Wildlife with an amateur observer
JUNE is the month of wild and verdant waysides and I have the hay fever to prove it. Foxgloves and mayweed combine to provide a showy display along our roadsides while hedges give smaller, less spectacular, wildflowers their opportunity to shine.
I spent a lovely afternoon recently wandering around with an expert ‘recorder’ of our flora. It was an enchanting few hours where we examined the plants and flowers of ditches and beaches to the soundtrack of the calling cuckoo.
Many of these humble plants featured a ‘wort’ in their name, suggesting that they were once used in folk medicine. Many more were also used as a foodstuff in times past. These small plants were utilised by our ancestors in a variety of ways and are still worthy of respect even in the era of modern medicine.
We are all familiar with the ‘dock leaf’ which has been used to relive the effects of nettle stings in Ireland for many generations. In times past, it was also used to staunch bleeding and utilised for a variety of medicinal purposes including curing bronchitis, liver problems and jaundice.
In England, the broad leaved dock had similar herbal uses but it also helped in the ‘cleaning [of] dogs’ backsides’. Its leaves were draped over butter dishes in parts of England to keep butter cool in summer and, in Ireland, dock leaves were wrapped around the butter after it came out of the churn.
Common sorrel is another well known plant that is a member of the dock family. Sorrel was widely eaten as a foodstuff in ancient Ireland, generally consumed in the form of soup. St Kevin is said to have lived for seven years in the wild eating nothing but nettles and sorrel. It was once nibbled by field-workers in an effort to slate their thirst. Today sorrel is increasingly used in salads and soups. It was utilised in folk medicine to cleanse the system and to heal bruises. It was also made into a poultice for the treatment of boils and chickenpox.
Farmers mix in white and red clover with their grass seeds nowadays to improve their grazing land as it adds nitrogen to the soil. I have an abundance of both clovers in my garden where the flower heads buzz with bees. In folk medicine, white clover was said to cure coughs. The leaves of red clover were gathered to relive bee stings and, in some parts of Ireland, were also used as a cure for cancer.
Some ‘Worty’ plants
Figwort is an erect plant of hedgerows that is easy to miss as its flowers are rather insignificant. This plant was once regarded as the ‘Queen of Irish herbs’ while the foxglove was considered the king. It was used in Ireland to treat bruising and skin diseases and for cuts and wounds. In England, and some areas of Ireland, it was known as a remedy for piles, giving rise to the name figwort.
It was regarded as a fairy herb that was to be used with caution and a little fear, particularly in how it was gathered and collected. While its smell is unpleasant to our noses, it is extremely attractive to flies and wasps.
Pennywort is in flower now too, bursting forth from cracks in walls and old buildings. Its round, dimpled, succulent leaves are distinctive and its erect flowering stems make it impossible to miss in summer. Also known as navelwort, in folk medicine it was used to aid the passing of kidney stones, giving rise to its alternative name of kidneywort.
Pennywort was also said to cure corns and chilblains, sore eyes and as even to relieve TB. Its leaves were also rolled up and put in the ear as a treatment for ear ache in some counties.
If you would like to learn more about these wonders of our waysides, I highly recommend the pocket book ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Ireland’s Wildflowers’, available in all local bookstores. You can also follow the lovely new ‘Wildflowers of West Cork’ trail along the waymarked walks of Ballydehob and the Mizen by picking up a leaflet guide in Ballydehob or Schull tourist office.