When you encounter a flower you do not know you will need to look it up in a reference book of some sort. My 'master' book, "The Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe" by Marjorie Blamey has 544 pages and my pocket field guide, is much smaller, it is only 480 pages. The question you may well ask is where then, on all those pages, do you start to look?
As with all wildlife, animal or vegetable, science has classified all living things into Kingdoms, Phylum, Classes, Orders, Families, Genera and Species (You can remember this by recalling that King Philip called out for garlic sausage!). In other words, if you can decide on the order or the family then you know where to start looking.
The labiate family has some 40 species listed in my field guide over five pages. They all have square stems and tubular, trumpet shaped flowers. The flowers nearly always come as a whorl around the stem. They include mints, nettles, woundworts and bugles. All different yet all with similar features.
This is a photo of a plant with a square stem and tubular flowers in a whorl and can be quickly traced to the dead-nettles, in this case, as the flowers are white, it is white deadnettle (Lamium album); the white labiate. Simple!
My good friend Wikipedia says that folklore has it that a tea made from the flowers is reputed "to make the heart merry, to make a good colour in the face, and to make the vital spirits more fresh and lively." I must try that ...
Red Deadnettle: the purple archangel
When I decided that my nature surveying and recording days were over and that I would buy a new camera and try my hand at some snaps of wildlife I had no idea that my eyes would be opened to a new world! For years, I would walk along with my recorder and mutter "Red Deadnettle" and walk on without a second glance. Now, as I try to get a respectable shot of just about anything, when I get home and plug the camera in to the computer I am often amazed at the beauty I had missed all those years.
OK, Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) is hardly a rarity! It is one of our most common weeds of cultivation and can be found in profusion on disturbed ground just about anywhere and everywhere; indeed, we will probably be pulling some out next time we can get in to the garden. However, looked at close up through the camera lens it becomes a different plant and a thing of rare beauty. Well, that's how it looks to me anyway, how about you?
Although looking like a nettle it does not sting which is why it is called a deadnettle. It is also known as purple archangel the young plants the tops and leaves can be used in salads. Wikipedia suggests it can also be use in stir-fried spring vegetables but does not give a recipe!
Yellow Archangel: the artillery flower
The yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) displays all of the characteristic features of the Labiate family (the mints); a square stem and tubular flowers. It is much like a yellow version of the more common white deadnettle.
This flower is found almost exclusively in broad-leaf woodlands, especially along woodland edges and rides. It flowers in May and June and is widespread in Dorset but not particularly common. It prefers rich calcareous soils which does limit its range a little.
This is also known as the artillery flower for reasons that are not exactly clear but I suspect it relates to the way it disperses its seeds. As the seed pods dry out they 'explode' ejecting the seeds a little distance away. There is a cultivated garden variety which has variegated leaves and this sometimes can be found naturalised in the wild where garden rubbish has been dumped!
Ground-Ivy: creeping Charlie
This is a very common, yet often overlooked, plant of the woodland in spring. Ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is primarily in flower from late March through to June but I have also seen it in flower in the autumn, especially if it stays mild.
It is a small plant and care should be taken to not confuse it with the similar, but taller, bugle. The kidney shaped leaves are different to those of bugle as well. It is member of the labiate family which includes deadnettles, the woundworts and herbs such as mint and basil . This family have square stems and long tubular flowers which are popular with insects that have a long tongue such as butterflies or a long proboscis like the bee-fly.
Ground-ivy can be found almost anywhere where the soil is not over run with other taller dominant vegetation and although frequently found in woodland it can also be found on banks and roadside verges. It is a plant that spreads by underground runners that often form large patches and, in the wrong place, it can become a problem. This ability to spread by runners is also how it gets its name as ivy does precisely that too.
Also known as creeping Charlie this plant has been used as a herb to make a tea rich in vitamin C and the leaves have also been used in salad but modern analytical methods have revealed that this may actually not be a good idea and may have significant ill effects; it is known to be poisonous to cattle and horses.
Common Hempnettle: also available in white
Hempnettles are stout, untidy plants with large trumpet, shaped flowers. My reference book shows four species of British hempnettles with the red hempnettle and the large flowered hempnettle not found in Dorset so if you find a hempnettle here you have a choice of two, the bifid hempnettle and the common hempnettle (Galeopsis tetrahit). The latter two are very similar but the common hempnettle is much more common and found in a wider range of situations.
Common hempnettle can be quite variable. The flowers can be purple, sometimes a paler pink and they even come in white. e white ones are not uncommon and the first time I encountered them in Wareham Forest I was convinced it was a new species for me but after failing to find a white one in my book I then discovered that variations occur in the common! The plantsgrow to about a metre tall and tend to flop over despite their thick stems. The leaves are not dissimilar to the leaves of the stinging nettle but in the case of hempnettle do not give you a nasty surprise. The plant is quite hairy and the flower head is quite prickly, especially when in seed.
Quite often found in damp places in ditches, fens and by streams but they also can be found on heathland and arable land too. They flower from July until September. The plant is poisonous but chemicals can be extracted from it for various medicinal uses.
Hedge Woundwort: the wound healing herb of the hedgerow
A common flower of the hedgerow, hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) stands tall and proud amongst its neighbours. It is a strong plant that can hold its own amid strong competition growing anything from one to three feet tall depending on surrounding vegetation. It can be found along Dorset's waysides from mid-June into August.
It is a labiate, the nettle family. It has no sting like its famous cousin despite having similar leaves and a square stem but the flowers are very different from the stinging nettle. The flowers come in purple spikes and more than once people on walks have asked me if it is an orchid.
Although the leaves give off an unpleasant, pungent smell when crushed they supposedly have powers to promote the healing of wounds and that is obviously where its common country name comes from. A wort is a herb so it is the wound healing herb of the hedgerow. There is a similar species, the marsh woundwort, that has the same properties. Although these two species look alike hedge woundwort grows in dry conditions, marsh woundwort in the damp.
Marsh Woundwort: the marsh hedge-nettle
With its tall, purple flower spike marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris) is mistaken by some as an orchid but it far from related to orchids in the general scheme of things. On closer inspection it quickly becomes obvious that it is a member of the mint family. The tubular flowers arranged around a square stem and the hairy and mildly serrated leaf are all classic features of the mints (or deadnettles).
There are five woundworts altogether and they are vaguely similar but only this and the hedge woundwort are at all common and likely to be seen in Dorset. The field woundwort is now, sadly, very uncommon having once been a frequent weed of cultivation. The marsh woundwort is most likely to be found in wet places; ditches and stream sides are the most frequent habitats for it.
Also known as the marsh hedge-nettle this is a plant very popular with insects, especially bees. Once pollinated the seed capsules fall in to the water and float away and when they reach a suitable spot germinate to form a new plant.
Wild Basil: just what the doctor ordered
When you look at the packets of herbs on a supermarket shelf and see mint, parsley, thyme, marjoram, basil and others it is easy to forget that these herbs grow in our own countryside. Not always the cultivated varieties of course but none the less related and often the source of the cultivated strain. So it is with wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare).
As with many of these herbs basil is a member of the labiate family, otherwise known as deadnettles; it is part of a sub-family of calamints. They generally have trumpet shaped flowers, in the case of wild basil this is purple-pink, square stems and downy, veined, oval, opposite pairs of leaves with a serrated edge. Wild basil grows to about a foot tall although in favourable conditions it can grow taller and flowers from July to September in dry grassy places; usually on lime or chalk.
As with many of its relatives, in addition to its culinary value it is considered a herbal remedy for a number of conditions stimulating the heart to healing wounds to reducing flatulence. A tea made from the leaves is both tasty and, it seems, a cure for many ills. Just what the doctor ordered!
Wild Thyme: what a nightmare
I suppose it is easy to forget that all of the vegetables and herbs we cook with and eat today derived from wild plants. Over the years selective breeding has produced new variants of the originals and the originals now exist in the wild state less foraged than they once were. Some people still like to forage for wild plants and fungi but most of us prefer go to the supermarket.
One of the herbs we grow in our garden is thyme and it seems to look quite different to its native cousin, the wild thyme. Wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) is a plant very much associated with chalk and can be found on bare patches amongst thin grass on chalk cliffs and downs, often on ant hills. Growing on poor soil it tends to be a low, sprawling plant rather that the little bush we have in the herb garden. Wild thyme is evergreen and has woody stems that grow out across the ground and small pink flowers form on them to create a fairly large cluster.
Species of thyme were considered ideal remedies for headaches and it was believed that if you drank a tea made from the leaves it would prevent nightmares!
Selfheal: the chemistry set
Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) is quite a variable plant, it seems to change with the conditions it is growing in. It can grow in short turf, especially lawns, where it is very small and sprawling which may be a response to cutting or grazing. On bare ground it is a taller, bolder plant although still generally no more than a few inches tall. It is quite common and can be found in many situations although it prefers neutral or acid soils.
The flowers are a purple/blue colour but quickly die off to become brown and they can stay in this state for some time. Withe the flowers being quite small it is not immediately obvious that it is a member of the deadnettle family. Under close inspection it is possible to see the cluster of trumpet=like flowers that are distinctive to deadnettles.
Also known as heal-all it is a traditional remedy for cuts and bruises when mashed and applied as a poultice and it was considered both a cleansing and healing agent. It has a complex chemistry with Wikipedia listing seventeen different ingredients! The plant is also fit for human consumption apparently with the leaves being suitable for use in salads or for drying and making into tea.
Wild Clary: salad days
As with many of the wild varieties of the garden cultivated culinary herbs, wild clary (Salvia verbenaca) is a member of the labiate family; a family that includes mint, marjoram, thyme, basil and others. Otherwise known as the deadnettle family, it has a number of species of wild herb or flower with common characteristics including tubular flowers, hairy and square stems and pointed, serrated edged leaves.
Wild clary is the most common of the clary species you may find in the wild, my field guide lists six of them but four are clearly escaped cultivars. Wild clary and the rare meadow clary are the only natives ones. Meadow clary is unlikely to be found in Dorset so wild clary is the only one we need to consider. It grows to about two feet tall, produces several stems and each four or five has whorls of purple/blue tubular flowers. The flowers can be seen from June until September and later in this season some seed heads will be seen as well as active flowers. It can be found in bare patches amongst the grassy areas on lime soils, often near the coast.
The scented flowers are popular with bees and, as well as being used as cooking herb the leaves used to be popular in salads. it has medicinal properties and is considered good for stomach disorders although Culpepper suggests uses of it for a whole catalogue of complaints.
Lesser Skullcap: a flat minor
This being lesser skullcap (Scutellaria minor) it does not take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that there is also a skullcap which is bigger! Skullcap (the larger one) is found near streams and fresh water and, whilst not common, is certainly far from rare. Its lesser cousin, however, is much more restricted in its preferences and so is found far less often.
Lesser skullcap is a member of the bugle family and has the familiar trumpet-shapes flower associated with such species. It is a delicate, sprawling little flower, pink or mauve in colour and the stem is square but, very thin, and also of a pinkish colour. The leaves are pointed and have clearly defined veins. The plant has a mild, minty scent; it does not seem to be the herbal remedy that its larger cousin is, probably because it is not big enough.
It flowers from July through until October and can be found in damp, acidic conditions on heaths and in woods.
Bugle: the carpenters herb
Bugle (Ajuga reptans) is a common flower of damp woodlands and meadows in spring and is common across Dorset in such habitat. It flowers for a short time in May and possibly in to early June.
One needs to be a bit careful as it looks, at first glance, a bit like Ground-ivy and it is, indeed, closely related; they are both labiates (the mint family) . A more detailed look will quickly tell you it is not Ground-ivy, the plant being usually taller, the flowers larger and a darker blue and the stem being darkish in colour, almost a dark red and the leaves often have a purple tinge to them. Ground-ivy has a much longer flowering season and grows in drier habitat.
Bugle is a nectar source for many insects and is a primary source of nectar for the now rare pearl-bordered fritillary. It has also been cross bred to make a number of cultivated species in gardens,
Why it is called Bugle I have no idea, perhaps it is those long 'trumpet like' flowers? However, my good friend Wikipedia says that it is also known as the carpenter's herb due to its supposed ability to stem bleeding - sounds like me with a chisel!
Wood Sage: not one for the pot
Although bearing the name wood sage (Teucrium scorodonia) it is not a woodland plant as one might assume. It is much more frequently found on dry, sandy and acidic soils and, in Dorset, that generally means heathland although not exclusively so. I suspect the name wood sage comes from the woody texture of its stem rather than its preferred habitat.
Wood sage is very common in the right habitat and is quite unmistakeable being a stout plant, growing to between one and two feet tall. As I say, it has a sturdy stem and pointed, pale, downy leaves. The flowers are small, pale greenish yellow trumpets that run down the stem. There is no other flower that comes to mind that is quite like it. It is a member of the germander family which are related to mints (or labiates) and bear many features of this group of plants. It is also known as wood germander.
This plant flowers from July to September but is visible virtually all year round as it is a sturdy perennial. Although sharing a name with sage, the garden herb, wood sage has little scent or flavour and is of little use in the kitchen!
Water Mint: pick me up
When walking by a pond or a slow moving river you will almost certainly encounter water mint (Mentha aquatica). It grows anywhere there is fresh water, indeed, anywhere the ground is usually damp. It is very common in Dorset where its preferred habitat exists flowering from July right through until October.
It is easy to identify this species as being mint, just take a leaf and have a sniff, all that is missing is the roast lamb! Water mint has this purple tinged green in the leaves like many of the labiate (or mint) family. The flowers are pale mauve and are formed around the top of the stem.
The leaves of water mint can be dried and used to make a herbal tea while the plant contains a chemical known for its beneficial properties in the treatment of deprerssion. So, if you are feeling down why not have a nice cuppa?
Corn Mint: mint of the fields?
Where would you expect to find a flower species called corn mint (Mentha arvensis)? Arvensis means 'of the field' so it is, on the face of it, likely to be weed of cultivated ground is it not? Such are the vagaries of English common names, however, that I have only ever encountered this flower in damp areas of woodland, often on or by pathways. My book says it also occurs in damp fields and grasslands but it adds that as something of an after thought.
It is less well known than its close relative water mint, but corn mint is, none the less, a fairly common flower in Dorset flowering from May through to September.
Unmistakably a labiate with square stem, pointed leaves and tubular flowers but it is quite different to water mint despite its similarities. The flowers are blue, often a pale blue, and the occur in whorls around the stem just above where the leaves occur. The leaves are green rather than purple. It also lacks the pleasant smell of mint of its cousin having a rather sickly or acrid smell. It can grow in similar places to water mint and there are known to be hybrids of the two so that can make identification difficult.
It grows in many areas of the world and it is used medicinally for various purposes but in Europe it was mainly used to treat flatulence, digestive problems, gall bladder conditions and coughs.