Sunday, April 29, 2012

You saxy thing!

Size isn't everything.

Nestled in the grass by a public footpath that runs across the Royal St George's Golf Course (Grid Ref. TR 36110 58171) is this little jewel.

Rue-leaved saxifrage is small. It's very small; only a few centimetres tall. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer adorableness. Tiny starry white flowers. Stems blushing red. Sticky glandular hairs. This is a botanical delicacy.

I'd seen this lovely saxifrage a month or so before on top of an old wall.

It likes growing on old walls. Its botanic name is Saxifraga tridactylites. Tridactylites means 'with 3 fingers'.  The basal leaves in the photo below, are indeed  '3 fingered'.

Saxifrage is from the Latin saxifragus, meaning 'stone-breaker'. Whether saxifrages were named for a habit of growing in rocky places or on walls, or for their use as a herbal remedy for 'stones', is hard to discern. What is certain is that some plants were chosen as remedies, based on the Doctrine of Signatures. The logic of this doctrine runs thus; plants are giving us clues; they resemble the part of the body they could be used to treat or have characteristics of the disease they might be taken to cure. Examples are;

  • Pilewort (lesser celadine) for piles; the roots look like piles
  • Lungwort (Pulmonaria) for lung disease; the leaves are spotted likes lungs
Basing medical use on such characteristics is laughable today but ancient medicine had little else to go on. Saxifrages grow in/on stones so they are hinting that they might be useful for the hapless patient with kidney stones. Thank goodness for the Age of Enlightenment.

BTW, the old wall the rue-leaved saxifrage is on is at Ightham Mote, a 14th century moated manor house near Sevenoaks (owned by the National Trust). We didn't have time to go in but peeked over the wall and took photos from the public footpath.

Ightham's on the (ever-growing) list of places to go back to.

Why rue-leaved saxifrage? Well, for a start, it's not related to rue.

Rue, Royal College of Physicians Garden, July 2008.

But looking at rue leaves...

...the resemblance to the miniature saxifrage is evident.

RueRuta graveolens, is a strong-smelling herb; graveolens means heavy smelling. It was used as a herbal remedy for various ailments in ye olden dayes. But, if you ate it, you'd surely rue it. Rue stinks and nothing would induce me to eat it or drink it. Just as well really as it contains various unpleasant toxins. Furanocourmarins are chemicals known to be photodermatoxic (makes skin susceptible to UV light) and are also toxic to liver and kidneys. Skin contact with rue can cause irritation or burns. Pliny the Elder noted that if you gathered rue you needed to protect your hands. The following symptoms are experienced on ingestion; stomach ache, vomiting, confusion, convulsions and possibly death. See The Poison Garden for more information.

But it's a pretty flower and keeps witches away (they must not like the smell either).

Rue is in the Rutaceae family.

In Gibraltar earlier this year we found narrow-leaved fringed rue, Ruta angustifolia.

Rue was well known as a herb and a number of unrelated plants are named 'rue' for their superficial resemblance to it. Meadow rue, Thalictrum flavum is a lovely plant with creamy flowers that grows in damp meadows.

Meadow rue, Wicken Fen, July 2009

Its leaves are 'rue-shaped'.

Meadow rue, Wikipedia (Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber)

Like meadow rue, lesser meadow-rue, Thalictrum minus, also has rue-shaped leaves. Here it's growing on Devil's Dyke (in Cambridgeshire, on a bank overlooking Newmarket racecourse).

Lesser meadow rue, Devil's Dyke, July 2009

An even more dainty relative of these non-rues is Thalictrum alpinun, alpine meadow rue, a plant I've only seen in Teesdale growing by a stream on Cronkley Fell (blogged here). The leaves again are rue-like.

An even more unrelated rue-leaved plant is wall-rue, a spleenwort fern, Asplenium ruta-muraria. It's found on limestone rocks and in the mortar on walls. It's very distinctive with little toothed leaves.

And finally, this is goat's rue, Galega officinalis. It's not related to rue and doesn't look anything like it. It is so named because it was apparently fed to goats as galactogogue (promotes lactation). Rue (true rue, Ruta) was known to Pliny as a powerful abortifacient.

Galega officinalis was used as a herbal remedy for diabetes. Chemicals isolated from the herb (galegine), and other closely related chemical compounds, were studied. This work led eventually to the discovery of oral antidiabetic drugs, specifically metformin.

Please pardon me. I've travelled far, far away from the little rue-leaved saxifrage on the wall at Ightham Mote.....

...and in the rough on the Sandwich Bay golf course.

I'll be back to look at it again once this dratted rain stops.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In the gutter, but......looking at stars

I've been kerb-crawling in Sandwich Bay.

Not an immediately inspiring area for a plant hunt you'd think?

But along the kerb-edge (on the verge and in the gutter) is a cornucopia of miniature marvels.

The road is on coastal dune sand at Sandwich Bay, so is free draining. The plants here must tolerate dry, droughty conditions and some salt in the air (the sea is a few hundred yards away). The road is private and quiet, and there is little (virtually no) litter, so I doubt the gutter is scoured by the Council's industrial road sweepers.

All the following photos are of plants which are under a few inches tall, in fact this little gem would fit comfortably on a penny :-)

Early forget-me-not

Early forget-me-not Myositis ramosissima is a hairy plant. Stem hairs are adpressed (pressed against the stem). The flowers are such a bright blue they refused to look dull even on a cloudy day.

Early forget-me-not with stem hairs adpressed

Little mouse ear Cerastium semidecandrum (I think I'm identifying it correctly) is another hairy plant, with membranous (scarious) tips to the sepals and reddish stems. The sepals are the green structures enveloping the flower.

Little mouse-ear

I thought this might be ivy-leaved speedwell Veronica hederifolia. However, the flowers were a really deep blue and unstalked. There were no fruits to help. I wondered about field speedwell? I'll go back with my brain in gear and key it out (when the rain stops.....).


Edible gutter plants included common cornsalad or lamb's lettuce Valerianella locusta.

This tasty little plant was recommended by the great John Evelyn in his Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets in which he states 'Corn-ſallet, Valerianella; loos'ning and refreſhing: The Tops and Leaves are a Sallet of themſelves, ſeaſonably eaten with other Salleting, the whole Winter long, and early Spring: The French call them Salad de Preter, for their being generally eaten in Lent.' (It's available free on Google as an ebook.)

The flowers are a very, very pale blue and absolutely tiny.

Parsley piert Aphanes arvensis is a teensy prostrate herb. It's relatively common but largely overlooked.

It had (has) some reputation as an herbal remedy. Amazingly herbalists did collect enough of this little plant to make herbal remedies. Its leaves look a bit like parsley and I believe 'piert' refers to its use for kidney stones; 'piercestone'. Herbalists (in the UK) are still taught to use it as an antilithic (for kidney stones), a demulcent (soothing) and diuretic (Peter Conway, Lecture Notes, 2007, University of Westminster). I can't find any evidence for effectiveness though.

This looks like biting stonecrop Sedum acreAlso called wall-pepper (I did taste it once - eeeaghhh) and perhaps more colourfully 'Welcome home husband though never so drunk' (according to Roy Vickery & Geoffrey Grigson).

Another edible gutter herb; buck's horn plantain Plantago coronopus. It has been grown as a leaf vegetable. It's a largely coastal species but it was common enough in Bedfordshire where I used to live, especially where the Town Council mowed verges down to below soil level. 

More flowers; red dead nettle, Lamium purpureum, is an early flowering species and important for bumblebees in spring. Infact it flowers almost all year from February to November. The uppermost leaves are often purple-tinged. 

Henbit dead nettle Lamium amplexicaule (amplexicaul means it has leaves which clasp the stem) is another allegedly edible herb and I reckon, a very elegant little plant. It's sometimes confused with red dead nettle but I think they look quite different.

A delightful flower. A few seconds of Googling led me to Nature at Close Range where I found a quote from one William Darlington, a 19th century weed expert. In his 1859 volume entitled 'American Weeds & Useful Plants', Mr D is, I think, a little dismissive when he says this about henbit (p239) 'This worthless little weed is widely naturalised in our gardens in Pennsylvania, - and requires some attention to keep it in due subjection.' Worthless? Subjection? Pah!

My identification skills for wild Geranium species lurks somewhere between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. I believe this to be dove's foot cranesbill, Geranium molle (please comment if you disagree and put me right). My excuse for not sitting down to key it out is that it was raining and chilly (and the nearest loo was still a fair walk away).

Another Geranium, common storksbill Erodium cicutarium, has bright, chirpy flowers. The 5 elliptical purple-pink petals are distinctive. It's a robust, hairy little plant that copes well living in dry habitats, like coastal dune grassland.

Common storksbill

All in all, despite the weather, a thoroughly enjoyable gutter-snooping trip. Any and all help with id gratefully received. It's early in the year and my brain is not yet up to speed.

BTW Please pardon the mangled Oscar Wilde quote which should read 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars' (Lady Windermere's Fan, Act III).

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sylva Cantiaci

East Kent woodlands have been staging exuberant floral displays over the past few weeks. Before the trees leaf-up, spring-time woods feel fresh and airy - full of light and colour.

Kingsdown Wood

We’re fortunate to live several near remnants of ancient woodland. Ancient woodland is defined as areas that have been wooded since 1600 – based on documentary evidence. This doesn’t imply a lack of management or human interference. On the contrary, in fact, some of our most floristically diverse woods have a history of active management over hundreds of years.

Hazel coppice, Alkham Valley

Documentary evidence aside, characteristic assemblages of certain flowering plants (Ancient Woodland Indicator Species (AWIs)) can be used as confirmatory evidence that some woods are very old indeed. The list of AWIs for Kent includes 52 herbs (I’m ignoring grasses, shrubs and trees). These are plants found more commonly in ancient woods than out. The more AWIs found, the more likely you’re standing in a jolly old bit of woodland.

Wood anemone Anemone nemorosa

AWIs have certain features in common...
  • They often flower in spring before trees are in leaf and then tolerate the long summer in deep shade. 
  • They tend to be plants whose survival strategy requires a relatively undisturbed environment. 
  • They don’t have the ability to rapidly colonise new areas: Many AWIs spread using vegetative propagation. 
  • They can’t compete with plants that thrive in disturbed habitats in bright sunlight, so are out-competed outwith the shady confines of old woodlands. 
Their survival strategies would have given them a considerable advantage thousands of years ago when England was forested. Now, the environment is a little different. They survive in remnants of old woods - these remnants often isolated from other woods in fragmented landscapes.

Wood anemone Anemone nemorosa, is stunningly beautiful; one of the earliest of our spring flowers. Where they bloom, woodland floors are a carpet of white stars. Nemorosa means 'growing in woods'. Also called windflower, Anemone means daughter of the wind.

Some flowers are distinctly pinkish and the unopened heads droop fritillary-like.

Moschatel Adoxa moschatellina, is an understated spring flower. Little and all green, its delicate leaves and tiny pale green flowers are oft past unheeded.

Where the name Adoxa derives from, I can't easily ascertain. Doxa is Greek for 'opinion' and I've found one reference to Adoxa meaning inglorious (without opinion? unregarded?). Seems a little harsh for such a cute plant but it's so discrete in its habit, perhaps that possible etymology for the name is apposite.

The derivation of moschatel is far simpler to explain (see Prior's 1863 botanical etymology here). Moschus is Latin for 'musky' and allegedly (I've yet to stoop and sniff) moschatel smells a little musky. Its specific name, the Italianesque moschatellina, records this fact as do the little used names musk crowsfoot or muskroot. So it's an inglorious little plant that smells a bit musky

The colloquial name of 'town hall clock' is from its 5-faced flowers; 4x4-petalled flowers one each facing NSEW and 1x5-petalled flower looking up. It's also called five-faced bishop. Brilliant wee flower.

No walk in an English wood in spring is really complete without seeing bluebells. Real bluebells - Hyacinthoides non-scripta. How to tell it's the real thing? Plantlife have a clear guide (and see the Beeb here). Bluebells are well adapted to living in shady woods. They flower before the canopy closes; their shoots punching through thick leaf litter in spring. 

Another woodland bulb is wild garlic, Ramsons, Allium ursinum. Not only beautiful but the leaves are delicious to eat :-)

I can't discern the etymolgy of ramsons - it appears to be of uncertain origin. The plant is also called bear's garlic apparently because bears like to dig up the bulbs and eat them when they come out of hibernation. A lovely folk tale, but something we can't check in the UK as we hunted our brown bears to extinction about 1000 years ago.

Yellow archangel Lamium galeobdolon is only just coming into flower. It creeps over the woodland floor, spreading vegetatively using stolons.

Galeobdolon's a bit of a tongue-twister. The name may derive from gale, a weasel and bdolos, an unpleasant or fetid smell. The yellow flowers, when fully out, are wonderful and showy, with bold red stripes.

A less conspicuous woodland flower is wood spurge, Euphorbia amgydaloides (see my previous blog)

Some excellent macro-shots and information on wood spurge is here (scroll down for thefabulous macro shots of the flower).

Another 'all green' woodland specialist is spurge laurel, Daphne laureola. It's neither a spurge nor a laurel. Being so well adapted to living in woods (it spreads via suckering), it can cause havoc if introduced into new environments; viz. outside its native range. In some states in America it's classed as a noxious alien weed (also being toxic and irritant doesn't help).

Daphne is Greek for bay tree or laurel. Daphne was a water nymph, a river daughter, who was desired by Apollo. Gaia changed her a laurel tree to protect her.

Dog's mercury Mercurialis perennis, is in the spurge family. Another all-greenie plant and another toxic plant. The epithet 'dog' is/was used to designate a herb that was not useful as medicine or food. (Annual mercury Mercurialis annua a wayside weed, was used as a potherb. It has an acrid taste and had a reputation as a purgative. Hardly something to add to one's stew.)

In January1693 Sir Hans Sloane published an article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in which he transcribed part of a letter from a Mr TM in Shropshire to Mr William Baxter. This letter tells the sad tale of a family who ate dog's mercury (fried with bacon) and became very ill. A child died. They'd mistaken it for Good King Henry (Chenopodium Bonus-henricus). You can read the original paper here (big thumbs up to the Royal Society for making these papers available online for free).

Hans Sloane was a scientist and doctor to the wealthy upper classes. He was also a great philanthropist, who founded the British Museum. London is littered with roads named after him. More importantly, he introduced the concept of drinking chocolate milk to Europe. What a blooming star :-)

Another blooming star is our wild primrose, Primula vulgaris

I do hope the April showers 'heavy and prolonged rainstorms' take a break soon so I can revisit the woods before the leaves are out on the trees.

More information on Ancient Woodland Indicator Species
Ashford Council published review (5MB file alert) of their ancient woodlands. This included a page listing AWIs for Kent, which I've copied here (much smaller file).
A 'must-read' article by the late Francis Rose from British Wildlife (April 1999) is also a big file (6MB) but worth the wait. 

Woods to visit in East Kent include
Kinsgdown Wood (Grid Reference TR 37097 47891). It's not easy to find information about this little wood online. It's owned by the National Trust and is managed as part of the White Cliffs coastal area. Kingsdowner has a number of blogs on it, here and here.
The Blean Woodland Complex - info here, here, here and here.