Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus)
My hundred thousand bells of blue, the splendour of the spring, they carpet all the woods anew with royalty of sapphire hue; the primrose is the queen, 'tis true but surely I am King!
Ah yes, the peerless woodland king.
Cicely Mary Barker 1925
Bluebells are often thought of as a symbol of the beginning of summer in England, forming dense carpets of azure blue. A blue haze can be seen throughout the woods, a breathtaking sight revealing the glory of our woods at this time. People flock from other parts of the world to witness this majestic display. The individual flowers hang from the stem as bell-shaped flowers with creamy anthers.
A typical sight in Hampshire and West Sussex is a hazel coppice filled with bluebells. Hazel has strong associations with the animal worlds and greater knowledge. The bluebell appearing at a key Celtic festival invites us into a land of exuberance, the Bright realms. Fox wanders through the woods as an animal that journeys between the realms and if the fox needs help she can ring the bluebell for assistance.
A plant that is in such abundance you would have expected it to have been used. There are very few references to bluebell in the medicinal world; though it has been noted the roots were chopped, fried and applied as a plaster in Inverness.
The bulb is poisonous but can be made into starch and glue.
With extreme caution it can be used as a diuretic and styptic. Even in small doses it may not be safe to use.
Please do not use the bluebell yourself, this information is for your interest only!
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Hazel Fact File
Corylus avellana (Latin) Coll ( Ogham)
Hazel is a tree as well-used and known as the oak; it has played a huge part in the history of Woodsmanship in Britain. It spread effectively throughout Britain after the last ice age and probably helped form a staple food for early humankind. Known as the Celtic Tree of Knowledge it is not hard to see why the nuts (representing illumination) were so revered in a time when much of our native foods must have been bland in comparison. Hazel is connected to the life of the salmon which also represents illumination and must have also been a staple food fit for the gods! Hazelnuts are rich in mineral salts and can be ground to a powder to make flour. The hazelnut can also be used to soothe sore throats and relieve symptoms of a head cold. It is also thought hazelnuts bestow the gift of eloquence.
Not only did hazel provide a rich source of food, its wood was ideal for many crafts due to it being strong, flexible and easy to split and coppice. The wood can be used to make hurdles for fencing, walls for housing, springels to hold thatch in place, stakes and supports to grow plants, fishing rods, baskets, coracles etc...
No wonder it became so venerated and the traditional stories started to explore a deep spiritual aspect to its multi-faceted usage. The most famous story connected to hazel is of Finn McCuill (son of hazel) from the Fenian cycle who becomes enlightened merely from sucking the juice of the salmon of Fec which was caught in a pool surrounded by nine hazel trees, the nuts of which the salmon fed upon.
Hazel catkins mark the time of Imbolc or Oimelc (which means butter bag) as they resemble lamb’s tails and this season is traditionally the time when lambs are born and sheep begin to lactate. It is also the festival of Brighid who amongst other things is the muse of poets through the hazel tree.
The hazel is connected to the elements and has lightness about it. However there is also the story of the dripping hazel tree poisoned by the head of the giant Balor ( leader of the Fomhoire). This may well be a threshold tree acting as a guardian to the Other-worlds. To confront this tree is to experience your darker nature. Satire and keening can be associated with this tree in Celtic lore.
Hazel generally prefers a more acid soil and supports a rich flora; it will co-exist happily with honey fungus provided there is not too much shade and trees aren’t planted!
Commercial forestry does not employ hazel so extensively as it would have at one time partly due to a decline in the faggot trade although hazel is still in demand for wattle hurdles often now used for motorway fencing and in gardens.
Hampshire and Sussex are strongholds for hazel but on a national scale hazel is declining and is threatened due to its lack of regeneration. Neglected coppice means the tree will not flower and therefore fruit. When hazel does fruit the wood pigeons and squirrels will devour the nuts, often when they are still unripe meaning dropped seed will not grow.
The hazel tree as with so many of our trees needs our attention and protection as its habitat becomes neglected, this is a perfect example of how keeping our traditional crafts alive and using rather than neglecting the tree will help preserve it for future generations.
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Ribwort plantain Greater Plantain hoary plantain
Plantain (Plantago) Greater Plantain ( P. Major )
Ribwort Plantain (P. lanceolata) Hoary Plantain ( P.media).
Hullo, Snailey-O ! How’s the world with you?Put your little horns out;
Tell me how you do? There’s rain, and dust, and sunshine, Where carts go creaking by;
You like it wet, Snailey; I like it dry!
Hey ho, Snailey-O, I’ll whistle you a tune! I’m merry in September, As e’er I am in June.
By any stony roadside Wherever you may roam, All the summer through, Snailey, Plantain’s at home!
Cicely Mary Barker 1925
The four common species of Plantain are listed above. The greater has the broadest leaves followed by the hoary plantain which leaves are nearly as broad but are hairy where the greater is not. Ribwort Plantain has longer narrow leaves which are often downy. There are also two seaside species called buckshorn plantain (P.coronopus) and sea plantain ( P.maritima).
Plantain species treat piles and diarrhoea whilst the ribwort species is especially recommended to treat asthma and bronchitis. The leaves can be dried and taken as a tea for the above treatments. Fresh leaves are ideal to check bleeding of wounds and soothe burns and sores as well as insect bites. The leaves can also be dried to make an ointment which is also effective for wounds, burns and insect bites.
The greater plantain has the largest and most abundant flower spike of the plantain species. One may use the seed to make bannock and add to soups as an alternative to linseeds with mucilaginous and laxative properties. Birds also enjoy the seed given rise to local names such as bird’s meat and canary flower.
Five thousand years ago evidence suggests that early farmers cleared a lot of land for farming practice. One such evidence is the increase in plants such as the plantain which will grow in cleared compact ground and withstand heavy grazing. This is possibly why the plant is called Plantago from the root word Planta meaning sole of foot. A further reference is made to this theory by the Native Americans calling this plant white man’s footprint.
Hoary plantain is the only species which is insect pollinated using its delicate scent to attract bees.
This plant I have associated with the oak which also has benefited from human interference and has similar herbal properties.
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Yarrow ( Achillea millefolium )
'Among the harebells and the grass, the grass all feathery with seed, I dream, and see all the people pass: They pay me little heed.
And yet the children (so I think) in spite of other flowers more dear, would miss my clusters white and pink, if I should disappear.'
Cicely Mary Barker 1925
A fantastic herb for many wounds containing a natural antiseptic called cineol. It can also help to hasten the clotting time of blood which has given rise to its folk name ‘nosebleed’. The herb can be used fresh or dried and put direct onto a wound or made into an ointment.
Yarrow induces sweating, can help you sleep, eases pain and reduces bleeding. Yarrow is full of nutrients and minerals and when mixed with vervain I have found it to be ideal for fevers and nerve pain. It helps aid digestion and is a good general tonic for the system.
Its Latin name Achillea reminds us that Achilles used it to cure wounds inflicted by iron weapons as did the Anglo-Saxons warriors. In Ireland the plant is said to drive away evil and therefore sickness.
It is also considered a Woman’s herb increasing attractiveness and protecting them from men.
Oak fact file
Quercus robur( pendunculate oak ) Quercus petraea ( sessile oak ) Duir ( Ogham name)
Higher than bushes is Oak.
Highest of bushes and a third.
Kneeling work, bright and shining work.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Oak is a tree that has survived well since it regenerated in early wildwood times. It was avoided by the first farmers and encouraged by the early carpenters; no other tree in Britain has captured the imagination and attention of mankind more than the oak. Its timber is durable and good to work with, it has many medicinal qualities and useful tannins, it supports countless wildlife and grows to impressive proportions, and can live for many hundreds of years. Its success is partly due to mankind’s love of its timber and its ability to capture the nation’s heart.
There are two species of Oak which were first recognized in 1586-7 although this was not really taken on board by British botanists until the 1790s.
Quercus robur (pendunculate oak) is what we think of as the English Oak with its wide canopy and rustic appearance. It has a dense canopy and rough un-stalked leaves with stalked acorns.
Quercus petraea ( sessile oak) is often a taller more stately tree with a more open canopy and flat palmate leaves which are stalked and it bears un-stalked acorns. Both these trees can hybridise and cause even more confusion.
Both oaks are known to produce Lammas shoots which are healthy erect shoots that grow strongly in August at a time when other foliage maybe struggling in this sometimes dry time of year. There is a striking rare variety of Pendunculate oak which produces red Lammas shoots.
Sessile oak is more common in the west and north, most commonly growing in the Scottish highlands. Pure oak wood generally grows on the most acid of woodland soils although it is known to grow on calcareous soils in Scotland where it is much more widespread. Hatfield Forest in Essex is an exception as it comprises an ancient oakwood on calcareous soil. Oak is generally a first coloniser not growing well in shade. It is not so much birch and hawthorn grow first on oakwood regeneration sites but just quicker thus deceiving the avid naturalist who assumes they came first!
In the Doomsday Book woods were assessed by pannage although this practice died out soon after as farmers began to feed pigs in more conventional ways. Beech mast was also used for pannage.
The Anglo- Saxon phrase ac means oak and can be noticed in many place names such as Accrington, Auckland and Acton.
The traditions of Oak are numerous; from Christian lore the tree has been used to preach under and a place where Angels have appeared. In Celtic lore it is the abode of strong male deities such as the Dagdha, Herne the Hunter, Cernunnos and the archetypal images of the spirit of the trees such as the Green Man or Green George.
It is said to be a channel for the might of the sky gods such as Taranis, Thunor, Esus and Thor as it attracts lightning.
Merlin and Robin Hood were said to have been protected under the oak’s canopy. St Brigit founded a retreat in Kildare called the Cell of Oak and it is said that the Nuns used acorns as fuel on their fires.
Charles the second hid in an oak after defeat at the battle of Worcester on the 29th May 1651 which is now known as Royal Oak Day. At one time Oak sprigs were collected for hats and door knockers which may well be a continuation of the Druidic Oak apple day still celebrated in Wiltshire. The Oak Man, Jack in the Green or the May King dance through the streets wreathed in oak and hawthorn to claim the May Queen. Traditionally the Oak King Giant fights the Holly King Giant at Midsummer making him the King of the waxing year and the two oak trees, Gog and Magog at Glastonbury are said to be the last two giants to have inhabited Britain.
Oak bark is used for diarrhea, piles, inflammations of the throat, chilblains and frost bite. As a powder it is used for nosebleeds and bedsores. Bruised oak leaves can be applied to wounds to ease inflammations and as a mild antiseptic.
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Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna (common hawthorn) Crataegus laevigata (midland hawthorn) Droiheann (old English) Hagaporn ( Anglo-Saxon) Huath ( ogham )
Huath is Whitethorn. A meet of hounds is White thorn, it is formidable owing to its thorns.
Pack of wolves.
A difficult night, Hawthorn.
Whitening of face.
Book of Ballymote 1391
There are two types of Hawthorn known in this country. The first is common and widespread, the second (known as Midland or simply woodland Hawthorn) is restricted to the South and East and is an ancient woodland indicator, an uncommon sight. The latter has a bushy habit and shallowly lobed leaves, able to flower in the shade.
This distinction was first made in France in 1790.
Hawthorn, especially since the 1500s, has been an important underwood species grown for fuel and its bark used for ink. Before barbed wire hawthorn was our main fencing, and early forestry writers recommend hawthorn as a nurse tree when sowing a new plantation. However the tree can colonise chalk downland too effectively becoming a permanent habitat thus threatening the delicate balance of our Downs. This is known as being ‘bushed over’.
However the hawthorn is generally welcome, tolerating shade and grazing effectively (although new growth takes three weeks for the thorns to harden up and protect the plant from mammals like deer). The tree supports many insects, birds and mammals providing cover, nectar and fruit.
The Hawthorn has two sides to it. On one hand it is a healer of the heart, a tree of protection and supporter of life. A guardian of sacred wells (to which cloth is tied to), a love charm, helping cattle thrive and friendly to travellers as well as a food source for them, which is why it is known as the bread and cheese tree. This is the blossoming spring tree dedicated to the maiden goddes such as Olwen of the White Track.
However as a tree that protects and harbours the elementals it can also have a sinister side to its nature. Stories of people trying to fell certain Hawthorn trees normally ends in tragedy, maybe the most famous being bulldozed by John DeLorean in Ireland. This is the winter thorn standing in the thicket as a speared warrior dedicated to the powerful archetypal earth god such as Yspaddeden Pencawr which means giant hawthorn.
Huath, its Ogham name, means frightful or horrible, reminding us of the inevitable backlash our actions can bring.
It is said in the old stories devastating satire was pronounced whilst holding the thorn of the tree.
Maybe this is why there is a custom of adorning and worshipping Hawthorn known as ‘bawming the thorn’.
Hawthorn wood is hard wearing making it ideal for knife/dagger handles. Its root wood is also used to make beautiful small boxes and combs. It is also good firewood.
As a herb its berries, leaves and flowers are great for heart problems, especially high blood pressure as well as being good for insomnia and helping one relax.
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Rosebay willowherb Great willowherb Elephant hawk moth
Rosebay Willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium).
On the breeze my fluff is blown; So my airy seeds are sown.
Where the earth is burnt and sad, I will come to make it glad.
All forlorn and ruined places, All neglected open spaces,
I can cover- only think- With a mass of rosy pink.
Burst then, seed-pods; breezes, blow!
Far and wide my seeds shall go!
Cicely Mary Barker 1925
Rosebay willowherb is the only species that is generally safe to use for food and medicinal uses. As a herb it is used dried for whooping cough and asthma. As a food plant the young shoots can be steamed and peeled and its pith is used to thicken soups. The leaves can be used as a garnish or dried for a tea.
This plant became well known during the war as it brightened up London bomb sites that it effectively colonised in World War Two.
Hoverflies, bees and the caterpillars of the elephant hawk moth are supported by this plant.
The Great Willowherb (E.hirsutum) has a local name of ‘codlins and cream.’ Some say codlin means cooking apples due to the smell of the plant undetectable by most people or maybe it refers to the seed capsule known as ‘Codde’. Hirsutum means hairy which the plant is and ‘Willowherb’ refers to its slender stems and leaves.
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Ash Fraxinus excelsior
Ash, a check on peace is Ash for of it are made spear shafts by which the piece is broken.
Checking of peace.
Flight of beauty, a weavers beam.
Flight of beauty.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Ash fact file
Fraxinus excelsior ( Latin). Nion (Ogham) Aesc( Anglo Saxon)
Ash established itself later than some tree species after the last ice age and especially increased when Elm declined in Neolithic times.
Ash timber as well as its wood has been sought after for centuries. It has been used to create early weapons such as bows and spears to the modern cavalry lance. Its other uses are diverse including tools, frames and shafts of vehicles both modern and ancient. It is the second most recorded timber tree in history and is the most commonly used plantation tree since the 17th Century.
Ash casts a light shade and is light-demanding, living no longer than 200 years in normal conditions. If it grows in infertile soils and is thus forced to grow slowly it will live longer and as a coppice stool almost indefinitely! The largest stool in Bradfield woods is 18.5 feet across and is at least 1000 years old and still has good vigour.
Traditionally Ash is the Warrior’s Tree, as it has been used for weaponry for thousands of years. In places such as Scandinavia and Denmark, its war-like qualities were emphasised through the war god Odin with his ashen spear.
The Vikings were often known as Aescling- Men of Ash. They also knew Ash as the World Tree, Askr Yggdrasill, the centre of the universe around which everything moves. Its roots are in the Underworld guarded by a huge serpent, its trunk in the Middleworld; and its canopy in the Upperworld upon which sits an eagle and goats browse on its leaves. The spring, at its base, is where the Norns reside, who rule over the destiny of us all.
In Celtic/Irish lore Ash is also known as the warrior’s tree as an Ash spear is wielded by the solar hero Lugh Lamfada and the early race of men in Irish stories called the Fir bolgs ( men of spears) were also said to wield superior ash spears.
The spear and the sling were the only long range weapons used by the Irish Celts in the Bronze and Iron ages. There were said to be five sacred trees planted in Ireland and three of them were Ash for the warriors.
Nion, the Ogham name for ash means, ‘a thing produced’ possibly implying a more subtle use of Ash, the spear ( especially when referred to as the weavers’ beam) is a magical tool to help heal and move people on in their lives.
Sick children have been passed through a split ash tree for healing and it is said a shrew was sometimes buried in an ash tree to bring about healing e.g. ash by the church in Selborne in Hampshire.
The juice of the ash tree has been used to protect infants from harm. The bark helps ease fevers, the leaves for rheumatism and also can be used as a laxative/diuretic. Its seeds were said to provoke lust and its decaying wood an active ingredient in an aphrodisiac powder. Ash crosses are made for sea protection and the Vikings were thought to use ash as a magical implement. In the past ash roots were carved into magical images.
Ash wood is known as the perfect fuel for the fire and was traditionally used as the Yule log which is burnt at the Winter Solstice to celebrate this time of year, the birth of the Sun God.
Many poems and songs have been written of Oak, Ash and Thorn giving these three trees a special place in our British traditions; and where the three grow together a magical place of wonderment.
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Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
'Queen of the meadow where small streams are flowing, what is your kingdom and whom do you rule? Mine are the places where small streams are flowing, mine are the people of marshland and pool.
Kingfisher courtiers, quick flashing, beautiful dragon flies, minnows are mine one and all.
Little frog servants who wait on me dutifully, hop on my errands and come when I call.
Little Queen meadowsweet served with such loyalty where is your crown then, no jewels to wear?
Nothing I need for a sign of my royalty, nothing I need but my own fluffy hair.' Cicely Mary Barker 1925
This beautiful waterside plant is referred to as the 'Queen of the meadow'. In Tudor times if one was expecting a visit from the Queen, meadowsweet flowers would have been strewn upon the floor to mask any unpleasant smells. Its Yorkshire name of courtship and matrimony regonises it has two scents, a sweet scent for courtship and a sharper scent for the reality of marriage!
A healing herb that induces sweating when used fresh and can help heal both internal and external wounds. Traditionally the water distilled from the flowers has been used for inflammations of the eyes and its astringent qualities can help diarrhea. As it contains methyl salicylate it can help ease rheumatism. Sometimes referred to as 'herbal bicarbonate of soda' it is useful in the treatment of dyspepsia. It's diuretic properties help to clear out excessive fluids which result in the swellings of the limbs.
Meadowsweet flowers follow on from Elderflowers and can be used to make syrups, sorbets, ice creams and champagne. The young leaves can be cooked or eaten raw in the spring.
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Nettle (Urtica diocia)
Tender handed touch a nettle and it will sting you for your pain, grasp it like a man of mettle and it soft as silk remains.
Nettle, despite it being a noxious weed everyone is trying to destroy, it is a ‘super’ plant that can be used for food, medicine and the making of cloth and cordage. Cordage making begins in the summer once the plant is more mature usually from June/July onwards. Remove the leaves, bash the stem and then open it up to remove the pith. The outer fibres can be plaited or twisted to make strong string or rope. I have found it as enduring as any plant fibre including deer sinew as cordage.
The leaves are full of minerals and vitamins especially A and C, and have a 2.3% iron content and 5.5% protein content by weight. Nettle puree can be made by simmering the leaves for 5 minutes adding butter and seasoning with onion as a tasty alternative to spinach. You can simply boil and steam the vegetable if preferred.
To make nettle crisps just simply shallow fry the freshly picked nettle tops being careful not to burn them and then dab dry with an absorbent paper.
As a medicine nettle can be collected just before it flowers to relieve high blood pressure, cystitis, anaemia (due to mineral rich leaves) and can act as a diuretic. Use the leaves fresh or dry. The root can treat diarrhoea and dysentery and be made into a tincture for eczema.
The plant can also be used to weave cloth; a bronze age Dane was discovered wrapped in nettle fibres.
Only in the last century the plant was used to make table cloths and bed linen in Scotland.
In world war two the plant was gathered to supply chlorophyll for medicines and dye for camouflage nets.
Nettles are also very important for wildlife they support the beautiful butterflies such as the comma, red admiral, peacock, painted lady and the small tortoiseshell.
Keep a patch of nettles and look beyond its spiky appearance to its wealth of uses.
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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.