Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca

Tufted Vetch
A month ago I wrote about our wildflower meadow and at the time of writing it was predominantly white. A month later, the Wild Carrots are still in flower but the southern half of the meadow is now purple with Tufted Vetch, Vicia cracca. All this comes from a single plant, though I notice it has set seed and there is a much smaller plant to the north.

Tufted Vetch is a member of the Pea family (Fabaceae) and is a scrambling perennial herb that dies down completely in the winter. Indeed, this spring I wondered if I’d lost the plant, as I could find no sign of it when most of the other wild flowers in the meadow started to grow. I needn’t have worried – the plant is in rude health. It started to flower at the end of June and will continue into August. After it has flowered, four to eight seeds will be produced per pod. Each pod has a distinctive nail or claw-like tip.

My plant came in a pot but Tufted Vetch is found in most parts of the British Isles, in hedgerows, road verges, woodland edges, scrubby grassland and on river and canal banks. It can also be found in permanent pastures and hay meadows, provided these are cut late in the season after the plant has set seed. It doesn’t like permanently wet soil but grows in drier parts of marshes and fens. Outside Britain, Tufted Vetch occurs throughout Europe, in Greenland and in Asia as far east as Japan. It has been introduced to North America, where it is naturalised from Canada to South Carolina, including Minnesota. (It is sometimes considered to be invasive.) Its other English names include Cow Vetch, Bird Vetch, Blue Vetch and Boreal Vetch.

Tufted Vetch needs the support of other plants and it scrambles up their stems, using tendrils. But its leaves are fine enough to allow light to reach the plants that provide its support. I love Tufted Vetch’s single-sided clusters of blue-violet flowers and so do bees, especially the Brown-banded Carder Bee, Bombus pascuorum.

Bombus pascuorum on Tufted Vetch

Bombus pascuorum (Brown-banded Carder Bee) on Tufted Vetch

Tufted Vetch can be used as a green manure or as a forage crop for cattle and, like other members of the Pea family, the plant has root nodules which contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Budgerigars and other pet birds are apparently fond of the seed and foliage.

According to the Plants For A Future website Tufted Vetch’s seeds can be eaten when cooked (boiled or roasted) and the leaves and young stems can be eaten if cooked. The leaves can also be used to make a tea. The plant can promote lactation – the technical name is “galactogogue“.

If you’d like to grow Tufted Vetch, it is quite easy to grow from seed. The tough seed coat inhibits germination, so you may need to be patient, or you can scarify the seed to speed things up.

Our Wildflower Meadow

Meadow in mid June 2016. (The yellow flower at the front is Cat’s-ear, which was already in the lawn.)

When we moved house just over three years ago the garden was empty, almost literally. The previous owners didn’t like gardening and the back garden was mostly lawn.

Within days we had started to create a garden – this was a much higher priority than making changes to the house. By the end of the first summer we had several flowerbeds, a gravel garden, a greenhouse and a pond. The next step was to make the lawn a bit more exciting, by creating a small wildflower meadow, just nine feet (nearly three metres) long and six feet (nearly two metres) wide. We chose a sunny spot towards the end of the garden.

I started work in August 2013 by removing the turf. Removing turf reduces the fertlity of the soil and this helps to prevent the grass from becoming too lush once your meadow establishes itself. If you take the turf up and lightly disturb the soil and then leave it for several weeks, you should be able to remove the resulting crop of weeds by hand and then sow your wildflower seeds. But the summer of 2013 was very dry and I found that nothing germinated until I sowed my wildflower seeds on 8th September and watered them in.

clear ground

September 2013: I removed the turf and sowed the wild flower seeds.

I sowed a wildflower seed mix for sandy soils from Emorsgate Seeds. It is a good idea to know what soil type you have, as different mixes are available for different soils but if you’re not sure, you can choose a general purpose wildflower mix.

A wildflower mix for a meadow includes grasses such as Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), Crested Dogstail (Cynosurus cristatus) and Smaller Cat’s-tail (Phleum bertolonii). These are very beautfiful and add to the meadow’s interest to humans and wildlife alike.

As the meadow grew I also added container grown plants in ones and twos, such as Lesser and Greater Knapweeds (Centaurea nigra and C. scabiosa), Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris), Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca). I also moved some Oxeye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) from the allotment to one corner of the meadow.

This is now the meadow’s third summer and it has changed every year.

In the first summer poppies dominated. They weren’t in the seed mix but the soil’s seed bank. They were extremely pretty and actually benefitted the slower growing perennials in the seed mix by acting as a nurse crop, proving protection to the growing seedlings.

mostly poppies

Early June 2014: Mostly poppies, plus a clump of transplanted Oxeye Daisies.

In the second summer the poppies mostly died out but the flowers from the seed mix more than made up for this loss, especially the airy red-green dock flowers of Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and a mass of Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), the latter proving very popular with various beetles. Common Red Soldier Beetles (Rhagonycha fulva) actually preferred these heads to those of Bishop’s Flower (Ammi majus), the star of the previous summer.

This year more plants from the seed mix have matured: Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) is in flower and there are recognisable plants of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), which will flower later in the summer or next year. Hairy Tare (Vicia hirsuta) and Common Vetch (Vicia sativa) have established themselves from seed and the Oxeye Daisies have spread throughout the meadow.

meadow July 2015

Mid July 2015: Wild Carrot and Bird’s-foot Trefoil in the meadow. The border in the background is also in full flower, giving the illusion that the meadow is larger than it is.

Every time we walk around the garden we do at least a couple of circuits of the meadow, looking at the flowers and the insects they attract. Apart from a pond (which is even better), creating a small wild flower meadow (or a big one if you have room) is one of the best ways of attracting wildlife to a garden.

I expect the meadow to continue to develop over the years. Once established it requires very little maintenance, other than a cut at the end of summer with a pair of shears, removing the cuttings after a couple of days. Removing the cuttings keeps the soil fertility low, which is especially important on heavier soils, otherwise coarser grasses and vigorous weeds can become established. Last year I cut half the meadow but left the other half as shelter for hibernating invertebrates and frogs, and because the dead heads of the Wild Carrots were so lovely.

On our allotment (also on sandy soil) we established a much larger wildflower meadow over ten years ago. This supports insects such as the Six-spot Burnet moth and Long-winged Coneheads. It also has a self-supporting population of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), which is a hemiparasite on grasses and restricts their vigour. I tried to establish Yellow Rattle in the meadow in the garden in autumn 2014 but only a few plants grew last year. I will probably try again: if I do I will need to create some open spaces with bare soil within the meadow to encourage it to establish. I would need to sow the seed in autumn, as it needs a period of winter chill in order to germinate.

Yellow rattle in the meadow on the allotment, June 2016.

Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae

Ivy Broomrape

Ivy Broomrape, Orobanche hederae

Earlier this year I wrote about Purple Broomrape, Orobanche purpurea. Last month, while walking on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, I encountered its relative Orobanche hederae, the Ivy Broomrape for the first time.

Ivy Broomrape has been recorded in a couple of 10km squares in Norfolk, but it is more commonly found further south in England, where its host, Ivy (Hedera helix, particularly subspecies hibernica) grows. Orobanche hederae grows on the roots of Ivy and is a holo-parasite, utterly dependent on its host for food.

I found my plants on the cliffs where Ivy was growing: it is also found in rocky woods, hedge banks and quarries where its host is present.

Ivy Broomrape’s flowers are dull cream with a tinge of reddish purple towards the end. The plant flowers from May to July. There are some good photographs of the plant on the UK Wildflowers, English Wild Flowers: A Seasonal Guide and Nature Spot websites.

Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata

Ribwort Plantain

Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata, growing on sea cliffs, Isle of Wight

This month I haven’t had much time to update this blog, but today is cold and damp and I have a chance to stop and look back over the last month. One of May’s highlights was a week’s trip to the Isle of Wight, where there were lots of interesting wild flowers: Spring Gentian, Hoary Stock, Fairy Flax, Kidney Vetch, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Thrift, Subterranean Clover, Rock Rose, Spring Beauty, Crosswort and Ivy Broomrape, some of which I will probably write about in future posts. But today I have chosen a very common plant to write about: Ribwort Plantain, Plantago lanceolata.

Ribwort is a perennial plant which has a rosette of spear-shaped leaves, from which grow short stems topped with compact heads of flowers with protruding, white stamens. The flowers are produced from April to August and are pollinated by the wind, beetles, flies and bees. The plant is pretty but quite subtle and is not always appreciated as much as it should be.

Ribwort is widespread in the British Isles, where it grows in lowland meadows and pastures and in upland grasslands. It can be found on disturbed ground on roadsides and river banks, in cultivated and waste ground, in lawns (where it can survive mowing and some will call it a “weed”) and on walls. Ribwort is tolerant of salt spray and grows by the seaside in sand dunes and on cliffs. Inland, it is found in the hills and on rock ledges and crevices, up to 845 metres above sea level on Great Dun Fell in Westmorland. It is also found in the rest of Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East, where it is native, and as an introduced plant in other parts of the world, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and parts of Asia and Africa. Because Plantago lanceolata likes disturbed ground, the presence of Ribwort pollen can be used as evidence for early agriculture.

Ribwort’s name comes from its narrow, ribbed lanceolate leaves, with their parallel veins. Other names include English Plantain, Narrowleaf Plantain, Black Plantain, Ribgrass, Tinker-tailor Grass, Windles and (listed in Flora Britannica) Fighting Cocks, Short Bobs, Soldiers and Sailors, Black Jacks, Hard-heads, Carl Doddies, Fire-weed and Fire-leaf. The latter two names come from the belief that dried Plantain leaves can set haystacks alight.

Ribwort is a member of the family Plantaginaceae. When I did Botany at university, this was a small family but the Plantaginaceae now includes what I always called the Scrophulariaceae (Figwort family), including some familiar and colourful flowers such as the Foxglove (Digitalis), Toadflaxes (Linaria), Speedwells (Veronica) and even the subject of my PhD thesis, the Snapdragon Antirrhinum majus. Who would have predicted that?

Ribwort was used in children’s games such as Soldiers (winding the stem around itself just below the head and pulling it tight to catapult the head) and a game known as Dongers (in Kent) or Carl Doddies (in Scotland), where the plantain heads were used like a conker on a string to hit an opponent’s plantain head. (More details are given in Flora Britannica.) No batteries required!

We have Ribwort in our small wildflower mini-meadows on the allotment and in our back garden. Ribwort is often found in wildflower seed mixtures and is one of the first species to become established. In both our “meadows” Ribwort was very numerous in the first couple of years, but as other species have become established it moved to the edges as older plants died off and were replaced by their offspring, and on the allotment it grows along the grass path between plots, where I am happy for it to remain. Ribwort’s seeds contain a water retaining “gel” that allow them to germinate in dry soils. This gel allows seeds to stick to animals and machinery, aiding their dispersal. The seed can also remain dormant for 50 – 60 years in soil if the growing conditions aren’t right.

Ribwort leaves are edible but can be bitter. Older leaves are very fibrous and in his book “Around The World In 80 Plants” Stephen Barstow recommends using the youngest leaves in a mixed salad and advises boiling older leaves before eating. The closely related Buck’s-horn Plantain, Plantago coronopus, is sometimes cultivated and both Stephen Barstow and Joy Larkcom suggest growing it. Ribwort seeds taste nutty and can be made into a flour and the buds prior to flowering are moist and crunchy and have been described as tasting like mushrooms.

The Plants For A Future and Phytology websites both list a range of medicinal uses for the plant, including as a treatment for coughs (because of the mucilage the plant contains) and wounds (as it staunches blood flow and has antbacterial properties). Ear infections and bladder complaints can also be treated with the plant. But beware – there can be side effects. The plant can be used for its fibre too, and to make gold and brown dyes.

Ribwort is eaten by a range of insects but slugs and snails don’t like it. I’m writing about Ribwort now because this is the food plant of one of Britain’s rarest butterflies, the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), which is mostly restricted to the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. When we visited the Isle of Wight in mid May, the butterfly was on the wing, mostly on the sea cliffs where Ribwort was growing. If we had visited earlier in the year, we might have seen its very handsome caterpillars feeding on the plant. The butterfly is named after Lady Eleanor Glanville, who discovered the species in Lincolnshire in the 1690s.

Glanville Fritillaries

Glanville Fritillaries mating. (Photo by Vanna Bartlett.)

Danish Scurvygrass, Cochlearia danica

Cochlearia danica

Danish Scurvygrass on the old A47 just west of Dereham, Norfolk.

Once upon a time, there was a white-flowered member of the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae) called Danish Scurvygrass, Cochlearia danica. It could be found growing on the tops of cliffs, in sand dunes and on sea-walls, and on old walls and between cracks in the pavements of coastal towns. In Norfolk it could be found along the north coast, in the drier parts of salt marshes. It was sometimes found growing on the ballast of railway lines too.

Danish Scurvygrass still occurs in these places but since the 1980s it has spread inland along our road network, as can be seen from this distribution map. In the early days it began to colonise the central reservation of major roads and by 1993 it was established along motorways and trunk roads in 320 ten kilometre squares in the UK. In Norfolk, its distribution now follows the network of ‘A’ Roads and it can be found along many ‘B’ Roads too, such as parts of the B1108 from Norwich to Watton. In Norwich, it lines parts of the ring road and the edges of Farrow Road are a mass of white in April, when the plant is in full flower. The individual plants are small but a continuous mass, knitted together alongside the tarmac, is rather striking.

Main roads are salty places and the recent spread of Danish Scurvygrass is down to its tolerance of salty environments. The movement of traffic probably helps too, spreading its small seeds further along the road network, at a rate that Richard Mabey calculates as 10 – 15 miles per year on some roads (Flora Britannica, 1996).

Danish Scurvygrass is a winter annual, growing through the cold months before flowering in April, setting seed and dying. Its flowers are white but its flowerbuds are pink. Its relative Common Scurvygrass, Cochlearia officinalis, is a perennial and, unlike C. danica, has remained a coastal plant. In Norfolk, it can be found alongside the River Yare and River Waveney, just above where they join Breydon Water, and, more rarely on the North Norfolk coast and in the marshes by the Wash. Common Scurvygrass is normally a larger plant, with a straggly growth habit.

The name Scurvygrass comes from the high levels of Vitamin C to be found in these plants, which will help prevent or treat scurvy. According to the Plants for a Future website, both C. danica and C. officinalis have similar properties and the leaves of both plants are edible. I tried C. officinalis many years ago and I don’t remember it being particularly unpleasant, but the Plants for a Future website says that “very few people will actually enjoy the pungent flavour” of C. danica and that although C. officinalis is “pleasantly sharp”, the flavour is “rather less than pleasant to most tastes”. You have been warned.

In a life or death situation, Scurvygrass would be well worth eating. Common Scurvygrass and the related Cochlearia anglica, C. groenlandica and C. fenestrata are found in Spitsbergen (Andreas Umbreit, “Guide To Spitsbergen”, Bradt Publications 1997) and in his 1905 book “No Man’s Land: A History of Spitsbergen”, Sir Martin Conway recounts how a Dutch whaling party overwintered successfully in 1633-34, partly because they managed to find large quantities of Scurvygrass. In the following year another overwintering party had died of scurvy by the time spring arrived, having not found any of the plant. (The first group also hunted reindeer, and there would also have been Vitamin C in the fresh meat.)

The Wild Flower Finder, Nature Spot and West Highland Flora websites have some very good photographs of Danish Scurvygrass, which also known as Early Scurvygrass. The Wild Flower Finder website also gives more details of some of the chemical compounds found in the plant. The name Cochlearia comes from the Latin word cochlear, meaning ’spoon’ and refers to the shape of the leaves. ‘Scurvygrass’ can also be written as ‘Scurvy-grass’.