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).

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