Yuletide berries on the Butcher’s Broom

The berry of the Butcher’s Broom. It is often ovaloid, as pictured. Image © copyright 2016

Holly is not the only plant which bears bright scarlet berries in the frosty weeks leading up to Yuletide. Another prickly character, the Butcher’s Broom, can still be seen sporting these bright fruits in Whitehill Wood this week.

Butcher’s Broom is a strange name, for a strange plant: it is a small, low growing shrub which is related to the lily, yet it offers no apparent resemblance to that flower whatsoever. Between January and April it bears tiny greenish white flowers which, rather than growing on stalks, appear to grow in the centre of the leaves. It is an evergreen, which usually means its leaves stay green through the winter, but what seem to be leaves on the Butcher’s Broom are not really leaves at all, they are flattened stems called clododes, hence the reason the flowers grow where they do. These cladodes are shaped like spear points and are extremely prickly. The real leaves are less obvious.

The flowers of the Butcher’s Broom. Image © copyright 2016

In late autumn through to Christmas, Butcher’s Broom exhibits its beautiful scarlet berries, which are bigger than those of the holly, often ovaloid, but sufficiently similar for it to be sometimes called Knee Holly. Other common names for the plant include Pettigree and Sweet Broom. Although widespread across southern Britain, Butcher’s Broom is not a particularly common sight, but it is an Ancient Woodland Indicator, meaning that if you see it in the wild you may be standing in some very long established woods; as is the case in Whitehill Wood. It generally favours shady areas beneath canopy trees.

In olden times the prickliness of the plant made it an ideal guard to prevent meat hanging in butchers’ shops from being eaten by mice, and also for making scratchy, abrasive brooms. John Parkinson, a botanist and apothecary to James I in the early 1600s wrote about butchers using it thus, “…for that a bundle of the stalkes tied together serveth them to cleanse their stalls and from thence have we our English name of Butcher’s broom.” The plant has also been cultivated across Europe for its numerous medical and cosmetic properties since the days of Ancient Greece.

We wish all readers of a happy festive season.

Sweet summer bounty in a wild black berry

Wild Blackberries, Bishopsbourne. Image © copyright 2016.

The wild Blackberries are fruiting early in the district this year. This familiar straggling plant has something of a love-hate relationship with most people who come across it: in late summer it provides sweet, black-bubbled berries which revitalise the parched palate of a rambler and sit well in an apple pie, but for the rest of the year it is a long stemmed unruly and viciously prickly menace which often bars our way on the footpath or forms an impenetrable cage around the wayward golf ball. Little wonder that the Ancient Britons planted it as an early form of barbed wire fencing.

Today we may see the wild Blackberry just about anywhere, from golf course to woodland, country footpath to urban waste ground. For city dwellers it is just a weed, but for those of us who love our native plants and their history, there is something very special about the wild Blackberry, otherwise known as the Bramble. The term Bramble was originally used to describe any unruly thorny plant, but the Blackberry has taken the name as its own, and appropriately so, for it is rebellious, untameable and quintessentially wild.

Blackberry flowers can be pink or white. Image © copyright 2017.

Throughout our history it has been common practice for local people to go out into the countryside and pick wild berries, particularly wild Blackberries, in ignorance of the wildlife which needs Nature’s summer bounty to survive through winter. In the days of yore there was perhaps a surplus in good years, and people didn’t care much for wildlife anyway: wild animals were a nuisance, a threat, or simply something to eat.

In fact an astonishingly wide range of animals rely on wild Blackberry plants for food, including caterpillars, which feed on the leaves, and butterflies and bees which take nectar from the flowers. When the berries ripen, all kinds of birds and insects, together with mammals like dormice, squirrels, hedgehogs and even badgers come to feed on them. reiterates once more our view that in modern Britain, where wildlife is suffering massive decline through shortage of habitat and food supply, we should all buy cultivated fruits from farm shops or supermarkets and leave wild fruits and nuts out in the wild for those creatures who need them more than we do.

Picking from the wild is stealing from the wild!



Grass darts and summer holidays

A field of False Barley, Patrixbourne Road. Image © Copyright 2017.

And so the great school summer holiday begins. Those who venture out into the fields this month can encounter a plant which, for many older ramblers, will bring back fond memories of dallying childhood walks and endless summer holidays spent playing in the countryside. The plant is a particular form of grass which somebody (we suspect a long, long time ago) once discovered could be thrown like a dart and it would stick to clothing, particularly woolen jumpers and cardigans, which were the popular children’s fashions for those of us of a certain generation. Popular too were the outdoor adventure stories of ‘The Famous Five’ and ‘The Swallows and Amazons’: summer holiday inspiration in those days before computer games, iPhones and a general 21st century disdain for fresh air and the countryside.

False Barley: otherwise known as Dart Grass. Image © Copyright 2017.

The grass in question was False Barley or Wall Barley (Hordeum murinum or variant subspecies) though no one knew it at the time. To the youngsters of those days it was just ‘Dart Grass’ and it was as familiar as brambles, stinging nettles and sticking catchweed (cleavers) which would also cling to clothing. While remembered fondly, Dart Grass is generally regarded by adults as just another weed, but it has a valid place in the wild countryside and can be a significant plant in grazing pasture, although, if left to go to seed, it can be injurious to sheep and sheepdogs. Variants of this grass are often grown as forage for animals in different regions around the world, and in China a similar subspecies is cultivated for human consumption. One wonders if generations of Chinese children have also played grass darts on the walk home from school.

A journey on the Mayflower

Common Hawthorns in bloom, Bridge Meadows, May. Image © Copyright 2017.

The Hawthorn tree is one of our more familiar hedgerow trees, but we also see it growing locally alone in a field or on a riverbank, and when we do we can recognise it by its rugged, stunted shape and resilient attitude, its thorns, its bright red autumn berries and its white, or sometimes pink, spring blossom.

Common Hawthorn in flower, Bridge, May. Image © Copyright 2017.

Those we see in the fields around Bridge are more generally the Common Hawthorn, but there is another less ubiquitous variety, the Midland Hawthorn, which is the true English species of this tree. I have been on a quest to find an example of it in our local area for about five years now, but, throughout that time, my search has been hampered by one small technical problem: I didn’t really know what made it discernibly different. Tree guides waffle on confusingly about leaf shape: the Midland’s leaves are less deeply cut than the Common, the Midland’s lobes are more forward pointing; but try looking at the leaves on just one Common Hawthorn and they are so variable throughout the tree that one could be looking at either species.

However, armed with a new differentiation strategy I have now identified one Midland Hawthorn(1) in a local meadow. From a distance of about three feet the tree is virtually impossible to tell apart from the Common Hawthorns in the same hedgerow, but get up close, examine a flower and the difference becomes apparent. Common Hawthorn has just one green style amidst the stamens in its flower, while Midland Hawthorn has two, or possibly three. On examination the leaf shape of this tree is as described in the tree guides, but it would be very difficult to identify the tree on that basis alone.

Midland Hawthorn flowers, Bridge Meadows, on an evening in May. Note the two green styles at the centre of the flower. Image © Copyright 2017.

So, to my great delight, after years searching, I have found my Midland Hawthorn, right here in a meadow behind my home. Why does it matter? Those who have to ask may never understand, but for the amateur naturalist such quests are the learning journeys which make life and the natural world that little bit more interesting. Furthermore, the Midland Hawthorn is hugely significant in our history: its flower is the Mayflower, for centuries the very emblem of May in rural England. It symbolises hope and new beginning. In the superstitious times of the 17th century, many ships were called Mayflower, but it turned out to be a wonderfully apt name for a little ship sailing out into the New World in 1620 with a group of pilgrims on their own journey of hope, personal development and new beginning.

(1) As with many trees, Midland and Common Hawthorns do hybridise, so this may not strictly be a genetically pure example of the Midland species.


The White Bryony and the Black

A typical view of White Bryony in Autumn as the leaves shrivel and the berries hang in strings. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

A typical view of White Bryony in Autumn as the leaves shrivel and the berries hang in strings. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

At this time of year there are various kinds of berries to be found in woodland and hedgerow. Some are harmless and were traditionally used for making wine or conserves, others are toxic and must be avoided. Two lesser known berries in the latter category are that of the English White Bryony (Bryony Dioica) and Black Bryony (Tamus Communis), both of which can be seen in various locations around Bridge.

White Bryony
English White Bryony is a perennial hedgerow vine of the cucumber family which displays small white-tinged green flowers in the summer.

Male flower of White Bryony, Mill Lane, Bridge. July. Image © copyright 2016.

Male flower of White Bryony, Mill Lane, Bridge. July. Image © copyright 2016.

It grows vigourously, supporting itself as a climber with thin winding tendrils which cling to other plants, walls, fences and just about anything else. It is sometimes called the False Mandrake or English Mandrake because, like the true Mandrake plant of the Mediterranean, it has a huge root tuber, over half a metre long, which can grow to resemble the shape of the human body. In olden days bawdy examples of such were sometimes displayed suspended in the windows of herb shops.

White Bryony berries in August. Near Mill Terrace, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

White Bryony berries in August. Near Mill Terrace, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

The berries, formed in late summer, begin green before turning yellow then finally bright scarlet: they may still be seen on the plant in winter frosts even after the leaves have withered. They are, like the large tuber, extremely poisonous. Deaths of people and livestock caused by eating the plant are historically recorded but extremely rare.

Black Bryony
Black Bryony shares the same climbing habits as the white, and may also be found in the hedgerow and amongst woodland undergrowth, as was the example pictured. Resembling the ‘Ace of Spades’, the leaf of Black Bryony is rather different from that of White Bryony, but the berries are very similar. All parts of the plant are extremely poisonous when raw. Nevertheless the young shoots of Black Bryony are commonly cooked and eaten in France, Spain and Portugal. Salves made from the plant have also been used historically to ease bruising.

Black Bryony berries in September. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

Black Bryony berries in September. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright 2016.

A note on poisonous berries
The berries of both plants are extremely toxic, but there is no great cause for alarm; many of our native wild plants, including buttercups, daises, foxgloves and daffodils are very poisonous if eaten in sufficient quantity. However, it is extremely rare, even for a curious child, to eat enough of a horrible tasting wild plant to make themselves seriously ill. Nevertheless, parents should always advise children not to eat wild plants and berries and should set them a good example by explaining that wild fruits must be left untouched in the hedgerow so that our wildlife can prosper. Some berries are intended to fall to the ground and nurture the seeds within them, others are eaten by wild creatures and the seeds inside are distributed across the countryside.

Blooming Turnips

Turnip Flowers in fields off Patrixbourne Road, Bridge/Patrixbourne. Image copyright © 2016

Turnip Flowers in fields off Patrixbourne Road, Bridge/Patrixbourne. Image copyright © 2016

Take a stroll from Bridge down the Patrixbourne Road this week and you might get the impression that you can see the bright yellow flowers of Oilseed Rape blooming in fields beside the road. This has caused a little confusion for some local residents, who couldn’t work out how the plants have grown so quickly after the previous crop of Stubble Turnips. However, the flowers are not Oilseed Rape flowers, they belong to those same Turnips which were the subject of our article some weeks ago.

As we indicated at the time, most Stubble Turnips are grazed in situ in the fields so they do not get to the flowering stage but, following advice from our local farmer, we now know that these Turnips have been grown for seed. Hence, the crop has been left in the field for longer than normal and, once the plants have flowered, the seeds will be collected by combine harvester and sold on to other farmers for their own Turnip planting. Growing Turnips for seed does not happen as often as growing for forage, so the sight of a field of Turnip flowers is really quite unusual: in most cases in the UK a crop of tall yellow flowering plants will indeed be Oilseed Rape.

From a distance it’s pretty much impossible to tell the two plants (both Brassicas) apart, the flowers appear identical to all but an expert and they both grow on long leafy stems which come up to waste height. Close up there are clear differences in the leaves when seen side by side, but a simpler way to distinguish the plants is to look to the ground between the stems and if you see large rounded Turnips protruding from the earth then you are not looking at a field of Oilseed Rape. In this case the Turnips will be ploughed into the ground for soil improvement once the seeds are harvested.

Stubble Turnips

A Stubble Turnip (possibly a variety called Samson) in a field off Patrixbourne Road. Image copyright © 2016

A Stubble Turnip (possibly a variety called Samson) in a field off Patrixbourne Road. Image copyright © 2016

A number of residents have queried the rather scruffy crop which is growing in two fields off the Patrixbourne Road out of Bridge. This is Stubble Turnip, a Brassica and a close relative of the turnips which formed the staple diet of Britain and the Nordic countries before the discovery of the potato. The Stubble Turnip is increasingly grown by livestock farmers in order to feed their animals. The plants are drilled or scattered as seeds in the fields, sometimes where the stubble of a previous cereal crop remains: hence the name.

The mature crop, which is energy-rich and highly digestible to sheep and cattle, can be pulled up and stored for the future if required, but it is often left in situ for livestock to graze on. A forage field is usually sown in strips at different time intervals so that, as the plants grow, the sections of the field can be fenced off allowing the animals loose only on the older plants. Both the root and the leafy top can be consumed.

As with many vegetables, different varieties of Stubble Turnips are available to suit different soil types and feeding requirements. At soil level those growing along the Patrixbourne Road (pictured) closely resemble the purple ball-shaped root turnips we eat, but these forage varieties grow a deeper, more cylindrical tuber with greater mass.

Stubble Turnips are one of the most economical ways for a farmer to feed animals. They can be grown as a single crop, or, if they are going to be grazed, sometimes as a mixed crop with other forage plants in the same field. According to one of the country’s leading seed suppliers, a 3 acre field of stubble turnips will feed 100 sheep for a month.


Black fields of Field Beans black

'Fields of Black'. Field Beans, Bridge area September 2015.

‘Fields of Black’. Field Beans, Bridge area September 2015.

Residents ambling out and about amongst the fields around Bridge in the last week or two may have noticed some of them looking distinctly black with what appears to be a wholly wasted crop of small broad beans. These are the matured Field Beans which we reported on in the article ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’ when they were sown back in March this year.

Despite their rather devastated appearance, our local crops of Field Beans have not gone to waste: they have been sprayed to kill off the foliage and weaken the stems for harvesting. The stems are deliberately allowed to decay in this way in order to facilitate mechanical picking with a combine harvester, which will be happening soon. Any chemical residue from spraying remains on the pod, we hope.

With a protein content of around 22% Field Beans are an excellent food stuff. Some are exported to the middle east for human consumption, but Field Beans are not much liked in the kitchens of Britain so a lot of our crop goes to winter fodder for farm livestock. Ironically, the Field Bean group includes Navy Beans, the beans which are used to make Heinz Baked Beans, immensely popular in the UK, but those do not grow successfully here.

Field Beans inside the black pods.

Field Beans inside their black pods.

Besides being profitable produce, beans are also planted as a ‘nitrogen fixing’ crop. This means they are able to absorb nitrogen from the air and hold it in their roots. When the plant dies off the roots add nitrogen rich compost to the soil thereby improving conditions for whatever is planted to follow.

Hogweed in the meadows

Hogweed growing tall in Bridge meadows. July 2015.

Hogweed growing tall in Bridge meadows. July 2015.

After media reports of a new and dangerous plant in our countryside it seems landowners, farmers and ramblers alike have all been on the lookout for the menace. The plant is Giant Hogweed and it has come to public attention in recent months because it is actually pretty nasty stuff which is apparently spreading rapidly throughout Europe and America.

A relative of our own native Common Hogweed, which we more generally know as Cow Parsnip, Giant Hogweed was introduced from Central Asia as a decorative border plant in the 19th century, an introduction which the authorities are now wishing had never happened because the plant is so invasive and difficult to get rid of. Furthermore, the sap of Giant Hogweed causes a reaction in the skin which makes it terribly sensitive to sunlight causing severe blisters which can take months to heal. Thereafter the skin my still remain prone to blistering in sunlight for many years. Obviously this plant should not be handled or squeezed past when out rambling.

Cow Parsnip, our own native Common Hogweed, can also cause a similar reaction on the skin in some people if handled, but the effects are not as severe, which is probably why most of those of us who have grown up in the English countryside were not particularly aware of any major concerns about it. It too should not be handled with bare hands, but it has been here for hundreds of years without too many problems occurring, so there is no cause for panic over Cow Parsnip.

We are discussing this because residents who have walked through Bridge meadows in the last couple of weeks may have wondered what those tall, thick stemmed, white flowered plants are growing along the riverside: are they our native Cow Parsnip, or the more sinister Giant Hogweed? has checked carefully using a number of reference sources and we firmly believe the plants in our meadows and along Sheep Dip Lane are our native Cow Parsnip, which seems to have thrived in our area this year.

The simplest way to tell the difference is in the number of rays coming off a stem (see photo diagram below). Native Cow Parsnip has between 15 – 30 rays on a stem, while Giant Hogweed has between 50 – 150. All those stems we counted in Bridge meadows had around 18 rays on a stem. Another check is stem colour; the stems of the plants in Bridge are mostly green graduating to tints of purple, but Giant Hogweed stems are speckled with purple and we have seen none like that. One further check is height; Cow Parsnip can grow up to about 7ft high, as do some of the plants in the meadows, but Giant Hogweed tends to grow from 7ft up to about 18ft with flower heads 3ft in diameter. We have seen no examples of this in the Bridge area.

Diagram showing the rays on a hogweed plant. This example from Bridge meadows is clearly Cow Parsnip.

Diagram showing the rays on a hogweed flower head. This example from Bridge meadows is clearly Cow Parsnip.

After much searching in the local area we have found one clump of Hogweed along Bourne Park Road and directly opposite the entrance to Bourne Park which has 32 rays coming off a stem. At this stage the plant’s height is about 7ft, in line with much of the other Hogweed in the area. We believe this is also Cow Parsnip but we cannot be certain and its true identity may not become apparent until next year’s growth. will be monitoring all known patches of Hogweed over the next couple of years to ensure that our identification is correct. In the meantime if any readers feel that we have got our identification wrong we would welcome their opinions.

For further guidance the pdf link below provides a (rather poor) guide to the differences between Giant Hogweed and Cow Parsnip provided by the official British Non-Native Species Secretariat:


Although it is American, the site link below provides a much more clear visual guide by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. (If it appears underlined you can click on it or, if not, copy it into your browser).

Sainfoin, devoured greedily by donkeys

Common Sainfoin in fields off Mill Terrace, Bridge. June 2015.

Common Sainfoin in fields off Mill Terrace, Bridge. June 2015.

Currently flowering in a field margin off Mill Terrace in Bridge are a few stems of the beautiful Common Sainfoin, pictured above; one of the perennial herb family called Onobrychis. In Ancient Greek the name Onobrychis means ‘devoured greedily by donkeys’ and this gives us a clue to Sainfoin’s history and agricultural significance.

Although now considered naturalised as a wild flower, Common Sainfoin was grown across Europe for centuries as a forage legume and feed additive for sheep, goats, horses and donkeys. Not only did the animals adore it, but it provided essential vitamins and protein along with a natural ‘anthelmintic’, meaning it killed parasites within the gut, and it did so without any harmful side effects.

As it happens the stems of Sainfoin pictured above are growing beside a field full of clover, also grown in pasture as a legume to provide extra nutrition for grazing livestock. In recent years clover has been sown in preference to Sainfoin, but in some animals it can cause bloat, a condition which is both painful and life threatening. As an alternative, scientists and farmers across the world are now reassessing Common Sainfoin’s benefits: it apparently never causes bloat, relieves methane build up, reduces reliance on synthetic drugs, is highly nutritious for animals, and offers drought resistant bio-diversity in farmland.

Sainfoin honey is considered to be amongst the best in the world.

Sainfoin honey is considered to be amongst the best in the world.

As if that weren’t enough, Common Sainfoin provides an excellent source of nectar for bees: studies have shown that it seems to attract around ten times more bees than white clover, and honey produced by bees with Sainfoin nectar is considered by connoisseurs to be amongst the best in the world.