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’.

Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo Flower, Cardamine pratensis

When daisies pied and violets blue / And lady-smocks all silver-white, / And cuckoo-buds* of yellow hue, / Do paint the meadows with delight…
William Shakespeare, Love’s Labours Lost, Act V, Scene II.

Lady's Smock, Cardamine pratensis

Spring is unfurling slowly this year, and one of its characteristic plants is coming into flower here in Norfolk –  Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo Flower, Cardamine pratensis.

This lovely plant can be found in damp meadows and grasslands and on roadsides, ditches and river banks throughout the British Isles. It is native throughout most of Europe and western Asia and northern North America. It is the county flower of both Cheshire and Brecknockshire.  (If you see the plant in the British Isles, you can submit records of sightings here.)

Cardamine pratensis has a basal rosette of pinnate leaves, each one 5 – 12 cm long with 3-15 leaflets. Each leaflet is about 1 cm long. In spring a blue-green stem grows upwards from the rosette and a head of delicate, small, pale pink or mauve flowers opens up at the top. Each flower has four petals, a characteristic of the Cabbage family, Brassicaceae, to which it belongs. Cuckoo Flower is the big brother of Hairy Bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta, a frequent occupant of flower pots, which I wrote about in February 2012.

A group of the plants in flower in damp grassland is a memorable and very lovely sight but after flowering and producing seeds, Cardamine pratensis lies dormant for the rest of the summer, so is easily missed later in the year. The plant grows in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich, where it put on a spectacular display in the cool spring of 2013.

Cardamine pratensis is called Cuckoo Flower (or Cuckooflower or Cuckoo-flower) because it comes into flower at roughly the time that the first Cuckoos arrive here in spring, although the plant can flower as early as March in a sheltered spot in a warm spring, or as late as June or even July in a cool, shady spot or on high ground. The Sixteenth Century herbalist John Gerard said that ‘These flower for the most part in April and May when the Cuckoo begins to sing her pleasant notes without stammering’. The plant can also be covered in “cuckoo spit“, the frothy mass produced by the nymphs of the Meadow or Common Froghopper, Philaenus spumarius.

According to “A Pocket Book of British Wild Flowers” by Charles A. Hall (1937, A. & C. Black) the name Lady’s Smock may be from a fancied likeness to chemises hung out to bleach, or from the plant’s dedication to the Virgin Mary: “Our Lady’s Smock”. However, “Flora Britannica” is more down to earth: the name Lady’s Smock is probably an allusion to certain activities that took place in springtime meadows. (“Smock” was a less than complimentary slang term for a woman, rather like a “bit of skirt”).

Other names include Milkmaids, Fairy Flower, May Flower, Coco Plant and Meadow Bittercress. The last name describes the plant’s close relationship with Hairy Bittercress and also the fact that it is edible. The leaves have a peppery taste, rather like Cress, Land Cress or Water Cress. If you have access to large quantities of the plant, you could substitute a few leaves in Hairy Bittercress recipes. The Eatweeds website has a recipe for Lady’s Smock and Three-cornered Leek Salad. You can also nibble on the flowers or flowerbuds, though it seems a shame to spoil the plant by doing so. The leaves are full of Vitamin C.

Cardamine pratensis is one of the foodplants of Orange-tip Butterfly caterpillars (Anthocharis cardamines). I saw my first Orange-tips of the year on Wednesday, in Thetford Forest in Norfolk. The ground there is mostly too dry for Cuckoo Flower, but the other main foodplant was growing – Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata. The Hazel Tree website has some stunning photos of Orange-tips on Cuckoo Flower, which I recommend.

If your garden has soil that stays fairly damp, you could grow Cardamine pratensis, perhaps naturalised in grass. Other members of the genus make even better garden plants but our garden is too dry for them all, unfortunately. Cuckoo Flower even has double-flowered and hose-in-hose forms, if you like that sort of thing. (Both are found in the wild in parts of Devon.) The Seedaholic website gives tips for raising Cuckoo Flower plants from seed, which is best sown in late summer or early autumn. Seeds can be bought online from suppliers such as Crocus.

If you’re superstitious, beware of Cuckoo Flower! Picking the plant to bring indoors was sometimes discouraged in case it caused a thunderstorm to break out, or an adder bit the picker before the year was out. In Ireland it was sometimes believed that a human or animal born on May Day would have an Evil Eye, which could only be prevented by bathing the eye with the plant’s juice.
* Incidentally, the “cuckoo-buds” Shakespeare mentions are probably buttercup flowers.

Mouse Plant, Arisarum proboscideum

Mouse Plant, Arisarum proboscideum

Mouse Plant, Arisarum proboscideum – late February 2016

We had a very mild autumn and early winter here in Norwich and many plants flowered much earlier than usual. Our wallflowers began to flower in December and daffodils began to flower at least a month early.

Our Mouse Plant, Arisarum proboscideum, also flowered early this year. It came into flower in January and is still in full flower as I write. In a more normal year (if we get them any more) it would be in flower in April and May.

Mouse Plant is a native perennial from south-west Spain and central and southern Italy, where it grows in woodland. Like many woodland plants, its leaves emerge from the soil early in the spring, then it flowers and dies back, becoming totally dormant after midsummer. It likes to grow in woodland soil with a reasonable supply of moisture (“moist but well drained“) but it doesn’t like very clay heavy soils. A low, spreading plant, it only reaches 20 centimetres (eight inches) in height.

I grow my plant in a pot because this is the best way to see its structure, including the unusual flowers that resemble a family of mice nesting beneath the glossy green arrow-shaped leaves. Growing it in a pot also means that I can give it slightly richer soil than our garden’s sandy loam and I can keep it in a shady place for most of the year. If you have a shady spot in your garden with the right type of soil, Mouse Plant will happily spread – albeit very politely – and will cover the ground. If you keep it in a pot, make sure it is well watered, but not waterlogged. The Gardening Knowhow website has some good tips for growing the plant. It is quite hardy and shrugs off most frosts. In the United States, it is hardy in USDA Zone 7 and, in a sheltered location, USDA Zone 6. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, the plant flowers from September to November.

Mouse Plant is a member of the Araceae, the Arum family, which also contains larger plants such as Cuckoo Pint (Arum maculatum), Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) and the spectacular Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum), from Sumatra, which has to been seen and smelt to be believed. Members of the Araceae have flowers borne on an inflorescence known as a spadix, which is often partially enclosed in a leaf-like bract known as a spathe. In the Mouse Plant, the spadix is hidden away within the hooded dark purplish-brown spathe which grows up to five centimetres (two inches) long and tapers into a tail that can reach fiteen centimetres (six inches) long. Small flies, such as fungus gnats, are attracted to the flowers by a faint smell (said to be like mushrooms) that is hardly noticeable to the human nose. Once inside, the insects transfer pollen from male to female flowers as they attempt to escape.

The name Arisarum is derived from the Greek word arisaron, which was used by Dioscorides in reference to aris, aridos, which was the name of a small herb mentioned by Pliny. Proboscideum comes from the Greek word proboskis (‘proboscis’ in English), which means “elephant’s trunk”.

If you want to encourage children to garden (and I recommend that you do), the Mouse Plant may help. The Pioneer Plants website tells us that “children can easily divide established clumps in early summer, and have their own nest of mice the following year”. But why should children have all the fun? This plant is worth growing to delight the inner child, whatever their age.

I bought my plant from a local nursery but it is also available online in the UK from The Beth Chatto Gardens.

Friends of Earlham Cemetery Black Poplars (2)

Yesterday we planted out nine young native Black Poplar trees at Marston Marshes, a local nature reserve on the southern edge of Norwich, by the River Yare.

The trees were grown from cuttings taken from trees in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich in March 2014. Members of Friends of Earlham Cemetery potted up the cuttings and looked after them and by the end of last year we had ten healthy, well established trees. We used deep pots, used for growing climbers, to give the trees a good root depth. As the trees like wet conditions, we stood the pots in seed trays full of water and this has encouraged good root growth.

Planting Black PoplarsThe tenth tree is going to be planted at Tyrrel’s Wood, a Woodland Trust reserve near Long Stratton in South Norfolk, to replace a large native Black Poplar that was blown down in a gale earlier this winter.

We have been given permission to take more cuttings and plan to do this in the next few weeks, which we hope will produce another set of rooted trees by early 2018.

Read more about native Black Poplars and the Friends of Earlham Cemetery Black Poplar Project here.

Wild Clary, Salvia verbenaca

Wild Clary

Wild Clary, Salvia verbenaca, on Beeston Bump

Wild Clary, Salvia verbenaca, is one of the glories of summer, flowering from June to September in open grassland on sunny banks, sand dunes and roadsides. I saw the magnificent specimen in the photograph above on Beeston Bump last June, on the same day I saw the Purple Broomrape.

In winter, Wild Clary forms a basal rosette of leaves, then elongates in late spring and produces leaves in pairs clasping the stem, topped with spikes with whorls of violet-blue, open-mouthed flowers. There are some lovely photos of the plant on the Naturespot website.

The leaves and stems are covered in glandular hairs and the plant has a slight, pleasant scent, nothing like as strong as the usual culinary Sage, Salvia officinalis.

The flowers are attractive to insects, especially bees. However, the flowers can also stay closed and set viable seed by self pollination. This is known as cleistogamy: from the Greek kleistos and gamos, meaning “closed marriage”.

Wild Clary is a native, long lived perennial. It is commonest in the south and east of England, though it does occur in Wales, Ireland and southern Scotland, where it is mostly confined to coasts. It is declining, particularly inland and in the north of its range, with most losses probably due to changes in land use.

Outside the British Isles, Wild Clary is native to northern Africa, western and southern Europe (including France, Portugal, Spain, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia and southern Ukraine) and western Asia (including Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Azerbaijan). In warmer areas, such as in the Mediterranean, Wild Clary flowers much earlier than in Norfolk: mainly from January to May.

Wild Clary has been introduced to Australia, where it is described as a “significant environmental weed” in the state of Victoria. It also grows as a weed in South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. (The Queensland Government’s factsheet also has some good pictures of the plant, including an “infestation”.) It has also reached New Zealand and the United States (California, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey).

Wild Clary does well on the sandy soils in our part of Norwich and it makes a good addition to the wildlife garden. I have a small patch of Wild Clary on the edge of my lawn, thanks to my friend Ian who gave me a plant a couple of years ago. Emorsgate Seeds sell Wild Clary seed, if you want to give it a try. Sow the seed in spring or autumn in a pot in a cold frame or direct into a sunny spot. Once you have the plant, it should self-seed and slowly spread.

Wild Clary is edible, which could be useful to Australians and Americans and anyone who grows their own. (Personally I wouldn’t pick it in the wild in Britain because it is too rare.) According to the Plants for a Future website, the leaves can be used to make a tea and the young leaves can be eaten raw, fried or even candied. They will add flavour to salads and cooked food. In “Flora Britannica” (Sinclair – Stevenson 1996) Richard Mabey explains that the name ‘Clary’ comes from ‘clear-eye’, because the seeds were soaked in water to produce a jelly (“rather like frogspawn”) that could soothe and cleanse the eye. Analysis of the oil from Salvia verbenaca has found that it has antibacterial, antioxidant, antifungal, anti-inflammatory properties. In Sicily the plant has been used in traditional medicine to treat kidney stones.

In southern England Wild Clary is sometimes associated with churchyards, especially in Suffolk and Sussex, and this is possibly because it was sown on graves in Medieval times, in the belief that it gave immortality.

The plant grows in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich, where it is barely clinging on. There used to be several plants but they have gradually been mown out of existence. Every year the plants are cut down when they are starting to come into flower and this weakens them so that they gradually lose vigour. There is now just a single plant, which never has a chance to set seed. Friends of Earlham Cemetery and Norfolk Wildlife Trust have drawn up a Habitat Management Plan for the Cemetery, most of which is a County Wildlife Site. If the Plan is adopted and implemented correctly, the plant could recover. If not, it will disappear very soon.

Meadow Clary, Salvia pratensis, is a close relative of Wild Clary. It is much rarer and its native population in the British Isles is limited to twenty-one locations, mainly in Oxfordshire, the North and South Downs and the Chilterns. It is an offence to pick, uproot or damage it, although that didn’t stop the theft of plants from Ranscombe Farm reserve on the North Downs in 2008. Meadow Clary also likes sunny, open grassland, but prefers soils in areas of chalk or limestone. Like Wild Clary, Salvia verbenaca, it can be grown as an attractive garden plant. Its flowers are more spectacular than Wild Clary.