘popeler’. It is a large non-woodland tree and once one of the most common farmland trees in Eastern England. It is now rare and only occasionally seen. The black poplar has distinctive rugged boughs once used to make cruck frames. These are curved timbers used to hold up roofs especially in medieval barns.
The black poplar stands, a black outline against the sky with large heavy curved branches sweeping down to the ground, oozing sap known as balsam indicative of the Goddess of Death.
When a new tree was planted at docking time a lamb’s tail was buried under it as a gift to the Goddess. Ointments can be made from the buds of this tree to treat bruises, inflammations and gout. The sap or balsam from the tree can be used as incense.
The last poplar tree I would like to mention is the white poplar ( P.alba). It stands in stark contrast to the black poplar with its wonderful silvery downy leaves which flutter in the wind that cannot fail to uplift one’s spirits. Like white willow this is the species most commonly associated with witches, especially medieval French witches.
There is a debate as to whether this tree is a native to Britain. Often thought to have been introduced to this country in the 1600s. It is referred to in documents dating from 1200-1300 as ‘abel’. Whether it is an early introduction or a true native we may never know. This tree has a leaf with 5 points symbolic of witches and is said that the balsam was used to help witches fly at night when rubbed onto their bodies. The white leaves are said to move you into a trance, give the gift of eloquence when placed under the tongue and connect the tree to the moon. Its distinctive white bark can be used to make a rather pleasant tea which is used for pain relief.
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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.
Poetry of Yew
Yew; a church, a cathedral of the ancient world,
Outliving stone and tomb that have been poistioned well.
The red barren earth beneath illuminates her imposing grandeur,
She makes no apology for the life destroyed beneath her.
And yet that destruction is hard won,
As she inexorably grows, conscious of every inch.
Alchemy of Shaman, reborn from bird,
The seed took flight before being buried in the earth.
Encapsulated in earth’s womb before being reborn,
She knows of vulnerability, the terror of being small.
Many of our lifetimes have passed, to reach this pinnacle,
Her great age of fruition, indestructable.
A physical form of the eternal soul, the Shaman, the Bard,
Would do to know her well.
Judge not her lessons, cold and irresponsible,
For she dwells in eternity and cares not for the vulnerable.
Goddess of Power, Goddess of Age,
Goddess of Strength, Respect her Ways.
Yew Taxus baccata (Latin) Idhadh (Ogham/Gaelic)
Oldest of woods, service tree, Yew.
Strength or colour of a sick man, people or an age.
Abuse of an ancestor or pleasing consent.
Book of Ballymote 1391
The yew and the oak probably feature more in British traditions than any other tree. Yew speaks of ancestors, death and re-birth and when you see a mature tree with its dark foliage sweeping down to the ground and taking root you can see why. Yew is Britain’s oldest living tree, pre-dating many of the churches to whose grounds it belongs. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire is said to be around 4000 years old.
However yew is notoriously difficult to age. At one time it was thought that the church was built and a yew tree planted but carbon dating has proven the tree is often far older than the church and said to have sheltered Christian missionaries long before the church was built. Evidence suggests that these sites were already used by the older faiths of Britain and so it is likely that in order to integrate a new religion they would have continued to use the same sacred site.
Ring-counting as well as carbon dating can be inaccurate for the yew as it will remain dormant for hundreds of years!
The Yew has an amazing ability to survive, often growing profusely on chalk down-lands resisting shade and pollution effectively. There is a folk tale of yew which emphasises its genetic ability to withstand disaster.
The tree is sad that its foliage is dark and uninteresting so the fairies wanting to please the tree turn its foliage to gold which thieves then steal. They then turn its foliage to crystal and the foliage shatters in a storm; and then into large broad leaves which are eaten by goats. The yew concludes its foliage is perfect to withstand the test of time and celebrates its dark appearance.
The theme of death is often associated with yew which contains deadly poisons especially in its wilting foliage and seeds. Modern research has also uncovered the chemical taxol in yew to help treat cancer. Due to its dangerous poisons yew as a herb is only used as a tincture helping symptoms of cystitis, headaches, afflictions of the heart and problems with the kidneys, gout and rheumatism.
In stories and traditions yew is always regarded with caution. The old Celtic kenning for yew states – ‘abuse of an ancestor or pleasing consent.' It is said to be unlucky to cut the tree and that the wood should only be taken from fallen trees.
However practical application seems to always win through and this lore has not stopped yew being cut for its main use as a bow. Maybe using a tree with a deadly reputation as a weapon actually fits in with the ancient lore as it certainly brought much success to those who wielded it. Its wood is perfect to make long bows although in Britain it is often too knotty and brittle for this purpose.
The perfect bow made from coniferous type trees ( which includes yew) should be slow growing. This means the most prized yew wood is that which comes from high altitudes growing in exposed windswept places. The early ballads of Robin Hood claim his bow is made of Spanish yew.
Yew can be used to symbolise resurrection when used on palm Sunday and at Easter. Yew shoots have been put into the shrouds of the dead to protect and restrain the spirits. This connection with spirits and death is a constant theme especially as the tree is often seen growing by the graves of our departed loved ones maybe easing their passage or allowing us to commune with them? Further stories explore the idea of yew being an entrance to the other worlds. Thomas of Erceldoune known as Thomas the Rhymer from the thirteenth century, is said to still await his re-birth in an old Scottish yew grove after visiting the faerie realms.
Yew has also been known as the King’s Wheel as it represents the cycle of life and death. This is demonstrated by Kings when their reign is finished and its passed it on to their heir.
In Ireland yew is recognised as one of the most sacred trees, the tree of eternity transcending time and able to give the gift of invisibility to one who uses it. Mad shaman-type poets like Sweeney Gilt and Merlin are said to take shelter and acquire all their knowledge in the yew grove and Fionn and his loyal warriors are said to have met their end there on Samhain eve.
The oldest found weapon is a crude spear of yew from the Stone Age. Yew’s wood is also used for furniture, paneling, fence posts, ship masts and wine barrels.
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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 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.