Time is flying and we are already approaching the summer session , now is a good time to look back at some of the flowering species that have been in evidence on the Cowfield and what to look out for in the coming weeks.
The year start of the year saw an improving show of Cowslip (Primula veris) in April and May. They flowered more abundantly than ever this year, a good sign that the population is growing again after the undoubted setback it took when we were forced to spray parts of the field with a herbicide to control docks. They were in evidence throughout the top half of the field, spreading in area, density, and abundance. If they continue to increase in abundance and density across the field, in a few years, we could well have the largest Cowslip meadow in the North West of England!
Cowslip may once have been as common as the buttercup, but they have suffered a serious decline, mainly since World War II, due to the loss of the unimproved grassland, the relentless expansion of modern farming practices, herbicides, and the ploughing of old grassland. It is now showing signs of recovery nationally, doubtless assisted by the scattering of wildflower seed mixtures such as ours.
Cowslip – ironically, as the flower symbolise ‘comeliness and winning grace’ – means cowpat, the common name being derived from the old English for cowpat, presumably because people noticed it growing where cowpats were ‘deposited’, or spreading where cows had grazed. The ‘freckled cowslip' appears in Shakespeare's Henry V as a sign of well-managed pasture land.
Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), was the sure sign of arrival of summer. Oxeye have spread throughout the Cowfield, even into areas now that we did not sow with the wildflower mix. Like most species though, they are still in low abundance, because of competition from the over vigorous grasses. Oxeye is said to symbolise the virtue of patience, which is appropriate since, hopefully, abundance will increase as the fertility of the soil, and vigour of the grasses declines.
Picture:Cowslip (Primula veris)
Oxeye daisy are alternatively known as 'Moon Daisy', or ‘Moonpenny’, a reference to the flower sometimes seeming to glow with reflected moonlight on summer evenings. They are also known as 'Dog Daisy', ‘Horse daisy’, or Marguerite.
Bedstraws did particularly well this year. All the bedstraw’s foliage carry a hay like scent when dried, and their foliage is relative fine and lax when dry too, and is said to ward off fleas. All those characteristics made them popular for mixing with hay to fill mattresses, ‘back in the day’. Ladies Bedstraw (Galium verum) was sown as part of the seed mix and is becoming quite abundant throughout the upper half of the Cowfield. This is the only yellow bedstraw species, and its frothy flowers carry a honey like scent. It is a very distinctive plant, with its soft clusters of bright yellow flowers, narrow, dark green leaves in whorls around the stem, creeping through grasses, and sending up flowering stems in summer between June and August.
Picture:Oxeye daisy are alternatively known as 'Moon Daisy', or ‘Moonpenny’,
The story goes that Ladies Bedstraw is so called because the Virgin Mary gave birth on a bed of lady's bedstraw and bracken. The bracken, being coarse, refused to acknowledge the baby Jesus and so was punished by losing its flower (which as a fern, it does not have). Lady's bedstraw though, bloomed in recognition of the child and, as a reward became the only yellow flowered bedstraw, when its flowers changed from white like all the other bedstraws, to gold. Interestingly, the plant has other associations with birth, being traditionally used in herbal medicine as a sedative for women in labour.
Other bedstraws to be found, in some abundance in the grassland and in the hedge bases are Hedge Bedstraw (Galium mollugo), and Common Cleavers, or Goose Grass (G. aparine), also known as ‘sticky weed’.
One of the most diverse groups of the plants on the field are the Leguminosae, or Pea family plants. Most apparent perhaps have been Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) and White Clover(T. repens). Both these plants are common in meadow grassland, as they are often sown with grass seed mixes to exploit the feature common to all leguminous plants, of ‘fixing’ nitrogen from the atmosphere using symbiotic bacteria in nodules on their roots, so naturally ‘fertilising’ the soil. They attract pollinators, especially bees and other insects throughout their flowering season. Both also have numerous medicinal uses; white clover has been used against intestinal worms, while red clover has many more uses associated, such as traditionally against the symptoms of menopause, coughs, and in modern ‘alternative’ medicine for treatment of disorders of the lymphatic system and against certain cancers. In Indian traditional medicine, it is used as for example as an antispasmodic, expectorant, sedative, and anti-inflammatory.
Smaller, less obvious, but only a little less abundant is Black Medic (Medicago lupulina), called ‘Black’ not because of the colour of its (quite small) flowers, which are yellow, but of it’s seed pods. It is also known as ‘Nonesuch’, or ‘Hop Clover’. It too is very popular with honey bees, though not gardeners who love their lawns, who consider it a weed.
Picture: Black Medic (Medicago lupulina)
Less abundant than the clovers or medics, though still found throughout the field, often at quite high density, are the Vetches. Of these, Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) has been the most prominent this year, clambering through the grasses and pushing up its heads of 10 – 40 violet blue flowers. Older vernacular names for this plant are ‘Cat-peas’, ‘Cow-vetch’, ‘Bird vetch’ and ‘Fingers-and-thumbs’ (apparently from the shape of the seed pods). This plant is important for Bumble bees, and other large bee species. Because it has lax stems, and needs to scramble over grasses and other plants for support, it tends to be found in meadows, especially later cut ones, rather than pasture or closely mown grassland.
Less common on the field, surprisingly perhaps given its name, is Common Vetch (Vicia sativa). The flowers of Common Vetch are a purplish pink (very occasionally white or yellowish individuals are found), much paler than those of Tufted Vetch, and carried singly or in pairs which makes them easy to distinguish. Common Vetch has long been part of the human diet, even since before the development of agriculture, but remains of the plant have been found in human settlements from Syria and Turkey, to Hungary and Slovakia, and in Ancient Egypt.
Picture:Common Vetch (Vicia sativa)
Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis) is widespread on the field, but not common, and you’ll need to be sharp eyed to spot it as it scrambles amongst our too vigorous grass. It can be identified by its yellow flower and paired leaves, and tendrils. Meadow Vetchling can become locally dominant, and is more dependent on its spreading roots than seed drop to expand its cover, so although it is not abundant now (it was not part of the seed mix we sowed), it should over time become much more common.
We did sow, Common Birds-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), also known as ‘Eggs and Bacon’, because of its yellow flowers tinged with orange-red. Bird's-foot trefoil is an important source of food for pollinating insects. The 'bird's-foot' comes from the claw like shape of its seed pods – which give rise to another of its common names – ‘Granny’s Toenails’. Also, just in case you were thinking that the plant symbolism referred to is a bit sickly sweet, Birds-foot trefoil symbolises revenge.
While on the subject of legumes, there are two others recorded which you may spot (if you are really good). They were only really in evidence in the years immediately following seed sowing, and are Hairy Tare (Vicia hirsuta), a short hairy plant with whitish pale lilac flowers, held singly, or in groups of up to 8, and Fodder Vetch (Vicia villosa), a sprawling plant quite like Tufted Vetch, but more hairy, and with darker flowers. As annuals, they won’t have persisted long after the soil was disturbed, and probably only make an appearance now when soil is disturbed and seed brought to the surface by a scratching dog, or when a careless Metal Detectorist doesn’t fill his holes properly.
Picture:Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)
A plant which we did not sow, but which has arrived anyway, is Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis).The pale blue, delicate pin-cushion like flowers of Field Scabious have given rise to a number of alternative names, such as 'Lady's pincushion', 'Gipsy Rose', 'blue bonnets', ‘Bachelor's Buttons’, ‘Blackamoor's Beauty’, ‘Pins-and-Needles’, ‘Snake flower’, and ‘Curl-Doddy’ (i.e. curly head).
The stems of Field Scabious are rough and hairy; to the imaginative, similar in texture to scabby skin. The ‘doctrine of signatures’ (the idea that clues to the usefulness of plants lie in their appearance) therefore, has led to it being used as a herb to treat scabies, mange and itches - the 'scabiosa herba' from which it derives its common name). The juice was also said to alleviate plague sores. Young girls allegedly would pick Scabious "buttons", giving each a lover's name, and then choose her husband by the one that flowered best; probably as effective as using the plant to cure plague.
Picture: Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis)
The type of grassland we are aiming for (still a long way off), is called Cynosurus cristatus - Centaurea nigra grassland, for the two species characteristic and always found in it – the grass Crested Dogstail (Cynosurus cristatus), and the wildflower, or forb, Lesser Knapweed (Centaurea nigra). Lesser Knapweed was (obviously) included in our seed mix, but in honesty, hasn’t established well from seed. It is widespread across the field, but is not present in anything like the abundance or density we’d hoped for. Knapweed is a member of the daisy family – theAsteraceae. Also known as ‘Hardheads’ or ‘Black Knapweed’, ‘Bachelor's buttons’ (illustrating, when we remember Field Scabious, the importance of giving all species a single latin scientific name), ‘Blue bottle’ and ‘Iron knobs’.
Most of these names are explained by the hard, knobby, bottle-shaped head, and the toughness of the plant. ‘Bachelor’s Buttons’ is less obvious, until you understand that as with Field Scabious, young women used to play a game by plucked a knapweed flower and fixing it to their blouse. When the florets began to open, it told her the man of her dreams was near. This is a robust, coarse plant and a favourite of a wide range of pollinating insects (the plant is remarkable in this respect, as it is the top producer of both nectar and pollen, when the amount of each are compared with the pollen production of the highest nectar producers and vice versa). It’s black seeds (hence the ‘Black Knapweed’), are a good source of food for many small birds, especially the Goldfinch. At first glance, it can be mistaken for a thistle, but common knapweed can be identified by its slightly spherical black/brown flower head, growing alone, topped with an inflorescence of purple, pink or (more rarely) white.
Knapweed has been used medicinally for ruptures and wounds, bruises, sores, scabs and sore throats.
Ways to increase the presence of this valuable plant are being explored.
The now familiar game to identify a future love, which must have been a common pre-occupation in ‘days of yore’, is also played with Ribwort Plantain (Plantago major). Ribwort plantain is an ‘honorary grass’ for farmers, but seen as a nuisance weed by many gardeners. It plant attracts many small butterflies, moths and hoverflies and provides a good source of food for birds in the winter.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), is a common plant, often found in grasslands, along woodland edges and roadside verges. It has slender arrowhead shaped leaves and attractive flowers that appear in May and June, a haze of crimson and pink among the grasses. The leaves are eaten by the larvae of several species of butterfly and moth. It has numerous other common names, and pretty much all, from 'Sour Ducks' to 'Vinegar Plant', refer to the fact that its leaves taste extremely tart and dry, even lemony, due to their high levels of oxalic acid. Sorrel makes an excellent soup, and can be eaten like spinach. Traditionally, the juice of the plant was used in the household to remove stains from linen.
Picture Lesser Knapweed
Musk mallow (Malva moschata) has pretty pink flowers, and lives up to its name, producing a delicate, musky smell. Its large open flowers are very attractive to bees, butterflies and other insects. It favours drier places, and grows mainly in the upper part of the Cowfield, where the soil is less moisture retentive than the lower parts. It is said to symbolise being ‘consumed by love’, persuasion, and weakness. The plant is native to southern England, but is probably introduced in northern Britain and Ireland – we didn’t sow it, and have no idea how it arrived in the Cowfield. It is a common ‘Cottage Garden’ plant, so may be a garden ‘escape’.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) can be found in many grasslands, from lawns to meadows, its flat-topped clusters of flower heads appear from June, and cultivated varieties are popular garden plants. Yarrow has dark green, finely divided, feathery leaves (hence the latin millefolium – ‘thousand leaves’), and flat-topped clusters of white, and sometimes pink, flower heads. Each head is comprised of many yellowish disc florets and pinky-white ray florets - together they give the impression of one flower with a yellow centre and white petals. Centuries ago, Yarrow was used as a charm against bad luck and illness. It was (and still is in herbal medicine) also used to stop wounds from bleeding, and is named after the Greek hero Achilles who is supposed to have used the plant to treat wounds on the battle field. Weirdly, it was also believed to cause nosebleeds if you put it up your nose. How would anyone find that out? Alternative vernacular names include ‘Yarroway’, ‘Staunchweed’ and ‘Poor man's pepper’.
Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) was definitely not sown by us, and is, to be honest, not welcome. ‘Wild Morning Glory’, ‘Creeping Jenny’, ‘Withy Wind’ (in basket willow crops), is a relative of the white trumpet flowered Hedge Bindweed, bane of gardeners everywhere. Field bindweed has been spread, with people and agriculture, to almost every corner of the globe, and despite its pretty flower, it is one of the world’s most despised weeds. It entwines and topples native species, competes with them for sunlight, moisture and nutrients, and poses threats to restoration efforts such as ours. Pretty as it is, it will have to go, as it cannot be trusted to ‘play nicely’.