Saturday 8 July 2017

The Wisdom of Dandelions

It seems that almost every plant, no matter how small  or insignificant, played a part in the world of our ancestors. Plants were used for food, for medicine, for protection against witches and evil spirits, and as good luck charms. They could foretell the future, forecast the weather, bring bad luck into the house, and act as link to the otherworld of pixies and fairies.

Low growing clump of dandelions on edge of path
Dandelion - 25 April 2017
Though dandelions are abundant outside of Milton Country Park
inside there are only a few clumps growing on the edge of paths.

The dandelion - the name is from the old French dents-de-lion referring to the leaves whose shape resembles lions' teeth - has a reputation as something of an oracle.  The flowers can be used to foretell everything from a child's future wealth to the true status of a woman's love, as well as forecasting the next day's weather.  The seed heads are equally potent: blowing on the seed head can yield such diverse information as the time of day, the number of children a child will have, and the state of the blower's love life.

Germander Speedwell

Close up of a clump of speedwell
Germander Speedwell - 25 April 2017
Close up the resemblance of the flower to birds' eyes is obvious
Its alternative name is birds-eye trefoil

If the dandelion flower is for the picking, my next flower, germander speedwell, definitely is not.  To pick one of its tiny blue flowers was to risk having a bird peck one's eyes out; a belief presumably based on the resemblance of the flower with its dark blue periphery and white centre to a bird's eye.  Except in Ireland, where it was sewn into clothes to protect against accidents!

A patch of grass infused with the bright blue flowers of germander speedwell
Clumps of Germander Speedwell - 4 May 2017
The only substantial clump of this flower on a small triangle of grass at the north of the park.
Massed flowers like this add a cheerful blue flush to the meadow

In any case, the name 'germander speedwell' suggests happier assocations: 'speedwell' - a flower to speed the traveller on her way, cheered on by its masses of bright blue flowers. 

Cuckoo Pint

Close up of single cuckoo pint flower
Cuckoo Pint Inflorescence - 17 April 2017
Though large cuckoo pint flowers are easily overlooked for two reasons:
firstly, they are green; and, secondly by the time they come to flower
the plants are often hidden among the fast growing nettles and cow parsley.

The cuckoo pint (rhymes with mint, and is short for pintle a name for the penis) is the dirty postcard of the plant kingdom. The resemblance of its flowers, with their poker shaped spadix  partially enclosed in a pale green hood or spathe, to human genitalia has titillated the imagination of generations.  As a result, it has been called over 150 names including lords and ladies, devils and angels, boys and girls, naked boys, naked girls, and jack in the pulpit.  The starch in its roots was used for stiffening altar clothes, church linen and Elizabethan ruffs.


Path through woods lined with comfrey covered in white blossom
Comfrey - 11 May 2017
In the woods in the south of the park,
there is a large mass of comfrey growing either side of the path.

Comfrey is an example of a plant cultivated for its medicinal properties.  The name 'comfrey' , derived from the Latin 'con firma' to grow together, and other traditional names such as knitbone and boneset, reflect its value as an aid to the healing of broken bones.  It has also been used as a poultice for bruises and to relieve arthritic pain, and a remedy for nappy rash.

White Dead Nettle

Bike track with banks of white dead nettle on either side
White Dead Nettle - 17 April 2017
Up to this year, there have been just a few clumps of this plant in the park,
this year it lines the bike tracks at the south of the park.
Finally, white dead nettle reveals how much pixies and fairies were part of the popular imagination.  Its flowers, which occur in pairs, were said to be pixie shoes left outside their house.  Maybe, the likeness can only be seen after drinking a distillation of the flowers which according to Gerard makes the 'heart merry' and 'restores the spirits'. From its alternative common names of 'deaf nettle', 'dumb nettle' and 'blind nettle', the white dead nettle is three wise monkeys all rolled into one plant!

Further Reading

I have listed all my sources for this post on a separate page 'Folklore References' 

Next: Laburnum

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