Saturday 26 August 2017

Small and Beautiful

A single narrow leafed pea is flowering in the middle of a mass of cinquefoil, a purple counterpoint to the surrounding sea of yellow.  The pea, approximately half a centimetre across, is a perfect scale model of its larger cousin and gardener's favourite, the sweet pea.  Here, this tiny flower is noticed only by keen botanists and the photographer with his camera poised barely a centimetre above the ground.

Close up single purple pea flower against background of yellow flowers
Narrow Leaved Pea - 31 May 2017
The yellow in the background is cinquefoil


Mass of cinquefoil with plenty of yellow flowers growing up a heap of wood chips
Cinquefoil Growing on Wood Chips - 31 May 2017
Some clover and grass can be seen in the cinquefoil at the bottom of the picture

The cinquefoil is colonising a heap of wood chippings, its stolons advancing on a broad front towards the top of the heap, dragging a wealth of yellow flowers, each the size of a buttercup, with it.  At its leading edge, there is only cinquefoil. But farther back, other plants beside the pea are growing in the clump, including speedwell, white clover and, inevitably, grass.  This is ecology in action, the first stage of a new plant community - where last year there were only wood chippings. Each species literally fighting for its place in sun.  A contest with some collateral benefits, as all the flora will benefit from the nitrogen fixing activity of the clover.

Low angle close up of clump of cinquefoil
Cinquefoil - 9 June 2017

Cinquefoil, a native of Britain, is seen by gardeners as an aggressive invader of lawns. In the past, it has been grown as a herb, particularly valued as an astringent used for cleaning wounds.  It was believed to be an effective protection against witchcraft. Over the years, it has accumulated a number of alternative names, some of which, such as five fingers relate to the shape of its leaves.  Others have a far less obvious origin: biscuits, bloodrot, ewe daisy, shepherds blood, and shepherds knapperty.  Some of these are shared with the very similar tormentil,  suggesting a degree of confusion between the two species.

A single stem of speedwell photographed against the yellow cinquefoil
Germander Speedwell - 9 June 2017
A lone speedwell plant in the clump of cinquefoil

Black Medick


Side view from close to the ground of black medick with grass stems much taller than the plant
Black Medick - 14 June 2017
The grass stems tower above this tiny herb

Another invader of lawns and mown grass is the black medick. This yellow flowered relative of the clover, has flower heads about four millimetres across. But the flowers that I photographed were growing in recently cut and well trodden grass, and the whole flower head was little more than two millimetres across.  The name medick is derived from the Latin name for the plant, Medicago lupulina, which in turn is derived from the Greek medike, meaning  a plant that had been introduced from Media (modern Iran). Not surprisingly given its low growing habit and very small flowers, it is a plant that has been generally overlooked in folklore, with few recorded uses except as a source of honey.  Some claim it is the original shamrock.

White Bryony


Close up of a single white bryony flower
White Bryony - 31 May 2017

The small pale green flowers of the white bryony are easily missed in the thick foliage of a hedgerow at the height of summer, in contrast to its chains of red berries, also called devil's apples, which are a prominent feature of autumn. White bryony is also called English mandrake, and like the mandrake it has a forked anthropomorphic root.  It is said, that just like the mandrake, that when a white bryony plant is pulled up, its screams are so monstrous they cause agony, if not death, to anyone within earshot.  But English mandrake has none of the magical properties of mandrake, it is not soporific, hallucinogenic or aphrodisiac.  However, white bryony has been used as a very powerful laxative, to cure gout, to induce mares to foal, and to keep rats away from stored wheat.


CLose up of cleavers showing tiny white flowers almost hidden by leaves
Cleavers - 31 May 2017
Even close up the white flowers are almost invisible

This year was the first time I have ever seen the small white flowers of cleavers.  Like most other people, I knew this straggling annual from the smothering green blanket it forms over bushes and other vegetation and its habit of attaching itself to my clothing whenever I get too close. The tiny flowers born singly in the leaf axils are almost certainly the smallest things I have photographed so far in this project.  Chris Packham in his book 'The Wild Side of Town' states that cleavers is insect pollinated.  This seems quite amazing given that the flowers are almost vanishingly small.

Cleavers has long been used for various purposes: as bedding (Virgin Mary is reputed to have used it for the bed for the baby Jesus); the stems made into a mat and used to sieve milk; as a pot herb; its seeds used as a substitute coffee; its roots used as a source for red dye; and any number of medicinal uses including as a diuretic, a tonic, a sleeping draft, a cure for ear ache, and a remedy for snake bites.  It has an equally impressive collection of alternative names: goosegrass, clivers, robin-run-in-the-hedge, love-man, sticky-willy, burweed, catchweed, and hedgesheriff.

Next: Summer Surprise

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