Miscellany

Wildflower MiscellanyAs well as being highly attractive, the wildflowers of Britain have been put to a variety of uses since the dawn of time.

Their healing properties have long been exploited in folk medicine, and the in pre-Christian age, resourceful Druids processed a wide range of wildflowers into tinctures, potions, salves and syrups, and used them to treat a broad spectrum of maladies. From the 15th century onwards, the spread of printed ‘Herballs’ such as those by John Gerard (1545–1611) and Nicholas Culpeper (1616–16545) helped the science of medicine to spread across Europe.

Wildflowers were also harvested as herbs and vegetables, and foraging for wild greens is enjoying a fresh wave of popularity today. They’re often tastier and more nutritious than commercially-raised crops, and the fact that they’re free is an added bonus!

There were plenty of practical applications for wild plants, too. They were an essential source of fibres for making ropes, textiles and baskets, and they yielded a range of vibrant colours for the dyeing of textiles.

Wildflowers have a fascinating heritage and are rich in myth and tradition . . .

  • Bird’s Foot Trefoil yields a vivid yellow dye and is often used as a forage plant.
  • Black Knapweed was used to treat sores and wounds, and sometimes prescribed as a tonic. The flowers are edible and can be added to salads.
  • Bladder Campion is eaten in Spain, Crete and Cyprus. The young leaves are used raw in salads, and older leaves are boiled or sautéed.
  • Cat’s Ear leaves add flavour and texture to stir-fries and salads, and the roots can be roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee.
  • Common Fleabane is an ancient and effective insect-repellent, with useful astringent properties, and the crushed leaves can be used as soap.
  • Common Mallow leaves were boiled and eaten as a vegetable in 19th century Europe, and the plant was valued by apothecaries for its soothing properties. It also yields a useful dye.
  • Common Primrose was thought to bestow good luck, and has edible foliage and flowers, which can also be made into primrose wine.
  • Common Sorrel was once believed to be an antidote for snakebite. In eastern Europe and rural Greece, it’s harvested as a vegetable and often used in soups.
  • Cornflowers were often worn by love-struck young men, and were a particular favourite of John F. Kennedy’s. It’s used as a flavouring in the Lady Grey blend of tea, and in ancient times it featured in magic spells.
  • Cowslips have long been used to flavour country wines and vinegars, and the flowers are believed to have mildly sedative properties so are sometimes taken as an infusion.
  • Field Scabious has been used in homeopathic remedies to treat skin disorders and to soothe burns and bruises.
  • Field Poppy was voted the county flower of Essex and Norfolk in 2002. It has been used as a source of red dye, and the seeds are prized by cooks and bakers for their nutty flavour. The poppy has become and enduring symbol of remembrance.
  • Fox & Cubs was believed by the Roman naturalist Pliny to be a food source for hawks, and that it strengthened their eyesight, and in rural Ireland it is sometimes used as a diuretic.
  • Foxgloves have a long medicinal history and are particularly associated with heart problems. Vincent Van Gogh used digitalis – the active constituent of foxgloves – to treat his epilepsy.
  • Greater Knapweed was used in soothing ointments and poultices, and was believed to restore a jaded appetite and increase vigour.
  • Herb Robert was traditionally carried to attract good luck, and freshly-picked leaves are said to be a useful mosquito-repellent when rubbed into the skin. Apothecaries and herbalists used it as a remedy for toothache and nosebleed.
  • Lady’s Bedstraw was a popular stuffing for mattresses, and contains coumarin, whose scent is believed to repel fleas. The plant is also a useful source of yellow dye, and is used as a colouring in Double Gloucester cheese.
  • Meadow Buttercup can cause blisters on the skin if handled excessively, and centuries ago beggars were said to exploit this, using the flowers to disfigure themselves and induce the sympathy of passers-by. In the 17th century, anglers would pour buttercup tea onto the ground to bring worms to the surface.
  • Meadow Clary is an effective hair conditioner, believed to impart both strength and lustre. Taken as an infusion, it’s said to sooth sore throats.
  • Night-flowering Catchfly is believed to have been brought to Britain by Neolithic farmers. Now declining in the wild, it can still be found in parts of the Norfolk countryside.
  • Oxeye Daisy buds can be picked, marinated and used a substitute for capers, while the flowers and leaves add texture and colour to salads.
  • Ragged Robin has no edible parts and is not used medicinally, but its roots contain saponins that can be extracted by boiling and used as a soap substitute.
  • Red Campion seeds were ground and used as a salve for snakebite, and the saponin contained in the roots was exploited as a rudimentary soap.
  • Red Clover has a range of medicinal applications and has been proved to have beneficial effects on bloodflow. Highly prized by farmers, it takes nitrogen from the air and enriches the surrounding soil with it.
  • Ribwort Plantain was often used by children for the game of ‘Cock Battler’, in which they took turns to knock the flowerheads from the tough stems of the plant. The leaves were crushed and used to relieve insect stings.
  • Rough Hawkbit was used by traditional herbalists to treat jaundice, and the roots used to be roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee. The young foliage can add flavour and texture to a salad.
  • Salad Burnet was among the first plants to be taken to the New World by the Pilgrim colonists. Thomas Jefferson, who would later become the third president of the United States, once ordered 8 bushels of seed to plant 16 acres of cattle fodder. I t has a mild, pleasant flavour that’s reminiscent of cucumber.
  • Selfheal has been an apothecary’s favourite for many centuries. Its antibiotic attributes have been the subject of extensive study, and extracts of the plant are still used in ointments and salves. The young foliage will add flavour and texture to a summer salad.
  • Small Scabious, sometimes known as Pigeon’s Scabious, has no known medicinal uses but the leaves are edible.
  • Sneezewort has long been prized by herbalists, and the celebrated Elizabethan physician John Gerard (1545-1611) was enthusiastic about its many attributes. “The juice mixed with vineger and holden in the mouth, easeth much the pain of the toothache . . . ”
  • Teasels are still used in the weaving trade. Attached to spindles, the dried flowerheads gently and effectively raise the nap on woollen fabrics. Fanciful claims have been made for the plant’s supposed medicinal properties – it’s been said to cure warts, and rainwater that gathers on its leaves was thought to be a an effective eyewash.
  • Toadflax is used in homeopathic treatments for jaundice and certain skin complaints, and as an infusion it’s said to be a powerful laxative.
  • Valerian has a long and interesting history. It was a favourite medicinal herb of the Anglo-Saxons, who called it ‘All-heal’, and in medieval times the root was ground for use as both a spice and a perfume. During the First World War, tincture of Valerian was used in the treatment of shell-shock.
  • Wild Carrot has a large, fleshy taproot that can be eaten as a raw vegetable or cooked in a variety of ways. The roots can be roasted, ground and used as a coffee substitute, and in rural districts of Britain they were also used for wine-making.
  • Wild Marjoram was worn in wreaths by medieval brides and grooms, as a symbol of their love for one another. It’s invaluable in the kitchen, where it makes an excellent addition to salads and summer drinks.
  • Yarrow has a long history of use by herbalists, who valued its healing and soothing properties, and one of its earliest common names was Soldier’s Woundwort. Its sharply-flavoured young foliage made it popular as a vegetable in the 17th century.
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