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  • Thrift: the thrupenny bit

    One feature of our coasts in summer that we must nearly all be familiar with is the wonderful carpets of sea thrift (Armeria maritima) in the short turf on cliff tops and near beaches. During June and July it provides a striking display in our sea side environment with lovely tufts of pink flowers.

    The complex flower heads are very popular with insects and the 6-spot Burnett moth will be just one of many insects to feast on its nectar. In some areas the thrift forms large carpets of spongy green foliage and this is a great place for insects to build their nests. 

    I am old enough to remember the old 'thrupenny-bit'; a five sided coin of the pre-decimalisation days which featured thrift on the back. I have no idea where this plant gets its thrifty name or why it was on that coin. If anyone does know I would be really pleased to find out.


  • Common Sea-lavender: lavender blue dilly-dilly

    In summer the salt marshes of Poole Harbour begin to show some colour other than the dark green that usually abounds. The lovely lavender blue of the common sea-lavender (Limonium vulgare) comes out and forms large tracts of blue on the marshes. This becomes especially evident from the double-decker hide at Arne.

    Not a lavender at all, the sea-lavender is related to the pink thrift we see on the cliffs in early summer. The sea-lavender flowers in July and August, especially along the south and east coast where mudflats abound.


  • Wild Mignonette: the yellow mignonette

    I associate wild mignonette (Reseda lutea) with chalk grassland. In Hampshire where I lived before crossing the border into Dorset it seemed common on the chalk everywhere but despite a good deal of chalk and limestone in Dorset I have seen this distinctive flower only occasionally. To be fair, on the sites where it does occur it is often quite common. It likes grassland but where the grasses are somewhat sparse.

    The flower head of the wild mignonette is a distinctive spike of pale yellowish-green flowers which are usually, in my experience, rarely more than a foot tall although my field guides indicates that it does grow a fair bit taller. Each plant produces multiple flower spikes which are visible from May until September. The leaves are pale green and are formed of clusters of three pointed lobes. 

    This flower is mildly scented making it popular with small insects and there are a couple of cultivated forms that are grown in gardens. The roots of wild mignonette used to be used to make a yellow dye. 

    As an aside, the name sounds like a raucous 17th Century dance to me!


  • Ling: a clean sweep

    I used to think heather was just heather; it was not until I moved to Dorset that I discovered there are, in fact, four different species! Actually, when you take the trouble to look at them you can see the differences and identifying each is quite easy.

    Whilst bell heather is common in the Purbeck area of Dorset, to the north and east of the Poole basin and across into the New Forest in Hampshire the more dominant species is ling (Calluna vulgaris). At first ling looks like bell heather just coming in to flower because the flowers themselves are not 'bells', they are more tubular and certainly less full than the other heathers. Once in full bloom ling is a delicate shade of mauve whereas the bell heather is a much deeper purple. If you look at the heath in late summer you can see quite clearly this colour difference. It can occasionally be found with white flowers to and is the white heather of Scotland.

    Ling is certainly a common species on the heaths of Dorset but less common than the bell heather. It does like light, dry, sandy conditions whereas bell heather prefers a peat soil. Ling flowers from July through until September.

    In the past ling was used to make besoms (brushes) and that is indirectly where 'calluna' comes from being a corruption of the Greek "to beautify or sweep clean". it has many country connections to dying, brewing and herbal remedies. 


  • Bell Heather: purple haze

    The soil under the Dorset heathland is very sandy; that is to say, made up of large granules rather than the finer grains found in clay or loam soils. As a result of this granular soil plants find it difficult to get a 'root hold'. Any nutrients get easily washed through the sand by rain and it makes it a very difficult environment for plants to grow in. The primary type of plants that are well able to cope with this hostile environment are the heathers.

    The bell heather (Erica cinerea) comes out in August and the Purbeck heaths, in particular, become the most amazing colour purple emanating from the masses of this plant. Bell heather is the most common of the heathers in the Purbeck area giving way to ling further north and east. It dominates the drier areas of the heath and can be told from the other species by this distinct purple colouring, its two close relatives are much paler.


  • Cross Leaved Heath: spot the difference

    All Dorset heather may look the same at first but after a while you will notice that some of the heather is much paler in colour, a true pink, rather than the deep purple of the familiar bell heather. On closer examination you will find that the pink heather only has a few 'bells' clustered around the top of each stem. This is because it is cross leaved heath (Erica tetralix) rather than bell heather. When not in flower the arrangement of the leaves can be used to distinguish between this species and the other common heathers. 

    While bell heather likes the dry areas, cross leaved heath likes damper, almost boggy, acid soils of the heaths. Flowering in June, a bit earlier than bell heather, cross leaved heath is a common flower of damp heathland right through until September.

    So, not all heathers are 'heather'!


  • Dorset Heath: the county flower of Dorset

    Once you know the three common heathers, bell heather, ling and cross leaved heath, you will then be able to recognise the fourth main heather species which is much the same but quite different! Dorset heath (Erica ciliaris) is a nationally rare plant but it can be locally frequent in the Purbeck area of Dorset. It does also occur in South Devon and Cornwall but Dorset is its stronghold. It is quite common in parts of southern Europe.

    This is a heather that likes it damp but not wet. It tends to grow taller than the other heathers and has tapered rather than the bell-shaped flowers of bell heather. It is a much deeper purple than ling and has far more flowers than cross leaved heath. It flowers from July to September. There are sub-species that result from hybridisation with other heathers but identifying those is best left to the experts, it is way beyond my abilities!

    In a poll organised by Plantlife back in 2002 this was unsurprisingly voted the county flower of Dorset.


  • Bilberry: for night vision

    The bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a member of the heather family and here in Dorset it prefers higher areas of heathland around Puddletown Forest and Thorncombe Wood. Elsewhere in Britain it is a common plant of the upper moorlands in the north country.

    The pink flowers of spring produce dark, almost black, berries in mid-summer which are useful food for a number of creatures and are favoured by us humans too! They are closely related to blueberries which are now common in British supermarkets. The bilberry is the famous huckleberry of north America.

    It has a number of local names across the country including whortleberry here in the south but bilberry is the one favoured by the reference books.

    The beneficial aspects of bilberry juice include a supposed improvement in night vision and the Wikipedia entry for bilberry has an interesting note about wartime RAF pilots eating bilberry jam! You can read it here:


  • Purple Loosestrife: bees losing their strife

    Although the purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria} is a flower of rivers and lake sides the best specimens I have seen are around our garden pond! Some seed collected whilst out on a walk some years ago means we are now treated to a most glorious display of the lovely purple spikes every summer in July and August.

    These are very much part of the wildlife theme in our garden as these tall, multiple, flower heads are adored by bees and hoverflies and on warm days you can hear the buzzing of bumble bees and honey bees from some distance away!

    Whilst I would never advocate the collecting of plants from the wild, collecting some seed and helping them to germinate and establish in a suitable environment where they are benefit to other creatures cannot be a bad thing.


  • Orpine: a nice plant

    A popular flower in gardens is the ice plant "sedum spectabile"; it is not only popular with gardeners but with garden wildlife too. Some years ago we had eleven small tortoiseshell butterflies on our garden specimen all at the same time! I remember asking my wife (the gardener) "What is that plant?". She said told me it was an ice pant; I said "Yes, it is a nice plant but what is it called?" - boom, boom!

    Anyway, back to the point. There is a native British species of 'ice plant' called orpine (Sedum telephium) which can be found occasionally in woodlands. It is the largest member of the stonecrop family and the only one found in woods. These are succulent plants with fleshy stems and leaves and are quite unmistakable. The flower heads are pink.

    Orpine has a number of other colloquial names; livelong, frog's-stomach, harping Johnny, life-everlasting, live-forever, midsummer-men,Orphan John and witch's moneybags. How on earth it got those names one can only speculate as the reasons are not obvious to me!



  • Navelwort: the wall pennywort

    Although called navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris) in my main field guide it is known as wall pennywort in some others. Another example of the confusion common names and local variations can bring.

    Navelwort is a member of the stonecrop family, otherwise known in botanical circles as crassulaceae, and like its relatives is usually found growing on walls, often by the sea, and can also be found on rocks where the sea does reach high enough in storms to wash it off. It does also grow on earth banks some times. It is quite a distinctive plant growing in a spike which can vary from 6 inches to one foot six inches depending on its location but I suppose 9 inches is about normal.  It is a perennial plant and has fleshy leaves to store moisture when it can get it so that it can avoid drying out in spells without rain. The flowers are an off-white colour and are bell shaped. They grow and dangle from the central stem a bit like a foxglove! The stem is often a reddish brown.

    Why the peculiar name of navelwort? Apparently it comes from the leaves which are round with a dimple in the middle. It is thought to have many healing properties and seems to cure just about every ailment you could possibly pick up.


  • Petty Spurge: the cancer weed

    Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus) is another plant gardeners consider to be a scourge! It is certainly our most common Euphorbia, even more so than the familiar sun spurge. It occurs not only in gardens, of course, but in cultivated ground everywhere and is very difficult to eradicate being one of those flowers that, as you pull them out, you help it spread its seeds!

    This is a small plant, petty being a corruption of the French 'petite', and it appears to have no flowers at all but it does; they are green like the leaves around them and so are not immediately obvious. This plant flowers from April through until November but it can easily survive all winter in mild weather or in sheltered locations.

    In common with some other Euphorbia it has a white sap in its stems which is highly toxic and it has been used to treat some forms of skin cancer hence other names for the plant include cancer weed and radium weed. So, if you despise petty spurge in your garden stop and think about its beneficial properties. It does not always pay to eradicate weeds, they can have their uses!


  • Sun Spurge: umbrella milkweed

    If you are a gardener you will be very familiar with sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) as it is a common 'weed' of cultivated areas and it spreads willingly growing in the most unlikely places; sometimes where there is hardly any soil, even in cracks by brick walls! Specimens growing in poor or little soil tend to be much smaller than those growing in fertile soil. 

    It mainly flowers from April to July but it does flower on until November in good years and it can be seen in a 'leafy' state throughout the winter visible in gardens all year round. It is quick growing and soon reappears after you pull a load out! Apparently the seeds are spread by ants.
    If you break or cut the stem you will find a white latex fluid seep out and this leads to an old country name of umbrella milkweed. Sun spurge is a highly poisonous plant and some ingredients are extracted for use in the pharmaceutical industry.


  • Wood Spurge: what an irritating plant

    Some large Euphorbias are popular as garden flowers, some small Euphorbias are despised as garden weeds; funny world isn't it?  The one Euphorbia amygdaloides is better known as wood spurge and is neither!

    Wood spurge is quite a large plant and it grows freely in broad-leaf woodlands across Dorset. It is amongst the few plants that actually thrive in shade and but it still likes to flower early, between March and May, before the upper tree canopy gets too dense with leaves. The flowers are rather curious, as are most flowers in this family, being yellowish green and appearing a little like disk shaped leaves. Although it does set seed its main way of spreading is by under ground rhizomes and it can become quite dominant in places.

    This is not a plant for the herbalist. The stems contain a milky substance that is toxic and can cause irritation if it you get it on your skin so it is best left alone!


  • Portland Spurge: set in stone

    Although named after the place where it was first identified by botanists, Portland, Portland spurge (Euphorbia portlandica) can be found elsewhere along the Dorset coast, notably Durlston but is surprisingly not that common on Portland!. It is a very local flower and nationally scarce.

    Although a typical member of the Spurge family it is unmistakable, partly because of the coastal habitat it prefers, usually on sandy soils, bare ground and rocks, sometimes on the shore line and also on cliffs. It has smaller flowers than most other spurges and a distinctive and unique red stem. It is in bloom from April right the way through until September.



  • Dogs mercury: the real dogs dinner?

    Dog's mercury (Mercurialis perennis) is not a lot to look at, indeed it is an insignificant plant than can look as though it has no flower at all. Close up, however, it has spikes of cream/green flowers in March and April. It is also a plant that has separate male and female forms. It does, to be honest, look a dull, rather boring plant.

    It is, however, quite a significant flower as an indicator of primary (or long standing) woodland. It needs shade to thrive and so woodland is its preferred habitat and it spreads mainly by underground rhizomes and so forms large patches wherever it occurs. As it spreads slowly the larger the patch the older the woodland it is in is likely to be. Where you find it in any quantity look for other woodland species like wood anemone and wood sorrel. If you find dogs mercury outside of woodland then it normally means that a woodland once stood there but has been felled. 

    It is poisonous and should certainly not be eaten as it can cause all manner of problems including liver failure! It contains some harmful chemicals although I am not sure mercury is one of the ingredients! It could well be where the mercury in its name comes from though but what is more intriguing is why it is dog's mercury. Wikipedia suggests that it is because dog can mean false or bad however a website has a number of comments describing how peoples' dogs find the plant irresistible although it usually makes them sick after eating it. Even though dogs are not normally considered vegetarian could it be that they find the scent and taste of the plant so attractive that they eat it even though it is poisonous and it makes them sick?  


  • Annual Mercury: the garden mercury

    One of the things I enjoy most about writing my nature notes is the challenge of finding something interesting to say about every species I feature and I hope, in time, to feature every species of animal and plant I have found in Dorset. Today's flower, part of the "Weeds of Cultivation" series, has certainly been a challenge. There is really not much one can say about annual mercury (Mercurialis annua)!

    It is a fairly nondescript flower to look at, it grows on nutrient rich soils in arable fields, gardens and waste ground in mid to late summer and is also known as garden mercury. Being a rather plain, unattractive plant it be can easily be easily overlooked. However, whilst common in south east England it does not appear to be so elsewhere in Britain and so, in Dorset, it is right on the edge of its range and so is quite uncommon. I used to find it a lot in Hampshire but since moving to Dorset I have seen it, to date, just once. 

    It is closely related to the woodland flower, dog's mercury, which is known to be poisonous. I have not found any reference that annual mercury is as well but I suspect it is but I have no intention no testing it out! 


  • Heath Milkwort: the thyme leaved milkwort

    The dryer areas of the Dorset heaths are not well known for the array of flowers to be seen; heathers are the dominant species of course and there is little scope for much else. However, between May and September this tiny little flower, the heath milkwort (Polygala serpyllifolia) holds its own, especially along footpaths and areas where the heather is less well established.

    Going purely by appearance, telling this species from its close relatives, the common and the much rarer chalk milkwort, is quite tricky. However, heath milkwort loves acid soils, the other two prefer chalk, and so that helps to narrow the choice down somewhat.

    The heath milkwort is smaller and usually a deeper blue, not so bright as its cousins but that said heath milkwort also comes in pink and white! The leaves, although small, also differ and the shape of the heath species gives it the alternative name of thyme-leaved milkwort.


  • Chalk Milkwort: milking it for what it is wort

    In May the short turf on the cliff tops of the chalky Dorset coast show patches of this delightful little plant, the chalk milkwort (Polygala calcarea). Whilst milkworts are quite easy to identify, separating the three British species is not so easy! The differences are quite small and it takes a good botanist to spot the minor variations between them. 

    For the lesser botanist like me then habitat is the best guide but certainly not the most accurate. In general however, chalk milkwort grows amongst short grazed turf on chalk in southern England; heath milkwort ... yes, grows on acid soils and especially heathland and is common on the Dorset heaths and elsewhere it is likely to be common milkwort! Common milkwort does also occur on the chalk as well as heathland though! Just to add to the "interest" heath milkwort is also known as thyme-leaved milkwort. Not only that, all the species occur frequently in a mauve colour as well as the lovely true blue, quite often growing quite close to each other. 
    Regardless of which of the species it is, in my opinion it is well worth getting down on your knees to have a closer look at.

  • Indian Balsam: the policemans helmet

    Indian balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) is a plant introduced from the Himalayas into water gardens and has escaped in to the outside world. It is now widespread on river banks around the county especially the Stour and the Frome. Sadly this is another unwelcome arrival from over seas and another case of us paying for the Victorian habit of collecting 'nice things' from the colonies and bringing them home to adorn our gardens.

    This plant is something of a pest as it is free growing, spreading rapidly and becoming dominant at the expense of other natural species. It is not even very good for insects or as a food for any other living thing so it is a flower we could well do without but virtually impossible to eradicate. We put more effort into pulling ragwort which is far more beneficial, than we do in to controlling this plant.

    What the plant does have in its favour is these lovely large pink flowers that give the plant its nick-name, policeman's helmet. Ever see a policeman with a pink helmet?


  • Common Figwort: skin deep

    Figworts are the prime members of the family scrophulariaceae which also includes toadflaxes, better known perhaps as snap-dragons! This relationship to snap-dragons gives a clue as the flowers you will find on figworts which bear a family resemblance.

    There are five figworts in my field guide but only two would you expect to encounter in Dorset, water figwort and the common figwort (Scrophularia nodosa). As you would expect from the name the water figwort occurs in damp places such as ditches, stream sides and damp meadows so if you find a figwort in woodlands, hedgerows and shady dry places then it is going to be common figwort, easy really. Far more common than water figwort, common figwort is a tall plant growing to at least a metre tall on a strong, square, hairless stem which branches at the top and each branch bears a small, brownish-purple flower. It has quite large, pointed leaves with a serrated edge. It flowers from May until August and in the autumn the rounded seed heads are very visible.

    Figwort has a bitter, unpleasant taste but it contains many chemicals and has long been used for medicinal purposes and it is considered, even today, as a cleansing and detoxification agent and is used externally to treat skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis and haemorrhoids. A jolly useful plant to have around! 


  • Water Figwort: the shoreline figwort

    The figworts are quite unusual looking flowers that really stand out from the rest and are quite unmistakable once you recognise them. Realistically, you are only going to encounter common figwort and water figwort (Scrophularia auriculata) in Dorset and if you cannot tell the flowers apart the habitat is usually enough to help you. Water figwort is usually found in wet places, stream sides, ditches, pond edges and so on whereas common figwort prefers drier conditions in shade so is more likely to be found in woodland and shaded hedgerows.

    Water figwort grows to about four feet tall. It is a robust plant with the flowers appearing at the top of the stout, square stem (which is usually a reddish brown colour). The dark reddish brown flowers can be seen from June through until September.

    Strangely, this is also known as the shoreline figwort which implies salt water but this is very much  fresh water plant.


  • Moschatel: the town hall clock

    Spring in deciduous woodlands, before the leaf canopy forms and darkens the woodland floor, is a time when the most flowering plants can be found in this habitat. Many only grow in such woodland and are often indicators that the wood itself has been continuously present on that site for many hundreds of years. One such flower is moschatel (Adoxa moschatellina), the only member of the adoxaceae family in the whole world.

    Moschatel forms carpets of green, five lobed leaves. From amongst these leaves the flower stems rise up and at the top of each stem five small greenish yellow flowers form; one points upwards and the other four face outwards at right angles to each other like the four faces of a clock tower which is the origin of its familiar name, the town hall clock. The flowers produce a musk-like scent in the evening, "musk-at-el".

    Not uncommon in well established broadleaved woodland but easily overlooked unless you know what you are looking for so keep an eye for the small, town hall clock flowers.


  • Ribwort Plantain: take your medicine

    I think ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is probably the most common flowering plant to be found in Dorset. There are species very common in certain habitats, daisies in my lawn for example, but ribwort can be found just about anywhere and everywhere and in good numbers too. 

    In my days of leading walks I found some people were surprised that ribwort plantain was truly a flower, it being far from the typical flowering plant. It has a tall stem with a single brown, clustered flowering body at the top surrounded by a dispersed ring of white stamens. The leaves are also tall and thin (lanceolate) with ribs running the length of them; it is not hard to see how its name comes about.

    As with many common herbs of the countryside ribwort plantain has been used as a herbal remedy for many ailments but it is thought that a tea made from the leaves is an effective cough medicine. 


  • Greater Plantain: down trodden but thriving

    I do not think it is unfair to say that greater plantain (Plantago major) is one of those flowers that people just take for granted, hardly notice or just ignore. I suppose that is partly because it is so common, partly that it is rather nondescript and partly because it does not even look like a flower!

    Greater plantain is basically a green plant; a basal rosette of green leaves, a green stem and a cluster of green flowers forming a series up the stems. It can be quite variable in size being quite small and insignificant or as much as 40 centimetres tall and quite imposing. It perhaps looks more like a member of the fern family than a flowers, adders-tongue fern comes to mind.

    This is certainly a common plant occurring along paths where it is typically quite small, in farm yards and farm fields, in gardens and lawns, and just about anywhere there is bare or well trodden ground. In damp places it tends to grow larger than in bare dry places. It is a well known herbal remedy for a number of injuries and ailments.


  • Hoary Plantain: enough to turn you grey

    If you look at the distribution map for hoary plantain (Plantago media) on my main page for it (see link below) you should notice something straight away if you are thinking as a naturalist should! The marker pins for sites where I have seen run along the Dorset coast and then up towards Salisbury; the limestone and chalk ridges of Dorset. Hoary plantain only occurs on calcareous soils and is a sure indicator of alkaline conditions under your feet. That in turn should set you thinking about what other plants you might see.

    Plantains are not the most exciting of plants lacking lovely. colourful flowers and foliage. Instead they have a crusty looking flower on a single stem with the leaves forming a rosette at the bottom of the stem almost unnoticed. The hoary plantain does fair better than its cousins in the 'looks' stakes having a largish flower with lots of light grey hairs which makes it look very distinguished! The term hoary means greyish white and so it is quite appropriate to apply it to this plant. This colouring is sufficient to differentiate the hoary plantain from its cousins. It flowers from May until August.

    Hoary plantain is edible and has long had medicinal applications with evidence to suggest it was a well used plant even in Roman times in Britain. It has been used to treat wounds and toothache with the seeds being a laxative. How effective it is I have no idea

  • Bucks-horn Plantain: its in the bag

    I suppose some plants are just boring! No nice flowers, no impressive foliage, nothing. Well, to my mind, plantains fall into the boring category and are not much to look at. Indeed, it would be easy to think that they are not actually flowers at all. 

    The buck's-horn plantain (Plantago coronopus) is very much a part of typical seaside vegetation and is common near our coasts on grassy areas, sandy and rocky, close to the sea. Although not much to look at it is quite distinctive with the 'flower' heads on stems that come out from the centre base of the plant in a curve upwards to form a sort of crown (coronpus?). It is the leaves of the plant that give rise to 'buck's horn' as they are the shape of deer antlers.

    It may not be much to look at but it is grown commercially as a vegetable called minutina or erba stella and it is sometimes included in bags of salad mix sold in supermarkets as the leaves have a sweet, nutty flavour.  


  • Common Valerian: let us sleep on it

    There is something slightly odd about this rather lovely plant, the common valerian (Valeriana officinalis). According to my field guide it can be found on dry grassland and in damp woods. Maybe I am reading that wrongly but it seems the two habitats are as different as you can find; dry opposed to damp and grassland as opposed to woodland. Looking at the places it occurs it does seem to be that I have found it in both situations so there must be some basis to it but it still seems odd!

    Common valerian is a tall, erect plant growing to as high as six feet in favourable conditions. The flower head is a loose cluster of individual five petalled flowers that start in bud as dark pink but become a much paler shade when open. The sweet scented flowers are at their best in July but can be found in June and August too.

    Whilst not common it is far from scarce but it is one of those flower that is always a joy to find; a little bit special perhaps.

    Apart from its uses in perfumery the roots are rich in chemicals and have various medicinal uses. It was once thought to be a cure for insomnia but there is, apparently little evidence to support that!


  • Marsh Valerian: his and hers

    The marsh valerian (Valeriana dioica) is certainly a plant that likes wet meadows and marshy areas and so is aptly named. Often found in places where rivers overflow frequently or where low ground next to a river is constantly under water; it does not grow in running water. As much of this sort of habitat has been drained for agricultural improvement this is a now more scarce than it one was.

    An attractive plant with clusters of small, five-petalled pale pink or cream flowers that appear from April until June. Interestingly, although very similar in appearance this species has separate female and male flowers and each grow on different plants. Its main way of spreading is by underground runners. The plant grows to no more than two feet tall at the most and has opposite pairs of leaf sets, each set being a series of small, narrow oval leafs again in pairs along a short stem, a bit like rose leaves.

    Traditionally used to create sleeping potions it is still used in the production of sedatives today. It is one of those plants you are advised to avoid eating, it is not poisonous but it is not good for you.


  • Common Cornsalad: lambs lettuce

    There are some difficult challenges for the casual nature enthusiast where botanical knowledge is, shall we say, sketchy! That is the case with me, I can cope with some of the dandelion/hawkweed issues but then species like the cornsalads are beyond me. I label all cornsalads I find as common cornsalad (Valerianella locusta) whereas, in reality, it is possible that they could be one of the others.

    Cornsalads are members of the Valerian family and are generally small plants each with small clusters of blue or violet coloured flowers. There are five similar species and there are differences in structure but examination of the seeds (or fruits) is the only real way to come up with a certain identification. Common cornsalad is, indeed, by far the most common and then narrow-fruited, keeled-fruited, broad-fruited and hairy-fruited can all be found in Dorset although broad-fruited I believe is more likely to be found in Hampshire.

    All of these species grow on arable land as well as places where the soil is bare and where competition is minimal. It grows readily in the gutters of the roads around our little housing estate where there is very little soil. The leaves are edible and hence, this was once called Lamb's lettuce. 




  • Wild Teasel: spinning a yarn

    Wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) is very distinctive and should be readily identifiable. The smaller but similar small teasel would be the only outside chance of mistaking it for.

    It is sometimes hard to know when a teasel is in flower and when it is in seed, the flowers are very small and give just hint of blue/purple in the head as they appear from what look like tiny compartments. The seeds then develop in those same compartments. The wild teasel is a tall, prickly plant that can grow to six feet or even more. When I say prickly I mean very prickly, the stems, the leaves and the flower heads are all very prickly! The plants stand firm well after flowering and can still be in place the following spring and re a popular food source for finches, especially goldfinches in winter. Teasels readily grow anywhere where the is dry, bare soil and can overrun and colonise waste places and even rough grassland. 

    There is a cultivated form called Fuller's Teasel and the dried flower heads of those are sometimes used in flower arranging. This variant was also used in the textile industry many years ago for combing out wool and cotton prior to spinning but this is not, of course, the case now.


  • Field Scabious: the gypsy rose

    If you are familiar with the wild teasel then I think you will understand why I find it hard to believe that field scabious (Knautia arvensis) is a member of the same family! They seem to have nothing in common at all and when you read the characteristics of plants in the dipsacaceae family you will find that the characteristics are in minute details.

    The field scabious is an attractive, almost daisy-like, flower. The flower petals are blue but the anthers are pink which can make the flower overall look a little purple in hue. The leaves are pointed and have 'teeth' along the edges. There is a single pair of leaves formed opposite each other on the main stem and from the point where the leaves form the stem then branches into several flower heads. The field guide suggests that it can grow to a metre tall but in my experience a foot to eighteen inches would seem the norm.

    Flowering from June through until October the field scabious does not grow in fields as such but is very much a species of chalk grassland. 

    Species of scabious were used to treat sores and skin infections and are especially noted as a treatment to ease the symptoms of the bubonic plague. It is also known by its country name, the gypsy rose.


  • Bog Asphodel: golden stars

    In July and on in to early August the boggy areas of the Purbeck heaths are brightened by the golden yellow flowers of the bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum), as they bring much needed colour to the otherwise drab appearance of this landscape as we await the carpets of purple from the heathers. A member of the lily family they have star shaped flowers with six points which are arranged in spikes. The flowers are golden yellow with a touch of orange to start, the plants turns orange as it ages and goes to seed.

    Bog asphodel is not uncommon in the right habitats which, in Dorset, are damp heathland and bogs, elsewhere they can be found on the moors of the north country where it some times known as moor asphodel. Where it occurs it can be quite prolific and can form a lovely sight as they grow and flower together. 



  • Stinking Iris: the roast beef plant

    The stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) seems to be bit of an unfair name for such a lovely flower which is common in woods, scrub and hedgerows, especially near the Dorset coast, in mid-summer. It is one of two iris species native to Britain, the other being the yellow iris. 

    This plant is also known as the roast beef plant as, when the leaves and stem are crushed, it gives off the scent of fresh meat. It is thought the smell attracts flies and the flies help with the pollination process. This odour is also where the stink comes from in stinking iris of course.

    In the autumn these flower heads will be transformed and will have three distinctive green pods and each will split to reveal a line of bright red berries; you get good value from the stinking iris, attractive flowers and attractive seed heads and so it does occur in gardens as well as in its usual habitats.