Bluebell

Bluebells go by different names and is a name used to refer to different but similar plants, thus making research into this plant a bit vague.  For example, in Scotland, bluebell refers to the harebell, and the invasive Spanish bluebell is incredibly similar to our native species.

Some of the names this flower goes by are: Calverkeys, Culverkeys, Auld Man’s Bell, Ring-o’-Bells, Jacinth, Wood Bells, Wild Hyacinth, Fairy Flower, Granfer Griggles, Cra’tae and Bell Bottle.

For me, the bluebell reminds me strongly of my aunty and so is a flower of remembrance.

These beautiful bulbs carpet ancient woodlands throughout Britain and are protected under UK law with a fine of up to £5,000 for each bulb removed.  They are rich in pollen and nectar, providing important food for bumblebees who in turn are the chief pollinators.  That said, cheeky bees can take the nectar without pollinating the flower by biting a hole in the bottom of the bell.  This seems a bit shortsighted because the bluebell provides an important early source of food and the more plants you pollinate, the more plants you’ll have to eat from next year.  A lesson it’s always good to come back to from time to time.   Ask first, take what you need and leave behind enough for the future.  In foraging this means don’t take all the plant because no one else will have any and also because if you do, the plant could die and next year you’ll regret it.

Flowering between mid April and late May, they transform the vista.  Because they spread rapidly, their vibrant blue hues cover the ground in a stunning display.  But be careful, it is said that if you hear a bluebell ring, your death will be soon.  Also, beware of fairies for a bluebell carpet is woven with fairy magic.

Despite their early flowering, their leaves stay around until late autumn, providing ground cover and verdent green lushness until winter when they retreat back under ground to prepare for the next spring bloom.

Possibly due to being poisonous if used incorrectly, the bluebell does not appear in much medicinal lore.  When prepared appropriately, the poisonous bulbs can be used as a remedy for leucorrhoea (thick, white or yellow vaginal discharge), and as a diuretic or styptic (which promotes wound healing).

Outside the healing arena, they have been used for many years.  Their sap is sticky and was used to bind pages into spines of books as well as by Bronze Age people to attach feathers to arrows.  The bulbs, crushed, provided starch for the fancy ruffs of Elizabethan fashion.

Returning to where we started, the name of this pretty flower, we find that Linnaeus (an important guy in plant classification) first called it Hyacinthus.  Hyacinth was said to be a flower of grief and mourning, and whilst it is a delight to look at, if you pay attention to an individual, you can see their heads hanging heavy and sorrowful.  In mythology, Hyancinthus was loved by Apollo and Zephyrus but prefer the Sun-God.  One day, when playing a game with Apollo, Zephyrus blew a quoit off course and it killed Hyacinthus.  Apollo was distraught at the loss of his friend and from his blood created a purple flower.  On this flower the letters Ai, Ai were seen as a reminder of his cry of grief and woe.  As the flowers today do not bear such letters, we have the latin name Hyacinthus nonscriptus, or ‘not written on’.

For me the bluebell is about remembrance, about grief and about magic.  It is about beauty, even when things seem tough.  And it is a lesson in growing and replenishing yourself and learning from hard times.

None of the above should be considered medical advice, do not eat anything unless you’ve done your research. Plants go by different names in different places and have different properties at different times of year. Some of the possible uses of this plant have come from folklore and should not be taken as fact.

Bramble

THE BRAMBLE IN OCTOBER.

THE flora of the year is past
Adown the lanes I ramble,

The faded leaves are falling fast,
Yet jetty hangs the Bramble.

Its blossoms still are silken white,
And black, and red, and green,

Its berries dangle with delight
Fit jewels for a queen.

The Hazel all its nuts hath shed

In many a cozy nook,
And all the flowers have gone to bed

And closed is Flora’s book.

But still the Bramble’s raven eye
Doth glance beneath the bracken,

And many a bank doth beautify
By every flower forsaken.

– James Rigg

The ubiquitous bramble.  The plant which bears the fruit that most of us know as blackberries.  These juicy berries are also known as blackbides, blackbutters, blackites and scald berries depending on where you are.  Another important bit of regional info you might want to check out is the date after which you should no longer pick them.  This varies across the UK and it is said the reason you should not pick them is because the devil will have claimed them as his own by spitting on them.

Blackberries have been eaten for thousands of years and are eaten as they are, used in baking and turned into wine.  They are the quintessential foraging food.  Even if you have done no foraging in your life, there’s still a pretty high chance you’ll have picked blackberries.  Eating them straight off the bush, getting purple fingers and juice dripping down your clothes, perhaps staining them to much your parent’s annoyance… This is a tough plant to erase.  Once it’s found a home, it’s there to stay.  Whether that is a patch of overgrown land or your nice white tshirt.  According to some traditions, a blackberry’s deep purple colour represents Christ’s blood.

The way the bramble grows creates an almost impenetrable thicket.  They have long, thorny, arching shoots and they set up home easily.  Once established, they’re incredibly difficult to eradicate.  This is a plant of tenacity and determination.  Willpower is another word which springs to mind as does perseverance.

The prickly bushes line the sides of roads, paths and inhabit overgrown areas, reclaiming the land.  They are plants of the hedgerow, accompanying the traveller on their journey.  The bramble is the wayfarers constant companion.  But because they are so common, they quickly become overlooked.  Like the woodpigeon, we stop seeing their wonder and beauty and the fruits they bear because they become background noise.

These well recognised plants are used in healing as well as for food.  Their leaves are said to aide headaches, their fruits to help sore throats and folk medicine practitioners are said to have used bramble arches in their healing.

It is, perhaps understandable, bad luck to give a woman a sprig of brambles… That said, we give roses…  In terms of the language of flowers, giving brambles signifies envy and jealousy.  I’m thinking if you’re determined to gift bramble to someone, you’d be best sticking with the fruit…

Which brings us onto the thorns.  Whilst it is generous of the bramble to provide us with blackberries, we must earn them and not take frivolously or beyond what we need.   The thorns keep us in check, managing our greed and our lust.  Blackberries ripen at harvest time, a time of abundance and gathering, calling on us to manage our own balance of preparedness and greed.

The bramble, with it’s power of entanglement, is perhaps asking us to think about how entwined we have become with material possessions.  It may be suggesting we stand our own ground, standing firm and sure. Or perhaps it’s as simple as inviting us to step out onto the paths and forage for these delicious delicacies.

None of the above should be considered medical advice, do not eat anything unless you’ve done your research.  Plants go by different names in different places and have different properties at different times of year.  Some of the possible uses of this plant have come from folklore and should not be taken as fact.

Elder Tree, Elderberries and Elderflowers

“[Elder has] been respected, revered and reviled by turns throughout different cultures and eras, but never ignored”
– Gabrielle Hatfield

A friend suggested I look into this plant and wow.  There is so much of interest here!  It is a plant of contradictions; it is benevolent and malevolent, kindly and spiteful.  An emblem of death, trouble and sorrow but also of health and healing.

Starting with healing, the elder has been called the medicine chest of country people and used as a cure all.  More specifically this has included using bark for rheumatism, the leaves for eczema and burns and berries for colds and flu.  Other ailments that elder is used to treat include bronchitis, coughs, viral infections, disorders of the mouth, the digestive tract and the skin.  It has been used in eye and skin lotions and to increase urination.  As I said, this is a bit of a go to plant when it comes to herbal remedies.

The elder inhabits the edges – hedges, roadsides, pathways – which seems fitting for a plant that is essentially on the fence about its identity, uncommitted to a path of kindness or malevolence.

One example of this ambiguity lies in the blossom.  To give elderflower blossom is a sign of humility, kindness and compassion but if you fall asleep under the elder, then the scent from the blossom is said to poison you or draw you into the fairy world.

I am sure you are all familiar with drinks made from elderflowers and berries, but it did you know that the berries are poisonous unless fully ripe?  And it was believed that standing on elder leaves could lead to a miscarriage. Despite this, the plant has been used to make jams and jellys as well as drinks.

The wood is hard and easy to polish on the outside, but has a soft, easily removed core.  This has lent to it’s use in pipe type instruments such as fairies play and is just one example of the elder embodying opposing concepts.  Further, we see that the elder is a strong plant and grows well but is shallow rooted.  Even to call it a tree is uncertain, is it a bush or a shrub?  It doesn’t really matter to me but further illustrates the ambiguity and puzzling energy of this plant.

Moving on to myth and magic, we find that the elder is a gate between the mundane and the magical realms, the human and the fairy worlds.  The elder plant is inhabited by the elder mother (Hyldemor) who’s permission was needed before you could touch the it, let alone cut it down:

lady elder
give me some of thy wood

then will i give thee some of mine
when i become a tree

If you wanted to pass by, touch or cut the elder tree, it was necessary to perform a ritual.  One book I read told of a man who tipped his hat every time he walked past one.  The consequences of not carrying out the ceremony seem unclear but perhaps we can gleam suggestions from the dangers of using elder:

  • Burning it’s wood would lead to death and disaster and/or bring the devil to sit upon your chimney
  • It was banned from use in domestic settings (eg furniture)
    • It was said that putting a baby in a cot made of elder would cause Elder Mother to come and pull the child’s legs.  Peace could not be achieved until the child was removed from the cot.
  • Whipping a child or animal with elder would stunt their growth
  • As witches wood, a storm could be brewed by stirring water with an elder wand

But as with all things elder related, there is a flip side.  It was said that an elder by the doorstep protects a home, that a flourishing elder on a grave means the dead are happy and elder berries picked on st john’s eve would protect you from magic.

I am unsure where this fits in the benevolent and malevolent scale but a Danish belief says that if you stand under an elder on midsummer’s eve, you’ll see the fairy king ride by.

Elderberries have been called devil’s eyes and yet the plant as a whole has been called the queen of herbs.  Nothing is straightforward or as simple as it seems with the elder.  As the 13th month in the Celtic Tree Calendar, it is both dying and being reborn, the end and the beginning.  Perhaps in light of this, the elder as a plant of contradictions and paradoxes makes more sense.

Elder is juxtapositions, dualities and opposing forces all packed into one delicate seeming plant.  A tree of protection and a tree of harm, perhaps this plant is closer to the fairies that it is associated with than you might first suspect…

“English summer begins with elder flowers and ends with elder berries”


None of the above should be considered medical advice, do not eat anything unless you’ve done your research. Plants go by different names in different places and have different properties at different times of year. Some of the possible uses of this plant have come from folklore and should not be taken as fact.

Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons, from the Greek for rose tree, are a highly invasive species which is not native in the UK.  It is poisonous and it destroys habitats for native wildlife and competes with native plants.  There are over 1,000 species and all parts of the plant contain toxins.  Despite this, we continue to grow them in gardens for pleasure.

I want to start by taking a look at the poison aspect.  When eaten, it causes vomiting, diarrhoea and constipation, slow heart rate, loss of coordination, falling and exhaustion. It tends to be animals that are affected by the poison although it’s still poisonous to humans, it’s just there is less chance of us ingesting it.  Apparently there was a bout of poisoning in 400BC in Turkey that may have been down to toxic honey made from the nectar of the rhododendrons.  Unsurprisingly, in the Victorian language of flowers, this plant symbolises danger and to beware.

The second key aspect of this flower, for me, is that they are big on interbreeding which results in hybrids and new species (hence the vast number of them).  In terms of what this might mean to us if we are drawn to the plant or feel it is sending us a message, I think it’s about boundaries.  Breaking them down and building them up.  It is clearly about sexuality and fertility and creation as well but it’s important to note that the rhododendron isn’t held back by ideas about who it should and shouldn’t breed with.  It isn’t hindered by labels and societal beliefs around race, class, gender and sexuality.  To a certain extent, this feels like an advocate of free love!  Just make sure you keep yourself safe 😉

Outside the sexual arena, this could be asking you to look at collaboration.  Mixing things up.  Taking one idea from one field and using it in another.  Working with someone from a different profession, a different background.  The place where subjects meet is fertile ground for creation of ideas and art works and breakthroughs.  Bring together your passions and see what magic happens!

 

Snowdrop

These delicate flowers are actually hardy plants that permeate the snows and frosts of the early year to brave the cold, wintery air.  The scientific name, Galanthus, comes from the Greek for “milk flower”.  How beautiful and fitting is that?!

In terms of reproduction, they are vigorous and spread rapidly through bulb offsets as well as by seed dispersal and animal and water disturbances.  They tend to be found near human habitation and former monastic sites.  Because they flower so early in the year, they can thrive under deciduous trees who won’t yet have leaves to block the sun.  This gives the snowdrop a specific niche in the woodland that many plants would not be able to survive in.  The more I find out about this plant, the hardier and sturdier they seem to be, despite their delicate appearances.  To push through the snow, they have tough, hardened leaves which can also push through frozen soil.  This is a determined, resolute plant.  The embodiment of power and fragility, strength and softness.

Naturally, given their timing and their colouring, they are celebrated as a sign of spring and the associated purity, birth and fertility.  As the flower of January, they bring hope and remind us that better days are coming.  They are the symbol of candlemas and are dedicated to the virgin mary.

Apparently, when Adam and Eve were forced out of the garden of eden, they entered a world of winter.  Here an angel blow on some snowflakes which turned into snowdrops and were a sign that better things were coming and a lesson that there is always hope, even in the darkest winter.

According to flowermeaning.com, a German legend tells how the snowdrop made a deal with a snowflake:

When God created snow, he gave it the task of visiting the flowers of the earth to gather colors. All the flowers refused, until the snow visited the gentle snowdrop. Seeing that the snowdrop was a kind and generous soul, the snow decided to make a deal. In exchange for her color, the snow agreed to allow the snowdrop to bloom first every spring. The delicate snowdrop agreed and cheerfully blooms amid the snow each spring.

Despite this link to pureness and life, the snowdrop is actually poisonous and can cause death.  A single snowdrop flower is said to signify impending death and should never be bought into the house (possibly because it could be mistaken for something edible?).

For me, the main message from the snowdrop is that of holding duality; life and death, strength and vulnerability.

None of the above should be considered medical advice, do not eat anything unless you’ve done your research.  Plants go by different names in different places and have different properties at different times of year.  Some of the possible uses of this plant have come from folklore and should not be taken as fact.

Lesser Celandine

To the small celandine
Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there’s a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There’s a flower that shall be mine,
‘Tis the little Celandine.

-William Wordsworth

Following on from my dream identification of plantain, I shortly after identified lesser celandine intuitively.  I don’t remember ever learning these plant names, I just have this sense sometimes that I just know something without any idea how or why.  Anyway, for me, this means that the lesser celandine has a personal connection with intuition and knowledge.

Lesser celandine is related to buttercups and is known, less beautifully, as pilewort.  It has heart shaped leaves and little yellow petals which close up in bad weather and display as gorgeous stars in good weather.  Appearing with the swallows in spring, they were traditionally a sign that it was time to sow crops.  This was an important part of the year for our ancestors so the arrival of the little golden flowers will have been significant.

These are not plants that are to be eaten.  If you ingest them raw they can be fatal.  This goes for grazing animals as well.  Despite their pleasant demeanour, they can be deadly.  All plants from the buttercup family contain a chemical which turns into a toxin when the plant is wounded.  This toxin can cause itching, rashes and blistering if it comes in contact with skin.  If eaten, it can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, spasms, paralysis and jaundice.

In addition to harming humans and animals, they are harmful to other plants and are considered invasive species in some parts of the world.  They grow to dominate areas rapidly and have an intensive mat of roots.  This, and it’s early flowering, give it a strign advantage over most plants and it can quickly form a monopoly along the rivers and waterways that it prefers.

Despite all this, lesser celandine has been used medicinally.  As you might guess from it’s alternative name pilewort, it was used to treat haemorrhoids in the past.  It also has antifungal and antibacterial properties, but the plant must be heated or dried to alleviate the effects of the toxin.

The lesser celandine also redeems itself through it’s duty to bees.  As it is one of the first flowers to appear after winter, they are an important source of nectar for insects who are emerging from hibernation.  In particular, they provide vital food for queen bees, without whom we would have no bees and pollination the world over would be fatefully affected.

This role as one of the early flowers of the year has led to it symbolising joy to come.  It is a glimpse of the summer sun and the warmth and harvest that will be reaped.

None of the above should be considered medical advice, do not eat anything unless you’ve done your research.  Plants go by different names in different places and have different properties at different times of year.  Some of the possible uses of this plant have come from folklore and should not be taken as fact.

Woodpigeons

Written on 27th July

The humble woodpigeon… I have been compelled to write this by my two friendly garden woodpigeons.  They perch on my fence and coo and dance about and I see them almost every day.  Then this morning, a juvenile woodpigeon literally crashed into my life, or at least my window.  I was sitting on my bed reading and then bang, crash, bang…  As I write this, the little bird is perched on the window ledge looking a bit stunned and confused.  It keeps peeking into my bedroom and doesn’t seem at all fazed by anything.  I’m assuming it’s in shock but I’m also assuming any attempt to help it right now will only worsen things… I’m fairly certain it’s parents are just the other side of the building so I’m hoping they will conduct the rescue mission.

Woodpigeons seem a very mundane animal to consider.  They are our most common pigeon and are found basically everywhere and have a variety of regional names which reflect this; the woody, cushat, cushy-do, quist, ringdow and ring dove.  But perhaps it’s this abundance that we can learn from.  You can probably recognise a pigeon even if you aren’t at all interested in birds.  And even then you’ll almost certain recognise the call of the woodpigeon.

These birds play the background music to our lives.  They sing away in the chorus, not noticed and not appreciated but important all the same.  Like the earthworm, they are overlooked and their role in the world often goes unremarked upon.  Because of this, when they have a message or a lesson for us, they sometimes need to literally crash into our awareness.  They are calling on us to acknowledge the people, the lives and the things which go unseen.  Whether it’s the train driver that gets you to work, the security guard who always opens the door or the person who collects your bins.  It might be gestures from our friends that we take for granted – that cup of tea your partner makes for you first thing in the morning or the friend who drops you a message every now and then just to let you know they’re thinking of you.  And this goes beyond people and animals and asks that we smile at the little beauties we find in our days.  The way the sun beams dance on the walls.  The flower that is growing with such tenacity through the pavement.

Aside: the one on my window ledge has just started moving around so is hopefully coming out of shock.  He still keeps peeking into the room and I’m quietly smiling back, trying to avoid causing more shock!

They are fairly big for British birds and they look bigger than they are as they often fluff up their feathers.  This appearance of being overweight is not helped when they waddle as they walk…  In reality, their feathers weigh more than their skeleton which is amazing!  It takes a lot of effort for the wood pigeon to take flight and they can’t fly through small gaps.  This means that instead of using stealth to escape, they clatter and clamour through the trees, hence another of their names – the clatter dove.  They make a fuss and make sure that you know they are there.  These background birds do try to get our attention and we should do them the honour of listening.

The birds which hop along my fence make me smile and chuckle and I love hearing them coo when I wake up at obscene times of the day and night.  I love that when I was really ill one night, the woodpigeon kept me company.

As with any animal, reproduction is a huge part of life and for the woodpigeon breeding can occur anytime throughout the year but peaks in August.

Courtship displays involve birds flying fairly high before clapping the wings together and gliding down, as well as males strutting and fluffing out their chest feathers. Daddy woodpigeon will bring his mate nesting materials which she then forms into a shallow and flimsy platform like nest.  Whilst this is most likely in a tree, they aren’t fussy and will adapt depending on the environment, nesting inside buildings or on the ground if they need to.

Once the nest is built, the female lays two white shiny eggs.  These are incubated by both parents for about 17 days before they hatch.  They are then fed milk from the other which is formed in her crop and is highly nutritious.  It takes 29-35 days before the babies fledge.  Sadly, especially for my little guy, the majority of young ones die within their first year…

Reactions to woodpigeons are varied.  I love the two I have on my fence, they make me smile.  And I loved the baby who visited me today despite the emotional trauma he put me through!  Some people go out of their way to feed them whilst others see them purely as pests which steal food from bird feeders and cause damage to crops.  It is estimated that they cause at least £3 million worth of damage to agricultural businesses each year in the UK.  Your feelings about them will depend a lot on your own role in life but remember, however you view them, don’t overlook them.  Pay attention to the abundance and don’t take them for granted.

Update: The woodpigeon has finally left my window.  It promptly went and sat in the road for ages and filled me with fear… It did eventually leave and I wish it a happy, long life.

Edited to add: Reading about the passenger pigeon is a helpful illustration of what happens when we take abundance for granted.