Wild Flowers

Right in front of your nose

Stinking Hellibore, Ford Close, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2018.

Those walking along Western Avenue in Bridge this January may have noticed an unusual flowering plant growing under the trees in the Ford Close garden square. If you haven’t seen it, do go back and have a closer look; for there, right in front of your nose, you will see the rather rare Stinking Hellibore.

Despite the name, this is a delightfully exotic looking plant of subtle blooms and colouring, which seems out of place here flowering alone in a British winter, but it is one of our two native wild Hellibores, the other being the Green Hellibore. Both are related to the buttercup. They are sometimes grown in private gardens for their winter foliage and flowers, and it is of course possible that this one is an escapee, but that possibility is in itself part of the story of our native Hellibores; they have been passing from the wild into gardens and back again for centuries, but nevertheless they have become a rare sight in the wild in modern times. For location they prefer the semi-shade and shelter of trees on chalky soil, as we have locally on the downs: and being a true winter flower, they display an abundance of discreet blooms from January through into spring.

Stinking Hellibore flower. 27 January 2018. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2018.

The name Stinking Hellibore and the plant’s other common appellation, Dungwort, may seem to give an ominous clue to its aroma, but it’s a false lead: the plant can sometimes have a very pleasant fragrance and only when it is crushed does it smell mildly unsavoury. Parts of the plant contain digitalin, used medicinally for lowering blood pressure, but Stinking Hellibore is extremely toxic so its use is restricted: it must never be eaten and hands must be washed after contact(1).

(1) Anyone with safety concerns about this should note buttercups, daffodils and many other common flowers are also very toxic, but cases of poisoning are extremely rare.

A vase of flowers

A flower display on the bar at the Red Lion in Bridge, made by Sandra using flowers from the garden. July 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2018.

For centuries people have enjoyed the sight of flowers, in the wild, in gardens and in their homes. However, in the past, bringing flowers into the house often had a particular purpose or meaning beyond just providing something pretty to look at. They would be strategically positioned above doors and windows to ward off evil spirits, or carefully placed in certain rooms to bring good luck and good health to the occupants. This tradition extended right through history into the 20th century with visitors taking flowers to those who were ill in hospital. Conversely, old folklore also provides an extensive list of flowers which should never be brought into the home for fear of inviting illness or bad luck upon the residents: this includes any type of blossom (particularly hawthorn), lilies, bluebells, dandelions and many other wild flowers.

These days we are less superstitious, some might say less spiritual, and few people actually bring flowers into the house to ward off evil spirits or to prevent diseases, yet millions of us display flowers in vases in locations around the home and the workplace because of the cheer they bring. We say “flowers brighten up the room” but what we really mean is “flowers brighten up our mood”. Scientific behavioural studies have shown that this, in itself, is no mere superstition: living and working in the presence of an attractive display of flowers really does trigger feelings of happiness and emotional well-being in everyone, men and women of all age groups. Furthermore studies show that for some reason, which is not clearly understood, a display of flowers in a room makes us more friendly, more willing to share, and has a much more powerful positive effect on our social behaviour than is generally assumed. One simple theory which might explain these responses, is that the colours, shapes and scents of flowers remind us biologically and emotionally of the idyllic conditions of spring and early summer when all animal and plant life bursts forth anew.

So, here in mid-winter, while we endure the coldest, most depressing months of the year, an attractive display of flowers in the home or office may provide a natural remedy to the winter blues; but of course the blooms in any such display are likely to be imported.

Wild flowers should be left in the wild, please do not pick them for your home!

The bright jewels of the Gladwin Iris

Gladwin Iris seed pods burst open on the Butts, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Take a stroll up onto the Butts this week and there, beneath a tangled little copse of bramble, elder and hawthorn, you may see this delightful display of orange seeds hanging like early Christmas decorations on the stems of the Gladwin Iris.

The Gladwin Iris is one of our two native Iris plants, yet it is often unrecognised out in the wild in summer because of its rather scruffy drab yellow-grey-purple flowers. In fact, so indistinct are the flowers of those plants on the Butts, that we have never yet observed them in bloom. Colours in the petals of local variants can be quite diverse and these are perhaps more drab than most, but if they are not showy in summer, they come into their own in autumn with an illuminating display of orange seeds that stand out vividly against the subdued backdrop colours of the season.

Gladwin Iris seeds on the Butts, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The Gladwin Iris is also known by another more common but less attractive name, the Stinking Iris: this because someone long ago considered the smell of the crushed leaves to be rather unpleasant. Whoever it was, they were probably squashing the leaves with a pestle and mortar in the preparation of a herbal remedy, and it was perhaps contaminated in some way, for those who practice such procedures today insist the leaves have no such odour. In fact, regardless of any supposed smell, the Gladwin Iris was highly valued as a medicinal plant, and a poultice made from its leaves was a trusted prescription for removing deep splinters and arrowheads from the flesh.

Today we use modern medicines and our gardeners more often plant imported Irises for the prettiness of their blooms, but in our humble native Gladwin we have an example of how Nature offers beauty in more varied means than just a pretty flower.

The most important flower

A Common Ivy flower cluster growing at The Butts, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

If we were to try to consider which one of our native flowers was the most important, which would it be? It’s an impossible question to answer, because we would have to ask: most important for what, and for whom? The rose, with so much history attached to its symbolism, might be considered our most important flower culturally; yet the daisy family Asteraceae is by far the most significant numerically, with over 22,000 species in the clan; and what of the flowering trees, where would we be without them? But ask an apiologist which is our most important flower, and the answer may surprise you; for this ‘one who studies bees’ might say with some certainty that it is the flower of the Common Ivy.

Bees thrive in summer, gathering nectar from flowers of all kinds and incidentally taking with them pollen from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another in the process of pollination which, in turn, allows fertilisation for the reproduction of our plants. In this respect, bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies, hover flies and many other insects do an immensely important job in our countryside: every year, simply by going from flower to flower in search of nectar (their primary food) they cause nearly all of our plants, most of our trees and most of our crops to produce seeds for next year. But what happens in mid-September and October when all the pretty summer flowers have died?

A wild bee on a Common Ivy flower cluster, Mill Lane, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Common Ivy blooms later in the year than most other plants, so it is virtually the only source of autumn nectar for bees and other insects. And what a good source of nourishment it is: Ivy grows everywhere and its flowers, which are tiny, yellow-green, and grow in spherical clusters, are laden with a rich nectar with a very high sugar content: the main ingredient these insects need. Some scientists have suggested that, without a final feed up on Ivy, most of our bees and many of our insects simply could not survive from late summer through to the next spring; and with no bees to pollinate the plants in spring, our environment would face devastation.

Common Ivy is often regarded as a garden nuisance: no one buys it for its blooms; few people even realise that it bears flowers, and certainly no one puts them on show in a vase. But this unassuming little bloom, which forms the flower-balls of the Common Ivy, just might be our countryside’s most important flower of all.

On Lady’s Bedstraw

Lady’s Bedstraw, The Butts, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In the last few weeks, that bright and breezy stretch of the Kent Downs up beside the old railway known locally as ‘The Butts’ has been a colourful place, as yellow Lady’s Bedstraw lies across the hillside under a perfect blue of English summer sky.

The plant is so named because it retains a soft springiness after drying, which made it an ideal filling for mattresses, and it was used traditionally for that purpose before modern manufacturing. One might even argue that it was better suited than some of the materials that replaced it, because the pleasant honeyed scent of the flowers aids sleep and eradicates fleas.

Lady’s Bedstraw is a common plant of heathland and meadow across Europe, and it is perfect for the chalk grasslands of the Kent Downs. A wonderful plant for pollinators, it attracts bees, butterflies, caterpillars and all those who have an appreciation for the downs in their finest summer glory.

The lure of the Bee Orchid

Humble Bee Orchid, secret location, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Currently flowering in a secret location up on the downs are a few specimens of the astonishingly exotic and oddly named Humble Bee Orchid: ‘Humble’ being an alternative for ‘Bumble’, although this has now generally been dropped in favour of the more simple name Bee Orchid. Humble Bee Orchid is a more apt name though, because it gives us a clue about what this flower is, and isn’t, for all is not quite what it seems.

This is a flower which pretends to be a bee visiting another far less showy bloom. From the perspective of certain male bees, it looks like a female bee, it smells like a female bee and, if they snuggle up close, it even feels furry like a female bee; but of course it isn’t, it’s just a clever imposter flower tricking male bees into close contact so that its pollen will get attached to the visitor and passed on to other orchids of the same variety.

This is Nature and evolutionary adaptation being very clever, in fact so ingenious that it’s immensely disappointing to learn that the great deception is totally wasted in Britain because we don’t have the right kind of bees living here to make the pollination work, so British Bee Orchids have further adapted to be self-pollinating.

Nevertheless, the little wild Humble Bee Orchid is an intriguing and beautiful sight to see up on the downs, but, just like a bee, you need to get up close and personal in order to appreciate its finer details.

Humble Bee Orchid, secret location, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In the meadow of the Moon Daisy

Oxeye Daisies, Bridge area, June 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Walkers who venture along the farm track extending from Mill Terrace in Bridge will, once again, see a swathe of flowers growing in a field near the old Elham Valley Railway. Currently in bloom are thousands of Oxeye Daisies (alternative spelling Ox-eye) planted by our local farmer a couple of years ago. We believe more have flowered this month than this time last summer. Sometimes these are called Moon Daisies, either because of the bright yellow disc of florets at their centre, or perhaps because the flowers seem to glow in the moonlight.

While, in the past, some formal gardeners and indeed farmers too, may have considered the Oxeye Daisy to be a weed, in these more enlightened times it is recognised as a true grassland flower to be valued for the biodiversity it brings to the Kentish chalk downlands. The yellow florets at the centre of the flower will provide nectar for a whole range of pollinating insects, particularly bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Farms need to be growing food, but it is now well understood that biodiversity assists in that cause and one of the ‘beauties’ of our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is that it can, and should, be retained and enhanced as a preserve of biodiversity for the benefit of our entire countryside.

Also growing in the same area, though blooming at different times are chicory, cornflower, yarrow, wild carrot, buttercup, common mallow, herb robert, black horehound, herb bennet, knapweed, ragwort, selfheal, birdsfoot trefoil, field marigold, dandelion and scarlet pimpernel.


Summer and the Salsify

Salsify growing wild along Western Avenue. Summer 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

As the summer of 2017 arrives, residents of Western Avenue and the closes leading off may have noticed a number of tall purple flowers blooming in the communal gardens and verges right along the road. These are Purple Salsify. The flowers themselves closely resemble Goatsbeard, but its flowers are yellow: hence Salsify is sometimes referred to as Purple Goatsbeard. Here on BridgeNature.org, we prefer to use these common English or colloquial names rather than formal scientific classifications, but we can’t resist mentioning Salisfy’s distinctive Latin name, Tragopogon porrifolius, which means ‘Goat’s beard with the leaves of a leek’.

The plants along Western Avenue appear to be growing wild and may be naturalised, but Salsify is of European mainland origin and was brought here, probably in the 16th century, for its blooms, which make an attractive garden feature en masse. After flowering, the heads transform into rough fluff balls of seeds which are something like the familiar seed head of the dandelion, but less spherical and somewhat larger.

Salsify seed head, Western Avenue, June. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Historically Salsify has also been cultivated across Europe as a root vegetable. It is in the same family as the parsnip, but the Salsify root is much thinner and apparently tastes a little of oysters. Although this may sound tempting, we urge those who fancy trying to cook some not to attempt to pull them up: the roots are extremely difficult to retrieve from the ground and you will simply end up snapping the stem and spoiling the display for the rest of us. Let us all just enjoy this attractive and intriguing new feature of our avenue.


In homage to a Dandy Lion

Dandelions, Bridge area. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Take a little stroll into the countryside or past any stretch of roadside verge this month and the chances are you will see at least one Dandelion, perhaps many, glowing like little fiery suns amongst the grass stems and the decaying detritus of winter. The social conditioning of a muddled western world tells us to dismiss these blooms as common weeds, but cast away that prejudice, take another look and the brilliant yellow Dandelion is surely as delightful as any native flower this country has to offer.

However, the name Dandelion, comes, not as our title might suggest, from the splendid appearance of the flower, but from the leaf, the serrated edge of which was thought to resemble the teeth of a lion: hence the French ‘Dente-de-Lion’. We prefer our English corruption of the name.

Although Dandelions can be seen in flower during many months of the year, the most prolific blooms occur between March and May, just when many bees and pollinating insects are emerging from hibernation and looking for a good spring feed. How fortunate then that this ubiquitous little flower is laden with pollen and nectar just at the right time.

For humans too the plant is entirely edible and offers copious quantities of vitamins and minerals and it has been used to make wine, salads and medicines. The stem contains a milky latex fluid which has very similar properties to natural rubber, offering great potential for farming and industrial processing.

Dandelion seeds, Bridge area. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

After the Dandelion has bloomed, the petals dry and fall from the flower head and the bracts beneath pull backwards miraculously revealing a perfect fluffy sphere of seeds, which are a favourite food of goldfinches. If not eaten first, these seeds detach and sail in the slightest breeze, dispersing across the countryside to propagate the plants elsewhere, so that a next generation of bees will have food to feast on in spring.

Once we know all this, calling a Dandelion a weed is something of an insult to one of our most beautiful and ecologically valuable wild flowers.

The early purple of an Orchid

Early Purple Orchids in Whitehill Wood. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017

This week in one small area of Whitehill Wood, Early Purple Orchids can be seen in bloom. The Early Purple is the earliest of our Orchids to flower, beginning in April (often alongside the spring bluebells) and continuing until the end of June. Inhabiting non-acidic grassland and ancient woodland in many parts of Britain, it is the most common of our native Orchids, though not the ubiquitous sight it once was.

The plant stands as a single, flower-bearing stem, perhaps a foot high, rising above the anemones and bluebells on the woodland floor. This Orchid can be difficult to distinguish by flower colour alone, because it varies considerably in hue from purple through to pink and can even appear white. Identification is made easier by some particular features of its growth: the arrival of its flowers much earlier than any other Orchid; a rosette of dark spotted glossy leaves around its base; and sometimes a faint, somewhat unpleasant odour.

Early Purple Orchids in Whitehill Wood. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017

From time immemorial the tuberous root of the Early Purple Orchid (and related species) has been processed into ‘Salep’, a starchy flour used in preparations or medicinal drinks for soothing ailments and irritations of the intestines, particularly in children. Before the widespread use of coffee, Orchid root, often imported from the Middle East, was sold on the streets of London for preparing a very popular nutritious beverage called ‘Saloop’ made from this same Salep starch. ‘Salhab’ is a version of this drink which is still popular in Turkey and the Levant today.

We remind readers that today Orchids and other wild flowers are protected and it is an offence to pick them or dig up their roots.