The Wildflowers


Betony carpets the fields around Sparrowhawk Farm in late summer

Here is a list of some of the wildflowers and trees that grow around Sparrowhawk Farm, with a bit of history, their herbal qualities, their attractiveness and nutritional value to bees.
This is by no means a complete list (and will increase as more flora goes in). For now, I'll try to add a few plants a week, over the winter months.

Common Knapweed (Centaurea Nigra)
The Latin name of this common plant derives from association with the centaur Chiron, who is said to have treated a wound to his hoof with knapweed. The English name comes from 'knopweed', a reference to the plant's rounded head. Other common names are 'hardhead' or 'ironhead'.
In the twelfth century, the Welsh Physicians of Myddfai mixed knapweed, birthwort and field scabious in a cure for the bite of the UK's only venemous snake, the adder. A medieval name for knapweed was 'Matte Felon,' from its use in curing felons (infections of the tip of the finger). In the middle ages, knapweed (whose flowers are edible) was take with pepper to stimulate appetite. By the time of Culpeper, in the seventeenth century, knapweed was used as wound plant; in particular to treat sores, bruises, stem bleeding and sore throats.
Today's herbalists favour knapweed as a tonic, a diuretic and to induce sweating. In Germany, there is a tradition for unmarried people to wear knapweed in their buttonhole.
Description - Centaurea genus of the Asteraceae (Daisy) family. Grows up to around 70cm. Purple flowers from June until late September.
Distribution - Common on clay soils across Europe, especially in northern UK and north Europe.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - Very common among grass of fields behind house. Jostles for attention with betony and scabious.
Value to Wildlife - Very high. Attracts birds, butterflies (Small Skipper, Large Skipper, Brimstone, Peacock, Common Blue, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Wall, Meadow Brown), bees, bumblebees, hoverflies and insects. Seedheads eaten by finches.

Hawthorn (Crataegus Monogyna)
Few trees come with as much history and superstition as this member of the rose family. Once known simply as 'May', referring to its flowering time, gathering hawthorn blossom at Mayday was supposed to bring love, luck and beauty, as the old English nursery rhyme The Fair Maid tells. Its wood was originally used for the maypole and on Mayday, its branches were made into garlands, or used to decorate houses. But out of this propitious month, the tree has darker associations. Witches made their brooms from its wood and it was considered bad luck to bring blooms into the house. And cutting the hawthorn at the wrong time of year risks angering the fairies. The Celts, who lived at a time when Europe was for the most part one great forest and trees were laden with superstition, believed the hawthorn was a gateway into fairyland.
In Christian tradition, Jesus's crown of thorns was made from the hawthorn tree. The Glastonbury Thorn was said to have been created when Joseph of Aramathea, visiting England with the holy grail, planted his hawthorn staff at Glastonbury.
When its flowers decay, the hawthorn gives off trimethylene, which is the same smell as decomposing bodies. This may have led to the belief, in English the countryside, that the hawthorn's flowers carry the smell of the Great Plague of London, in 1665.
'Haw' is the old word for a hedge, referring to the popular use of this thorny tree for livestock hedging. The first part of it's latin name 'Crataegus Monogyna' is derived from the Greek 'kratos' (strength), an allusion to the toughness of the wood, which makes one of the hottest fires. Traditionally used as an astringent, today hawthorn is primarily favoured by herbalists as a heart herb. Its flowers are believed to improve coronary circulation, normalizing blood pressure, reducing the risk of angina attacks and correcting irregular heartbeats.
Description - Rose family. Grows up to 10m. White flowers in spring.
Distribution - Common to the UK (except N Scotland) and across Europe, especially in hedgerows, woods and on scrubland. Rare on very acidic or wet soil.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - A few, scattered beside the stone wall boundaries. My favourite tree, I will be planting many more.
Wildlife Value - A good, but erratic supply. Produces very scented honey.

Wood Betony (Stachys Betonica / Betonica Officinalis)
While largely neglected by today’s herbalists, historically Wood Betony was a celebrated herb used in multiple remedies. ‘Sell your coat and buy betony’ was a popular Italian saying. The Ancient Egyptians believed betony had magical properties. Antonio Musa, the chief physician to the Emperor Augustus, named 47 diseases curable with betony. It is listed in the gardens of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (d.814 AD) In the Middle Ages, in Anglo-Saxon England, betony was cultivated widely in the gardens of apothecaries and monasteries and used to treat headaches, nervous disorders, chest and lung problems, gout, improving eyesight, curing a hangover among others (‘It maketh a man to pisse well’, said Gerard in 1597). As it is a uterine stimulant, it should be avoided during pregnancy.
Betony was a popular amulet herb, tied onto the arm with red wool, or hung around the neck, to ward off evil or witchcraft. It was also planted in church gardens. Animals, too, were believed to know the curative qualities of this herb and would seek it out and eat it, when wounded. One superstition says that snakes will fight to the death if placed in a ring of betony.
Description - Labiate family. Hardy perennial, 10-60cm high. Purple-pink flowers in bloom July and August with purple-pink petals. The flower spike is corn-like. Stachys is ancient Greek for ‘ear of corn’.
Distribution – Common to Wales, England (not E Anglia), Scotland. Found in open woodlands, heaths, grassland in both lime-rich and acid soils.
At Sparrowhawk Farm – Grows abundantly in the meadows behind the house. Likes full sun.
Wildlife Value - High. Produces bountiful nectar. Especially favoured by bumble bees and butterflies (Small Skipper, Brimstone, Green-Veined White, Small Tortoiseshell).

Self-Heal (Prunella Vulgaris)
A famous wound herb with renowned anti-bacterial properties. Applied fresh in poultices to stop bleeding and close over wounds. Also called ‘Heal All’ and ‘Carpenter’s Herb’, indicating it was used to heal cut fingers. The flower spikes were considered to resemble the throat, and according to the Doctrine of Signatures theory (where plants cured the parts of the body they most resembled), self-heal was commonly used to treat inflammations of the mouth and throat.
The name originated from the German ‘die Brewen’ (inflammation of the mouth), becoming Brunella and finally known by the Latin name ‘Prunella’. Self-Heal is not mentioned by the ancient Greeks or Romans, but held in high esteem from the Middle Ages onwards and was taken to North America with the early settlers. Known as ‘Xia Ku Cao’ (‘summer dry herb') by Chinese herbalists and seen as cooling to the liver and (resultingly) good for tempering over-exuberance.
Description – Labiate family. Up to 20cm high. Compact spike of violet-mauve flowers in bloom throughout the summer months.
Distribution – Widespread in UK and Europe on lime-rich soils.
At Sparrowhawk Farm – Occasional, in the meadows behind the house.
Wildlife Value - High. Attracts butterflies (Brimstone, Meadow Brown), bees, hoverflies and insects.

Devil's Bit Scabious (Succisa Pratensis)
Culpeper rated this plant as a powerful treatment to the plague, pestilential diseases, bites from venemous creatures and for treatment of bruises (as it dissolves blood clots). Modern herbalists favour Devil's Bit Scabious as a daphoretic (sweat inducing), for lowering fevers, treating coughs and for reducing inflammation. Outwardly, it can be used as a skin cleanser and for treating sores and dandruff.
The name, 'Devil's Bit' comes from a legend that the devil found the plant in paradise, and fearing that its medicinal properties would benefit humakind, he bit into the roots of the plant to destroy it. The plant flourishes, albeit with a stumped root.
Description - Teasel family. 15-70cm high. Mauve to dark blue flowers from July to October.
Distribution - Widespread in most habitats across UK and Europe, on acid and lime-rich soils.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - One of our most common flowers, thriving everwhere.
Wildlife Value - High. Much frequented by bees and butterflies (Small Skipper, Large Skipper, Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Heath).

Rosebay Willowherb (Epilobium Angustifolium)
A rarity in the UK, until 1860, when it began to spread rapidly, its hairy and very tiny seeds able to be carried great distances by wind. Found typically in cleared woodland, on wasteland and along railway tracks, but will grow pretty much anywhere. The only ground it dislikes are waterlogged areas. Often known as 'fireweed', its seeds germinate well on areas exposed to high temperatures, such as scrub cleared by fire. After the London Blitz, rosebay willowherb sprung up in bomb sites (giving it the local name 'bombweed'), providing a welcome shot of colour in the rubble. It remains across the capital, earning itself by dint of its toughness and glorious pink summer blooms, the title of county flower of London in 2002.
Not popular with today's herbalists, willow herb leaves were dried and drunk as a substitute or adulterant for tea. It is still drunk as tea in Russia to help digestion, where it's known as 'kapoorie tea'. It's popular with native American Indians, who eat the young shoots (rich in vitamin C and pro-vitamin A) as salad leaves. Medicinally, rosebay willowherb an astringent, used to treat sore throats and ulcers. Its also an antispasmodic, and has been used to treat whooping cough, hiccough and asthmatha. Its roots and leaves, chopped and stewed as tea are said to cure stomach upsets, gastroenteritis and diarrhoea in children.
Description - Willowherb family up to 2m high. Brilliant pink flowers June-August.
Distribution - Common across UK and Europe, except in Ireland where it is common only in Eastern parts.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - Great banks of rosebay willowherb on the fringes of gorse bushes.
Wildlife Value - Very popular with bees. Apparently makes excellent honey, with a distinctive, spiced flavour.

Dog Rose (Rosa Canina)
An ancient plant, rose fossils have been found dating back some 35 million years (the Oligocene epoch). Love and roses have gone hand in hand throughout history. In Egypt, roses were considered the most sacred of flowers and have been found in tombs, where they were used as funerary wreaths. In a Hindu legend, Brahma and Vishnu argued over what was the most beautiful of flowers. Brahma backed the lotus flower, but had never seen a rose. When Vishnu showed him one, Brahma immediately changed his mind and agreed that the rose was the most beautiful.
The rose was sacred to the Greek and Roman godesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus, and features in numerous mythological stories, such as the tales of the flower goddesses, Chloris (Greek) and Flora (Roman). Chloris is said to have created the first rose from the dead body of a nymph. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, bestowed beauty on the rose; Dionysus, the god of wine, added nectar to give it a sweet scent, and the three Graces gave the rose charm, brightness and joy. Finally, Apollo shone sunlight on the rose to make it bloom. Similarly, Flora created the first rose from the body of a dead friend, helped by gifts of nectar and beauty from her fellow gods.
How the rose got its thorns is the subject of further tales. In one, after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden, the roses in the garden suddenly got thorns. In a Roman myth, the impossibly beautiful Rhodanthe was forced to take refuge from baying hordes of suitors in the temple of her friend, the goddess Diana. When the love-crazed suitors broke down Diana's temple gates, a jealous and vengeful Diana turned Rhodanthe into a rose and her suitors into thorns.
Roses were first cultivated in Persia, from where a trade in rose water sprung up in the eighth century. Camel caravans loaded with rose water were sent by the Saracen leader, Saladin, through his empire to cleanse the mosques that had been occupied by 'impure' crusaders. Another great general, Napoleon, is associated with roses, just as he is with bees. Napoleon gave his officers bags of rose petals to boil in white wine, to cure lead poisoning from bullet wounds. in 1798 his wife, Josephine, created the greatest rose garden of the day at her Chateau de Malmaison, with all 250 known cultivated varieties. She was, perhaps, taking a leaf out of another Empress's book. The Egyptian ruler, Cleopatra, was said to have carpeted the floors of her palace with rose petals.
One of the stars of Josephine's rose garden would have been the first true primary red rose, which had been introduced to Europe from China in 1792. Slater's Crimson China had been growing wild in the Chinese mountains.
Each year around Valentine's Day, hundreds of millions roses are (198m in 2010 in the US, according to the Society of American Florists). In Europe, the bulk of Valentine's Day roses are imported from Kenya. The demands for water to grow this crop, has led to fears that water levels at Kenya's Lake Naivasha is are being affected.
The use of roses for cosmetic, aromatherapy and culinary purposes, has overshadowed the flower's medicinal applications. Due to their mild astringent properties, roses have been used to treat wounds. Dog rose gets its name from a tradition of applying the rose to bites from rabid dogs. This rose was also used in the Middle Ages for chest complaints and its hips are a highly prized source of vitamins, especially vitamin C. The other important rose for herbalists, the apothecary rose (R. gallica), is known to have sedative and antidepressant properties and can be used for lowering cholesterol.
Description - Rosaceae (Rose Family). The Dog rose's stems reach around 3m. Pink flowers June to July.
Distribution - Most common rose in Western Europe.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - Fights for space among the gorse bushes.
Value to Wildlife - Low. Produces pollen, but no nectar.

Yarrow (Achillea Millefolium)
It's Latin name is derived from the Greek hero, Achilles. The legend goes that as a boy, Achilles was mentored by the pre-eminent centaur Chiron, who taught Achilles how to use yarrow to heal wounds. In an alternate legend, yarrow was created from the rust Achilles scraped from his spear. The plant was taken into battle by the Greek and Roman armies, who respectively used it to stop haemorrhaging and stem blood loss from wounds.
In Chinese tradition, dried yarrow stalks were used in divination. Chinese herbalists also believed the plant boosted intelligence and eyesight. It is said to grow around the grave of the philosopher Confucius.
From the time of the Druids onwards, yarrow was a witching herb and it was a popular habit to wear it in an amulet to ward off evil spirits. The plant was also used to help achieve love, win friends and secure ambitions. This ranged from sleeping with yarrow under the pillow to help you dream of your future love, smearing your hands with yarrow juice and then dunking them in a river to help you catch fish, or cutting the plant's stems to reveal the initials of a future spouse.
Yarrow was predominantly used to treat wounds (hence gaining the alternative names 'woundwort', 'nose-bleed' and 'sanguinary' among others) and is still a handy countryside cure for nosebleeds and cuts. If you cut yourself on a walk, crushed yarrow leaves or flowers, applied to the wound, will make the bleeding stop. Strangely, in the case of nosebleeds, putting a yarrow stalk up one's nose can also promote bleeding as well as staunching bloodflow.
Among modern herbalists, the plant is favoured for treating colds and influenza, often taken in the form of a hot tea. It is also used as a tonic to improve blood circulation, bring down blood pressure and regulate the menstrual cycle.
Yarrow is supposedly a 'plant doctor', beneficial to unhealthy plants. Its root secretions are believed to help neighbouring plants fend off diseases.
In the Middle Ages, it was an ingredient in gruit; a selection of herbs used to make beer before the widespread use of hops. Boiled yarrow leaves was a popular food in the seventeenth century.
Description - Compositae (Daisy) Family. Up to 40cm tall, strongly scented. Tiny white or pink flowers in clusters through summer and autumn.
Distribution - Very common across UK and Europe, particularly in meadows and grasslands. Will grow in all soil types.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - One of the last summer plants still in flower, as late as December, on sunny banks.
Value to Wildlife - High. Attracts birds, butterflies (Large Skipper, Small Copper, Wall, Meadow Brown, Small Heath), bees, bumblebees, hoverflies, insects and butterflies, such as the Large Skipper, Peacock. Yarrow stems are used by starlings to line their nests.

Yellow Flag Iris (Iris Pseudacorus)
In 1479 BC, to celebrate his victory in Syria, where irises were widespread, the Egyptian King Thutmose III, known by historians as the 'Napoleon of Egypt' commissioned images of irises to be drawn on the walls of his temple.
To the ancient Egyptians, the iris in part symbolised monarchy and its three petals stood for: faith, wisdom and valour. But above all, the iris was associated with rebirth. Believing this flower would preserve their power in the afterlife, the pharoahs had the walls of their funeral temples decorated with images of irises.
The flower similarly represented death and resurrecton in Indian and Ancient Greek cultures. In Greek tradition, an iris is placed on the graves of Greek women as a tribute to Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow, whose duty was to carry the souls of women to the Elysian fields of the afterlife.
The Roman poet Ovid, in his Metamorphoses (11. 585 ff) wrote: "Iris, in her thousand hues enrobed traced through the sky her arching bow." The link between the iris plant and its namesake rainbow goddess comes from the iris's arching flowers, which come in a 'rainbow' of colours, including: red, yellow, white, purple and blue.
From the ancient Egyptians onwards, the three petals of the iris were linked to any number of tripartite symbols, notably the Christian idea of the trinity. The Roman Catholic Church ascribed the lily as the special emblem of the Virgin Mary.
In the early 500's AD, Clovis I, the Merovingian king of the Franks, who founded the French state in 481 AD, adopted the iris as his heraldic device, in recognition of his becoming a Christian. Clovis's heraldic design, displayed on his battle flag, was believed to be based on the yellow flag iris, which is how this iris took the nam: 'flag'. The design was later to became known in heraldry as the fleur-de-lys. In 1147 the French king Louis VII adopted the fleur-de-lys as the emblem of France. The etymology of 'fleur-de-lys' comes either from 'flower of Louis' or as a reference to the fact that the iris was very simiar to a lily.
The use of the iris, in the form of a fleur-de-lys, is widespread in European heraldry; conveying both regal power and Christian might. A white fleur-de-lys (a reference to the city's native white iris), against a red background was originally the symbol of Florence. When the Medici family took control of the Italian city, to demonstrate a change at the top, they reversed the heraldic colours, and embarked on a centuries-long breeding program to hybridize a red iris.
The scented rhizomes of irises are highly prized by perfumers, where they are used as a base note for creating fragrances.
The herbal properties of the iris are lowlier than the weight of symbolism and use in perfumery might suggest. Culpeper recommended using the yellow flag iris as an astringent for ailments of the eyes, swellings, ulcers and cancers. Modern herbalists don't rate the iris highly, finding it to be low in active elements and substances. It is used for treating coughs and bronchial ailments, dandruff and acne, or as an emetic (to cause vomiting).
Description - Iris Family (Iridaceae). Up to 150cm high, bright yellow flowers May to August.
Distribution - A highly invasive flower, native to the UK (along with the Iris Foetidissima 'Stinking Gladwin') and across Europe. Very common in fens, marshes, wet woods, in or close to fresh water. Roots are able to take up heavy metals, resulting in the yellow flag iris being used in water treatment.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - Close to the tarn, or along the streams running off it.
Value to Wildlife - Low. Pollinated by bees.

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus Ficaria)
One of the year's first flowers, sometimes appearing as early as February in the UK. The golden blooms of celandine, shining like tiny suns in the darkening grass, are a sign that spring has arrived. The Celtic name for lesser celandine 'grian', literally means 'sun' and one of the plant's many nicknames was 'spring messenger'. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, celandine comes from the Latin word for swallow (chelidonia) and refers to the belief (postulated by the English botanist Henry Lyte in his 'A Niewe Herball' of 1578) that celandine flowers when swallows arrive and fade when they leave - though this would not be true in Yorkshire, where celandine comes into flower a full month before swallows start to appear in mid April, and fades long before they depart. An alternative belief is mentioned by Pliny, who writes that swallows use Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus)- an unrelated species sometimes known as swallowwort - to improve their young's eyesight.
Contrary to general belief, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth's favourite flower wasn't the daffodil, but the earlier-flowering lesser celandine, which he celebrated in three exuberant poems. Lesser celandines were intended to be carved on the poet's tombstone, in recognition of his love for the flowers, but accidentally images of greater celandine was carved instead.
Ranunculus, the common name for the buttercup family which celandine is a member of, means 'little frog', referring to the diminuitive size of plants of the family and the fact that they are commonly found near water. Like the rest of its family, lesser celandine is poisonous to livestock. Also, its blossoms close for the night and before rainfall. The second part of it's name 'ficaria', comes from the latin for fig (ficus), an allusion to the root tubers of lesser celandine. The tubers also bear a resemblance to piles, which, following the Doctrine of Signatures theory, led to the plant being used to treat this condition, and giving it the nickname 'pilewort'. The theory was also applied to the yellow colour of lesser celandine, and led to the plant being used to cure jaundice (a condition that gives sufferer's skin a yellow tinge).
Boiled with white wine and sweetened with honey, lesser celandine was drunk at night to induce pleasant dreams. In Germany, the leaves of the plant were a known source of vitamin C, leading to the plant's nickname 'scurvywort', while in Russia lesser celandine was seen to have dermatalogical properties and used in baths to treat skin complaints.
Description - Ranunculus Family. A tiny plant, 1-4cm high, with round golden flowers from Feb/March to May.
Distribution - Common across UK and Europe, in woods, meadows and hedgerows, particularly when they are close to water.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - By the stream, in the back fields.
Value to Wildlife - Medium. An excellent early source of pollen.

Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea)
If hawthorns are the gateway to Fairyland, then surely foxgloves are the fairies' dressing rooms. The plant was commonly known as 'folks-gloves', meaning the 'glove of the good folk (fairies)' and its multifold names bear testament to this legend: Fairy gloves, fairy caps, fairy petticoats, fairy thimbles, fairy bells - a whole wardrobe of accessories for the fashion-conscious puck, heading out to cause mischief.
Not content to just to clothe themselves in pink and purple, a further superstition arose that fairies put foxglove flowers on foxes feet, to help them tread quietly into the hen house, or slip silently past hunters. In Scandinavia, this gift of the fairies is credited as saving foxes from extinction. Hence the fox-related names for foxgloves, including among others: fox's lugs, foxdock, foxter, foxies and foxbell, or earliest of all - 'foxes glofa', Anglo-Saxon for 'the glove of the fox'.
Until the late eighteenth century, foxgloves were used in many remedies, most of them with little medicinal value. As the flowers were said to resemble the throat and their mottled marks resembled sores, herbalists following the Doctrine of Signatures used foxgloves to treat sore throats and ulcers. In Italy the leaves were bruised and bound onto open wounds, while the juice of the leaves was used to treat sores and phlegm.
However, like the woods that foxgloves are often found in, the plant has a darker nature, that gave rise to the names 'bloody fingers' and 'dead man's bells'. Indeed, one belief was that the mottled marks on the inside of foxglove flowers are where the fairies have touched them and serve as a warning to the potent nature of the plant, which is poisonous if eaten.
In 1785 the physician William Withering put the foxglove firmly on the medical map with his discovery that the active ingredients of foxgloves - Withering labelled the ingredients 'digitalis' - were powerful heart stimulants. The later physician John Ferriar showed, in 1799, that digitalis worked by slowing the pulse which increased the power of heart contractions, making it pump more blood with every beat. Digitalis also has a powerful effect on the kidneys, as a diuretic and a cure for the swelling condition edema.
However, great care is needed as an incorrect dose can result in heart palpitations, hallucinations, delerium and even death. People receiving a high dosage of digitalis can experience sensory disturbances, such as seeing all things as blue.
While the foxglove now is a well-known countryside plant, often grown in gardens, it features little in cultural history. Shakespeare never mentions foxgloves in his plays or poetry. The plant does feature, not unexpectedly, in Wordsworth's poetry and in the poem 'Digitalis Purpurea' by Giovanni Pascoli. You have to go way back to Roman mythology for the foxglove's starring moment.
When the goddess Juno discovered that her husband Jupiter had given birth to Minerva on his own, she went to Flora, the goddess of fields, crops and flowers, for help. Flora made the disgruntled goddess Juno pregnant by slipping a foxglove flower onto her thumb and then touching her on the stomach and breasts. Juno left Flora's garden and went to the sea shore, where she gave birth to Mars.
Description - Figwort Family. Tall, downy, biennial up to 6ft. Pink/purple bell-shaped flowers from May to September.
Distribution - Widespread and common across UK (except on chalk and in the Fens) and aross Europe, in woods, mountain rocks, verges and acid soils.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - In shady areas in the fields and among brambles and willowherb.
Value to Wildlife - A famous bee flower, it also known as 'bee catcher' and 'bee hive'.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)
This pretty blue plant, with leaves as fragile as the wings of the pollinators who visit it, springs up all across Europe and North America. One of the most popular of all wildflowers, it carries a dazzling array of names: Scotch Bluebell, Witches' Harebells, Witches' Thimbles, Lady's Thimbles, Fairies' Thimbles, Devil's Bells, Aul Man's Bells, Dead Men's Bells, Heath Bells, Milk Ort, Cuckoo's Hood, Blaewort, Blaver, Blue blavers, Milk ort (herb).
It seems everyone wants a piece of this diminutive wildflower. The harebell is linked to both the Catholic Church (as the flower of St Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order), to fairies, witches and even to other dimensions. Just calling it harebell might provoke an Anglo-Scottish row. In Scotland the plant is known as a bluebell (while the Scots call the English bluebell a wild hyacinth).
Sticking with England for now, the origins of the name 'harebell' suggest more than the Oxford English Dictionary's dry definition: 'Middle English: probably so named because it is found growing in places frequented by hares.' Among countryside animals, there are few which carry as much symbolism as the hare. In folktales, witches used juices squeezed from harebells to transform themselves into hares.
Like many bell-shaped wildflowers, harebells are inextricably linked to fairies. One legend tells of three fairies wounded in a battle with pixies being rescued by a hare. The fairy queen rewarded the hare by planting a meadow with harebells, which would warn the animal of approaching foxes. Fairies were believed to have all manner of uses for harebells. The good folk might sleep in their blue flowers, use them as goblets for collecting dew, or ring them to summon a fairy convention.
For humans, harebells offer a perilous window into the fairy world, or even other dimensions. One superstition was that the plants thinned the boundary between the human world and other worlds, not just the fairy world. A lucky person might catch glimpse of fairies, but equally might himself to the attention of evil spirits, or even the devil (hence the name ‘devil’s bells’ and other variations of that theme). With that in mind, it was considered dangerous to walk alone among harebells. Naturally, it was considered extremely unlucky to pick the plans or crush them underfoot.
The North American Haida Indians believed that picking harebells would make it rain, while the Navajo rubbed themselves with the plant before a hunt, to protect themselves from witchcraft.
Culturally, the harebell appears in English poetry, in a broadly positive manner. It featured in famous Cottingley Fairies hoax, where fake photographs of children with fairies caused a sensation in 1919, in England. In one photograph, a fairy is shown offering one of the children (Elsie) a posy of harebells.
Despite the raft of folktales attached to harebells, the plant's medicinal properties are surprisingly low. One would expect a flower that allowed other-worldly sight to have hallucinogenic properties, but that isn’t the case. The root was chewed to cure heart and lung problems, or lift depression. It was also used as a remedy to cure ear aches, or as a wash for sore eyes.
Description - Campanulaceae (Bellflower) Family. Up to 40cm tall, with pale blue flowers June/July to September.
Distribution - Common across UK (although rare in SW England), northern Europe and North America, on dry grasslands, heaths, hedgebanks and dunes.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - On south-facing fields, away from shade.
Value to Wildlife - Medium. The flowers are scentless, but favoured by bees, especially the Harebell carpenter bee, as well as hoverflies, moths and butterflies.

Bird's Foot Trefoil (Lotus Corniculatus)
Of all the wildflowers at Sparrowhawk Farm, bird's foot trefoil feels the most quintisentially English. It has around seventy names, such as: Bacon and Eggs, Fingers and Thumbs, Birds Claws, Cats Claws, Old Woman's Tooth, Grandmother's Slippers, Shoes and Stockings, Butter Jags, Butter and Eggs, Pattens and Clogs and Tom Thumb. But none of the common names evoke classical origins and only Tom Thumb has a link to the Good Folk. Instead, the impression is of a much-loved plant of the English countryside, with all the countryside superstitions that go with it.
The plant gets its common name from the likeness of the shape of its seed pod set to a bird's foot.
It's latin name 'lotus', refers to the plant's flower's shape, while 'corniculatus' means 'horned'.
Bird's foot trefoil was one of the plants incorporated into the protective wreaths of golden flowers worn on Midsummer Night (also known as Herb Evening). It's trifoliate leaves link to the Trinity, while the horn-like seed pods allude to the devil.
This may be one of the reasons why bird's foot trefoil has the rare distinction of being one fo the few plants in the Language of Flowers that has a negative connotation. Giving someone a bunch of bird's foot trefoil means that you want to take revenge on them (or sent by a friend to warn you that you have an enemy). The other reason for this may be that bird's foot trefoil is poisonous to humans, if eaten.
It isn't harmful to livestock; quite the opposite. The plant was widely used for cattle fodder, and was seen as the only forage plant that could replace red clover. It was also used for as erosion control and as an ornamental ground cover (as it can endure being mowed and trampled on).
In traditional medicine, bird's foot trefoil was dried and drunk in tea as a stomach medicine. The roots were used as a blood cleansing remedy. In small doses, the plant was used to treat cancer and skin inflammation.
Description - Leguminosae (Pea) Family - Common bird's foot trefoil grows up to 40cm tall, Greater bird's foot trefoil (also at Sparrowhawk Farm), up to 60cm. Yellow and (with age) reddish-orange flowers June to August.
Distribution - Common variety found across UK, Europe in grasslands and roadsides, except very acidic soils. Greater variety across UK (rare in NW Scotland) and Europe in damp meadows, marshes and fens.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - On selective patches; common on sunny banks and greater in wetter areas.
Value to Wildlife - Very high. Excellent nectar supply for bumble bees (less so for honey bees) and butterflies (Small Skipper, Large Skipper, Green Hairstreak, Small White and Common Blue).

Germander Speedwell (Veronica Chamaedrys)
The etymology of this low-lying, blue-flowering plant is a bit of a nonsense. Its name first evolved from a fusing of the Greek words kamai ('on the ground') and drus ('oak’), to produce khamaidrus - essentially meaning a 'ground, or miniature oak'. The Romans named the plant chamaedrys, which in Medieval times was futher altered to produce germandrea - a hiccup away from the present name 'germander'.
Lying on the grass next to a swathe of germander speedwell, it is hard to physically connect this plant to a mighty oak: the leaves aren't alike, one has acorns, the other blue flowers and so on. The only slight link might be the way germander speedwell spreads widely across the ground, just as an oak's branches stretch far from its trunk.
Veronica alludes to Saint Veronica. In Christian legend, Veronica was a young woman from Jerusalem who, when she saw Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary, lent him her veil to wipe the sweat from his face. The impression of Jesus's face was left on the veil. This mark apparently bore a resemblance to the flowers of germander speedwell.
A common parting to a friend in Medieval times was either 'speedwell' (a shortening of 'speed thee well') or 'forget-me-not'. Until the late nineteenth century, germander speedwell was known in literature and botany as 'forget-me-not'.
When the Pilgrim fathers set sail for America in 1620, the sister ship of the Mayflower was named the Speedwell and was considered the luckier of the two ships. However, good luck was no match for unwilling hands - the Speedwell was sabotaged by her crew and forced to return to England.
The pure blue of the flower, with its white centre, led to the Welsh nickname 'eye of Christ' and the Devonshire 'angels-eyes'.
The plant fades quickly after being picked, which gave rise (or should I say 'wilt') to the German nickname 'Männertreu', or 'men's faithfulness'. In one legend, if a girl picks germander speedwell, birds will fly down and peck out her eyes (thus the nickname 'bird's-eye'). In another, if childen pick the plant, their mother's heart will break (hence the name 'mammy die').
So what is it about germander speedwell that has led to people linking it to oaks and Christ? It had multiple uses in traditional medicine: treating wounds, purifying the blood, to stimulate the kidneys, for skin compaints, as a cure for smallpox and measles, pesilential fevers and even cancer. Yet, beyond its medicinal values, I supect that germander speedwell may also be popular for its sheer prettiness that changes through the day. In morning, its flowers are bright blue and full of nectar. By the time it closes for nightfall, its flowers have faded to pink.
Description - Figwort Family. A creeping flower up to 20cm tall, blue flowers with white 'eye' March to July.
Distribution - Native to Europe and North Asia, introduced in other continents. Very common in woods, hedgebanks and grasslands.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - Swathes of it on a protected, sunny bank that is also popular with willowherb.
Value to Wildlife - High. Visited by bees, insects, butterflies (especially the heath fritillary) and, in particular, hoverflies.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica Dioica)
Nettles today are mostly known for their sting and their dull, green appearance, putting them firmly in the ‘weed’ camp. But for millennia, man and these nutrient-rich plants were close neighbours, one benefiting the other. Human settlements, surrounded by livestock, provided nettles with the phosphate and nitrogen-rich soil they favour. In return, humans found multi-fold uses for the plant: it can be crushed to produce a dye; its fibres can be spun into cloth and string or used to make paper; nettles are a valued foodstuff, rich in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium and taste like spinach (some recipes here); they also have many medicinal uses.
The Romans prized nettles and brought their native species to Britain, following the invasion of 55BC. Aside from eating the plants, they would rub themselves with nettles, to provide a respite from the cold British climate and stave off rheumatism.
Historically, perhaps the primary use of nettles by humans has been for weaving cloth. Archaeologists have found evidence of nettle cloth wrapped around cremated bones in a Bronze-Age Danish site and in an earlier British site nettle fibres have been found attaching a flint arrowhead to its shaft. The name ‘nettle’ may have been derived from the Anglo-Saxon word noedl (a needle), which could both refer to the plant’s sting, and its use as a weaving material in Germany and Scandinavia before the general introduction of flax in the Iron Age. The early nineteenth century poet Thomas Campbell championed the nettle, which was little used in England, writing: 'In Scotland I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle-sheets, and I have dined off a nettle-tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say, that she thought nettle-cloth more durable than any other species of linen'. During the First World War the German army used nettle cloth when there was a shortage of cotton for the soldiers' uniforms; 40kg of nettles producing just one shirt.
Despite its sting, nettles were seen in folklore as protective plants. In the Austrian region of Tyrol, where nettle weaving continued up until 1917, local superstitions said that throwing nettles on the fire during thunderstorms prevented danger – probably a link to the tradition that nettles were sacred to thunder gods, such as Thor. In Germany, farmers believed that gathering nettles before sunrise would protect their cattle from evil spirits. An Irish superstition claims that nettles taken from a churchyard and boiled down will make a drink to cure dropsy. Further superstitions refer to sprinkling nettles around the house to ward off evil or putting nettles under a sick bed. In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Wild Swans, under the guidance of the queen of the fairies, the princess painfully made nettle cloaks for her brothers, who had been turned into swans. When her brothers put them on, they regained their human forms.
In traditional medicine, nettles were a standard remedy for rheumatism and arthritis, while nettle juice was rubbed into the scalp to stave off baldness. Modern herbalists have found that the plant's high iron content is a good tonic for anaemia, while their ability to clear uric acid from the system relieves gout and their astringency stops bleeding.
Before you set about ridding your garden of nettles, be aware that there are few plants with a greater value to wildlife. The stinging hairs keep livestock away, providing (in the UK) over forty species of insects with a safe home; in particular butterflies, who lay their larvae on nettles. And if you do decide to pull up your nettles, put them in a bucket of water and leave them until they are rotten. The resulting brew makes an excellent natural fertilizer.
And for the truly dedicated, the World Nettle Eating Championships is held yearly in Dorset, in the UK.
Description - Urtica Family. A tall, dark green perennial up to 7ft tall, with small green/brown flowers, that spreads via seeds and rhizomes just below the ground.
Distribution - Worldwide, though less common in dry areas such as southern Europe and north Africa. Found in most habitats, particlarly those with phosphate-enriched soils.
At Sparrowhawk Farm - In patches around the outbuildings and beside walls close to the footpath.
Value To Wildlife - Extremely high. Visited by insects (not bees) and especially butterflies (including the Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma).

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