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  • Sea Beet: the wild spinach

    Looking down along the shore line, especially on mudflats or at the base of cliffs, you will undoubtedly soon come across this very common plant of the sea shore, the sea beet (Beta vulgaris). It is widespread along the coasts of Dorset and especially in our large harbours. It also had the ability to grow on sea walls and in some unusual places.

    Not an attractive plant, perhaps, but the long yellowish flower spikes look quite impressive when they are all out together. Flowering from July to September it is one you can hardly miss on your day out at the seaside.

    Sea beet is an ancestor of several of our present day food crops; beetroot, chard and sugar beet for example. Sea beet has edible leaves, they can be eaten raw or lightly boiled, and are described in Wikipedia as having a "pleasant taste" and so this plant is also known as wild spinach.


  • Hedge Mustard: the singers plant

    If we apply human values and judge flowers for their perceived beauty then I am afraid that hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) would not get a look in! By our values it is a boring, untidy and pretty worthless plant.

    Hedge mustard is a member of the cabbage family and has tiny four-petalled yellow flowers that form in small clusters at the end of stalks that continue to grow out, new flowers appearing at the leading end whilst the ones behind turn to seed. This gives the plant a unique appearance with several flowering 'branches' coming out from the main stem. It has rather ragged pale green leaves but the stem tends towards a reddish colour. It flowers from April through until October and beyond in mild autumns and is one of the most common wayside and waste ground weeds.

    It may be an untidy, ragged looking plant that we do not give a thought too but this is actually cultivated in some parts of the world as a food source, the leaves having something of a bitter taste but quite edible. The seeds are also ground into mustard and that is, of course, how it gets its common name. In traditional medicine it was considered an effective remedy for sore throats and breathing problems and was apparently known as the singer's plant.


  • Wintercress: goes with a bang

    Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris) flowers in May, June and July so one wonders at the name of wintercress! The cress is certainly in keeping as it is a member of the mustard set of the cabbage family and is said to have a bitter taste. It is a biennial plant which means it grows green in the first year and then flowers in the second. This would mean that it is green over winter and so if it was to be used as a vegetable then it would be a cress available in winter. I have not found confirmation of this but as it is also known as winter rocket I think mt theory may be sound.

    Wintecress is a sturdy plant that can grow to three feet tall. It has a strong, ridged stem and the leaves at the base are large and lobed, just like some varieties of cabbage. The flowers are yellow and form in clusters around the top of the stem. Flowers that have a;ready gone to seed can be found just below the current ones on the stem. It is a shiny green colour. This is a plant that prefers moist conditions and is found along roadside ditches and on the banks of streams but it can turn up almost anywhere!

    The wintercress contains several chemicals including saponins which make it resistant to some insects. Wikipedia has an interesting note that some species of moth and beetle feed on the  wintercress and absorb these saponin chemicals which then cause their larvae to die shortly after birth. This has led to tests being carried out to see if growing wintercress with other crops susceptible to moth and beetle infestations can act as a natural form of pest control. It does not say whether this has been successful.

    The scientific name Barbarea is derived from St Barbara, the patron saint of artillery gun crews, as it was once used to sooth the wound caused by explosions.


  • Annual Wall Rocket: the stink weed

    Annual Wall Rocket (Diplotaxis muralis) is a native of southern Europe that has become naturalised in this country and as a result tends to be found near human habitation where it has escaped from gardens. You can find it along pavements and road gutters as well waste places where it needs virtually no soil. It particularly likes sunny spots in the shelter of walls from which it derives the 'wall' in its name.

    The flowers distinctively indicate this is a member of the cabbage family, the crucifereae, having four petals in the form of a cross. It has a distinctly unpleasant smell when bruised apparently (I have not put this to the test) which gives it is alternative name of stinkweed!


  • Black Mustard: the spice of life

    Like dandelion-type flowers, yellow members of the cabbage family (or cruciferae) can also be a challenge in the field. Quite often it is the seeds that help distinguish between the various similar species. Most members of this family, also known as brassicas of course, flower up the stem in sequence so you get active flowers at the top and below the seeds formed from earlier flowers and these seeds can give you a vital clue. In black mustard (Brassica nigra) the seed pods turn upwards and run very close to the stem which, although not unique to this species, it is a help.

    Black mustard is certainly a weed of cultivation and can be found on disturbed ground almost anywhere but it seems to favour coastal areas, especially sea cliffs, and that is where I have generally found it in rough and ready areas on cliff tops. The books suggest that it also likes river banks and waste places so expect it anywhere! It is not common but where it occurs it can be all over the place.

    This plant is grown as a crop for its seeds which are dark brown or black and are very spicy and are used in curry dishes. In some places they are used to create a cooking oil, the plant is related to oil-seed rape after all.


  • Charlock: the yellow peril

    We are used to seeing fields of yellow these days, yellow with the blossoms of oil-seed rape grown for the manufacture of cooking oil and butter substitutes. We may think of this as a modern phenomenon but years ago fields were yellow with the flowers of charlock (Sinapis arvensis), also known as wild mustard. Charlock was not grown as a crop, however, as its leaves and seeds are poisonous if consumed in any quantity. Charlock is a fast spreading weed of disturbed soils (mainly on lime or chalk) in fields, waysides and waste areas. Now controlled, where it does occur it is usually present in large, somewhat untidy masses of plants.

    Like other mustards, charlock is a member of the brassica or cabbage family and has the familiar four-petalled flowers of this group of plants (also known as crucifereae). The flowers emerge up the stems as previous flowers, now lower down, turn to long, cylindrical, smooth pale green seed pods. The plants grow to about a metre tall and have large lobed leaves.

    Charlock is a popular food source for bees and other insects and is also a food plant for the larvae of both large and small white butterflies.



  • Garlic Mustard: Jack by the hedge

    The field guides tell you what garlic mustard (Alliaria Petiolata) looks like but they do not tell you what it tastes like. Given its name, it must be quite potent! In fact, the name comes from the fact that the leaves give off a faint garlic smell when crushed and the plant belongs to the mustard family (a cabbage species). It has long been a plant used for culinary purposes becuase of its strong flavouring. It has also been used as a disinfectant apparently! I wonder if drinking tea made from the roots tastes like Domestos?

    This is a plant I always knew as Jack-by-the-Hedge and it almost exclusively grows along hedgerows and woodland edges, mainly on chalk soils and so it is not uncommon down here in Dorset. It comes in to flower in April and can hang on in to July. In May it can line a hedgerow with these white clusters of small, four petalled flowers.

    Although easily passed by without a second glance, this plant is a good place to look for early insects. It is an important food plant for several species, especially the orange-tip butterfly which emerges in to its flight stage to coincide with garlic mustard coming in to flower as it lays its orange eggs on the plant and the larvae feed on it.


  • Thale Cress: the gutter cress

    Living on a development of bungalows build back in the 1960's our roads do not get much attention from the local council. That is not a complaint, I am actually quite pleased as we get all manner of wild flowers growing in the gutters and along the pavements and walls! I had never seen thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) until we moved here back in 2006 but it is quite common around our local roads.

    Although quite a common weed of cultivation it does not generally occur on lime soils and much of the cultivated fields of Dorset and Hampshire are on the chalk downs. I am sure that is one of the reasons I missed it previously but there is another reason I suspect. Thale cress is a small, frail plant with just a few tiny four-petalled flowers at the top of the stem, easily overlooked in a field but less so in a roadside gutter.

    The amazing thing about thale cress is that despite its very small flowers they create long, thin, cylindrical seed pods which point upwards. This distinguishes it at once from the similar shepherd's purse whose fruits are very different.

    Thale cress is now used extensively in botanical research because of its very simple genetic structure.  


  • Hairy Bittercress: let battle commence

    Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) may be a little plant but, in the wrong place, it can be a big problem! One of the wrong places appears to be our garden where despite my wife declaring war on it the more she attacks it the stronger it seems to come back. In fact, by pulling it out one merely helps to spread its seeds as the pods burst when touched. The seeds can germinate quickly and soon increase the number of plants you have. I try to explain this but the approach remains the same, pull on sight. 

    It is such a shame that all forms of cultivation and wild flowers seem to be in direct conflict. Hairy bittercress is not a 'looker' as far as gardeners are concerned and so it has to go; and the same applies with other 'weeds' too, of course. Seeds often come in to gardens with plants purchased from garden centres and nurseries.

    As a cress it is a member of the cabbage (crucifereae) family with four white petals but being a small flower this is not always obvious. It has the capacity to grow all year round in the south and so gardens are rarely without it!


  • Wavy Bittercress: this way and that

    Although they may not know the name all gardeners will be familiar with the rampant little weed, hairy bittercress. This species I am featuring is its cousin, the wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa). Although its appearance is not disimmilar there are many reasons why you should joot confuse the two.

    Firstly, wavy bittercress is a bigger, stronger plant than the much smaller hairy variety. Wavy bittercress grows in damp woodland areas, often on muddy paths, whereas hairy bittercress is a weed of cultivated ground hence its presence in gardens in profusion! Finally, and it is the origin of its common name, the stem of wavy bittercress zig-zags from side to side turning in a different direction at each leaf joint.

    This is a member of the cabbage family and can be used as a salad garnish but you would need an awful lot of it to make a meal.


  • Common Whitlowgrass

    Common whitlowgrass (Erophila verna) is not a grass at all, as you can see it is a flower.The four deeply lobed petals make this a member of the cruciferae (or cress) family. It is a tiny flower, less than three inches tall, but one that is worth a closer look under magnification.

    The flower head of this plant is so small it is very easy to not see it in the first place! It grows where there is very little soil, often on concrete or tarmac in gutters of roads or car parks. Not only does it grow in harsh conditions it thrives in February and March, long before the majority of other flowers have even started to appear above ground. It can be pollenated by small insects but, flowering so early in the year, the species is basically self-pollentating.

    Now someone out there will want to know why it is called whitlowgrass and I have no idea. My usual references source have not been of any use at all! The NHS website describes a whitlow as an herpetic abcess at the end of the finder caused by infection with the herpes simplex virus (the cold sore virus). One can only surmise that this plant was believed to be a cure for whitlows.


  • Shepherds-purse: a winter cress

    This is a tough little character! Even in the depths of winter you can find shepherd's-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) in flower. I have no idea what pollinates it at such a difficult time of year for insects but somehow it must be worth this plant flowering.

    Normally a weed of cultivation it thrives in gardens, field edges and areas of disturbed earth but it can also grow where there is minimal soil and can be found in roadside gutters and drains and in other bare, waste places. I have even seen it growing on concrete. The size of the plant does vary considerably, the harsher the conditions the smaller it is, but in summer and in favourable soil it can grow to be quite a strong plant.

    It is called shepherd's-purse because the seeds are heart-shaped and look like little purses and this is one of the easiest ways to identify this species. It is a member of the cabbage family (crucifereae) with tiny flowers but the seed 'purses' are much more visible.

    It is known have medicinal properties and is used in alternative medicines across much of the world as well as being eaten in salads. It is not thought to be a native species to the United Kingdom but was introduced long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492! Try Wikipedia if you want to know more about why this date is significant - archaeophyte 


  • Danish scurveygrass: life in the fast lane

    Scurvygrass will be well known by name, if not by sight, as we all learn about Nelson, the history of the Navy, tots of rum and the scurvy when we are at junior school, it is part of our heritage! Scurvy was associated with sailors in the 16th to 18th centuries who spent long periods at sea without enough vitamin C in their diet and so frequently perished from the condition. It was believed that eating scurvygrass was a way to avoid this as it has a high vitamin C content. Modern cases of scurvy are extremely rare.

    There are three species of scurvygrass found in Britain and by far the most common, and this is true of Dorset, is Danish scurvygrass (Cochlearia danica). It is also known as early scurveygrass as it can flower from January right through until September.

    It is a plant usually found around our coasts and especially on salt marshes as it has a high tolerance to salt. In recent times, though, it has become common along our main roads benefiting from the salting that the council does in winter to keep our roads free from ice and from the draft from passing high speed traffic spreading its seed along the road. It is apparently common on the central reservations of our motorways although this is perhaps not the best place to look for it!


  • Sea Kale: the poor mans asparagus

    Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) is quite a rare plant nationally but it grows here in Dorset. It is a seashore specialist and has the capacity to grow on both sand and especially, on shingle. As a result this plant is most likely to be encountered along the Fleet, especially towards the top and back of the Chesil beach.

    This is a relative of the kale that is grown as a food crop and has large 'cabbage' leaves which are obvious for quite a long period of time but the flowers only come in late June through until August. It is a big, sprawling plant and is a member of the cabbage family, the cruciferae, which is quite obvious when you see it.

    Once upon a time it was semi-cultivated. People would go out on to the shore where it was growing and heap up shingle around the growing plant to blanch the shoots which were later harvested and prepared like asparagus. The leaves were also cooked much as cultivated kale is today. Nowadays which practice is, of course, forbidden but sea kale is still available from specialist suppliers from specifically grown crops.


  • Field Pepperwort: bedded in

    When we first moved to Dorset we were fortunate to soon make some new friends who invited us round to their place for tea one Sunday afternoon. As out hosts showed us round their garden I was somewhat concerned to see the flower beds in places were full of field pepperwort (Lepidium campestre). Field pepperwort is a vigorous weed of cultivation and spreads quickly through the masses of seeds it produces. What was I to say? Fortunately the wife of the couple said "I like this flower but I don't know what it is" at which point I was able to tell her. When we next saw their garden there was no trace of the field pepperwort!

    Field pepperwort is one of those wild flowers that is not that common but where it does occur there is a lot of it. Certainly the wild and waste places around Wareham have a good amount of it as does, or at least could be, our garden. It certainly thrives on thin, bare soils and gardens, arable fields, waste ground, even paths and gutters are ideal for it.

    An erect, tall plant, often growing a couple of feet tall with flowers at the top of the stem and seed heads bellow, quite typical of the cabbage or crucifereae family. It flowers from May until August. 


  • Dames Violet: evening fragrance

    Dame's violet (Hesperis matronalis) is a member of the cabbage or crucifereae family; in fact it is one of a sub-group of the family we know as stocks and it is often cultivated in gardens. In Britain wild specimens are likely to be garden escapes. Being a cabbage the flower has four petals but, just to confuse, these petals can be coloured lilac, purple or white! The flowers are highly fragrant and that is where the link to violets comes in, not from the colour or shape of the flower as it is not related to the violet family in any way.

    Flowering from May until August, Dame's violet can be found in the corner of fields and on waste ground, occasionally one might encounter it in hedgerows. This is not a rare plant but it is not one I encounter regularly. It can grow up to a metre in height and it can be a rather untidy plant towards the end of its flowering period. Where it occurs there are likely to be several plants.

    Having established where the link to violets comes from (the scent) what about the Dame? Well, that refers to Damascus apparently, the Damask Violet being another name for it. When you look at the Latin name however, matronalis undoubtedly translates a maternal, hence 'dame' or the French for woman so I am a little confused! Hesperis comes from the Greek for evening and it is in the evening that the flower gives off its scent.


  • Cuckooflower: the ladys smock
    Walk through any of the meadows alongside our Dorset rivers in April and May and you will almost certainly see the cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) so named as it flowers around the same time as the cuckoo returns to our shores in spring and is found in similar places that the cuckoo chooses to look for its host species nests to lay its eggs in. Also known as lady's smock, this a common plant of damp places and can be found along ditches and damp woodland as well as water meadows. The flowers of the cuckooflower are a very pale mauve/pink. 
    This is a favourite food plant of the orange tip butterfly and if you watch closely for a while you will see orange tips laying eggs on the plants. After the butterfly has gone, take a look on the plant stem and you will see a small egg, appropriately orange in colour.
    Apparently, this flower is supposedly sacred to fairies and it is very unlucky to bring it in to your house so leave it well alone!

  • Sea Rocket: shore fire

    Surely one of the most inhospitable habitats for a plant to survive in is the sand on a beach. There is no firm soil here to put your roots down into to get stability and moisture, just fine, loose granules of fine rock. Despite this the sea rocket (Cakile maratima) manages to grow in these conditions quite successfully and can be found on sandy, not shingle, beaches above the high water line.

    Rockets are usually members of the cabbage or crucifereae family having four petals in the shape of a cross. The sea rocket is a member of this family and has the right form of flower but the plant itself is much more fleshy than its cousins and this enables it to store what little moisture it can glean. It is a rather floppy plant with several flowering stems and produces flowers in July and August which can be various shades of lilac from very pale to quite dark.

    The seeds have a fiery flavour but it is a strange plant chemically with the seeds in particular containing erucic acid which can induce heart failure in some animals and yet appears to be beneficial to humans as it can be found in rapeseed oil used as a modern replacement for butter and margarine.


  • Gipsywort: a G and T

    Gipsywort (Lycopus europaeus) is a member of the labiate family of plants which also include mints and deadnettles. The square stem, pointed nettle shaped leaves and small tubular flowers in whorls are so typical of this family.

    Gipsywort loves damp ground and is usually found on stream banks, in drainage ditches and wet 'fen' areas from June through to September and is common in areas of Wareham Common.

    It is another plant with folklore connections. Supposedly a remedy for just about every ailment that can beset us! It is also used as a die and the name comes from the belief that Romany people died their skin with it although that story remains totally unsubstantiated as far as I can ascertain. More likely it was used to die clothes. Apparently it smells like gin and tonic when crushed! 



  • Cleavers: espresso, late or cappuccino?

    There cannot be a hedgerow in Dorset that does not have cleavers (Galium aparine) amongst its wayside flowers. It is widespread in Dorset, in Britain, across Europe and in to Asia. It has colonised the Americas and Australasia and in the USA it is designated an obnoxious weed!

    I called it a wayside flower but the flowers are very small and many people may not even realise it has a bloom. It is better known as a vigorous green herbaceous plant that can probably hold its own with any other plant as a competitor as it can climb up between other vegetation. The flowers turn into small, prickly seeds or burrs that can cling to clothing and so easily attach to animal fur and birds feathers which is how it spreads itself. These clinging burrs earn it the country name of Sticky Willie although we knew this as goose-grass when I was young and apparently geese do like to eat it

    For some people skin contact with this plant can cause a rash and yet the plant is supposedly edible. As long as they are gathered before the fruits appear the leaves can cooked and eaten as a vegetable but you should not attempt to eat it raw because of the multitude of hooks it possesses to enable it to climb.  Cleavers is in the same botanical family as coffee and apparently the 'fruits' of cleavers have often been dried, roasted and used as a coffee substitute because it contains less caffeine!


  • Hedge Bedstraw: clouded judgement

    Summer brings white clouds! Not just to the sky though, you can find 'clouds' of white flowered hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo) along wayside banks and hedgerows across Dorset although rarely on heathland, it prefers a neutral or chalky soil. It occurs across much of Europe too and also in the United States where in some places it is classified as an obnoxious weed. A little harsh perhaps but I did describe it as vigorous and I am not sure you would want to plant it in your garden. It can climb over anything that gets in its way.

    Hedge bedstraw is a vigorous plant that produces several stems and each has dense clusters of small creamy white flowers. Each flower is tiny and rather insignificant but together they make a lovely show. It flowers from late May right through until early autumn depending on position and competition from other plants but in general I think it is at its best in July.

    Many species of the galium family are known as bedstraws because once they were harvested and dried for use as bedding which in these days of sprung mattresses comes as something of a surprise to me! I cannot believe it was very comfortable.


  • Ladys Bedstraw: lie back and relax

    The lady's bedsrtaw (Galium verum) is the only member of the bedstraw family which is yellow and, therefore, should be easily recognised. Most bedstraws are white, some are pink or purple and crosswort is green but none are bright golden yellow like this one.

    A plant that is common on grassland, especially on lime soils, it is a sprawling, medium sized plant. My book suggests it can grow to a metre tall but I have never seen it that size, usually a foot or so at the most. It flowers from June until September and the yellow spikes are a mass of smaller four petalled flowers. The leaves occur in whorls around the stem at the point the stem branch to form flower heads. The leaves smell of new mown hay and once a upon a time the plant was used to stuff mattresses and the smell of the leaves was supposed to enhance sleep and repel fleas! Naturally, this is how it came by its name.  This is another interesting fact from Wikipedia; lady's bedstraw was used as a sedative and considered effective in reducing pain during childbirth and another reason for its name.

    Red and yellow dyes can be extracted from this plant and, in Gloucestershire it was used to colour their cheese.



  • Heath Bedstraw: the acid test

    Depending on common English names to identify plants can lead to mistakes but in the case of heath bedstraw (Galium saxatile) you are on fairly safe ground (as long as the ground is acidic!). Heath bedstraw is by far the most common member of the bedstraw family to be found on heaths and acid grasslands. In fact, in Dorset, you can be pretty sure that it is the only one.

    Heath bedstraw in a low growing, somewhat sprawling plant that can form quite large mats of vegetation. The creamy white flowers appear from May through until August and, if you get down on your hands and knees and have a sniff you will find them fragrant. I would say that this plant is most common in dry, grassy areas but it can occur amongst heather and can even colonise rocky areas.



  • Woodruff: the scented woodland bedstraw

    Woodruff (Galium odoratum) is also known as sweet woodruff because it has a strong scent, a scent that becomes stronger as the plant ages and dies, especially when dried. For this reason it is often used in pot-pourri and other perfumed products. This is the only woodland member of the bedstraw family that we have in this country; bedstraws are known as Gallium and so Galium odoratum means 'the scented bedstraw'. 

    It does prefer shaded conditions on lime soils and so is especially likely to occur in broad-leaf woodlands. It is not common in Dorset but where it does occur it is likely to be common, indeed even abundant, as it can form large carpets.  It flowers from April through to June.

    It has a wide range of uses other than in perfumery and in different areas of the world it is used as a sweet flavouring for various drinks and even ice cream, sherbet and jelly! Being an attractive flower it is also grown in gardens so this is a popular plant aesthetically, for it scent, its flavour and its appearance.


  • Squinancywort: fighting tonsillitis

    Squinancywort (Asperula cynanchica) is surely an odd name for a flower? It is certainly a unique label and one that helps ensure the name is not forgotten when the flower is found in the wild.

    Squinancywort is one a group of flowers that you can almost predict you will find on chalk soils where the grass is thin. It does not grow under any other circumstances or in any other situations but is likely to be frequent in the conditions it favours. It is a small plant and cannot compete with vigorous grass growth so it takes its chances in its own niche. A member of the bedstraw family it has the bedstraw's distinctive small cluster of four petalled flowers, the petals forming a cross. Often cream in colour but sometimes tinged with pink the flowers can be found from May through until September.  

    So, what of the strange name? In medieval times it was used as a cure for quinsy and was once known as squinsywort but somewhere along the line it became a little corrupted. Quinsy was a rather nasty and extreme version of tonsillitis and was potentially fatal. How effective squinsywort was I have no idea.


  • Crosswort: the smooth bedstraw

    Crosswort (Cruciata laevipes) is a member of the bedstraw family and so each flower is formed of four small petals, each petal opposite another in the form of a cross, hence cross-wort, the herb of crosses. The Latin name Cruciata means cross shaped. Each cross shaped flower is yellow and they form in rings around the stem just above where the leaves are. There can be three or four rings of flowers around each stem. 

    Crosswort is generally a short plant, less than a foot tall, and has pale green leaves and a smooth reddish stem which leads to it being called the smooth bedstraw in some places, laevipes means smooth. It flowers in spring in April and May on grassy banks and along hedgerows in laces where the soil is chalk or lime. It always seems to grow in a cluster of plants, never alone.

    Surprisingly perhaps for a fairly common herb it does not seem to have gathered an accumulation of country names nor does it seem to have been adopted as a herbal remedy. In Roumania, however, it is associated with fairies!




  • Field Madder: out of the blue

    Many of our weeds of cultivation tend to be low growing, sprawling and often quite small. I guess this enabled them to survive during harvesting when this was done in traditional ways, that is with manual labour rather than the extensive mechanisation now employed. Field madder (Sherardia arvensis) is a species that fits this description well.

    Field madder is a member of the bedstraw family and has the clusters of four petalled flowers that are typical of this group of plants. It also has a square stem that is covered in small hairs. The flower is usually mauve although my photograph may give the idea that they are blue. In some places this is actually known as blue field madder.

    Like so many agricultural weeds this little plant is far less common than it once was but it can still be found in places where the soil is bare, especially in areas where the soil is calcareous. The car park at Durlston Country Park has a number of plants growing in the gutters so it is obviously able to survive where the soil is thin.