When I see the grasses and sedges and rushes that grow in and around rivers and ponds, canals, ditches and wetlands, I don’t expect to see such gorgeous flowers as these. This is the umbel-shaped flower of Flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus), hence the umbellatus epithet. According to the eFloras website, Butomus is from the Greek bous, meaning cow, and femno, meaning to cut, which refers to the belief that the sharp leaves would cut the mouths of cattle. Fortunately, no cattle are at risk from this particular Flowering rush plant, which is growing at Cardiff Bay wetlands reserve.
This was a pretty find in an unmown roadside verge earlier this week. It looks more pink than my wildflower guide and most online images show, but I’m fairly sure this is Betony, which now goes by the scientific name of Betonica officinalis, but was previously Stachys officinalis.
Its common names include Common hedgenettle, and Bishopwort or Bishop’s wort, and my Flora Britannica labels it ‘one of the great “all-heals” of medieval herbalists’. The various old herbals claim it was effective for everything from treating arthritis and gout, to preserving the liver and curing drunkenness. Roman physician Antonius Musa reckoned it counteracted sorcery, and Christians planted Betony in churchyards as a ghost-busting tool.
I’ve read that various subspecies are available that produce different flower colours so perhaps this is one of those and the plants have developed from seed dropped via bird droppings, though the verge contains a wealth of other wildflowers – Yarrow, as you can see in one of my photos; Oxeye daisies; Knapweed; Bird’s-foot trefoil; and even three Pyramidal orchids. Before the high-rise apartment blocks and office blocks were built, this riverside location must have contained a wealth of wonderful plants and, perhaps now that the verge is not being mowed, the plants are making a comeback.
I’ve been trying to learn about buttercups, specifically how to identify the three species that are most common in my area and, three cheers, I think I’ve finally got it! Each species has several distinguishing characteristics – these are simply the features I find most helpful.
Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris): This is probably the easiest to put a name to, partly because it’s the tallest and also because its leaves are very distinctive – they are quite finely cut, and remind me of geraniums. This is the buttercup I see most often, especially in local wildflower meadows.
Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens): I see Creeping buttercup frequently too, and find its leaves the best way to identify it – they are broader, with three lobes and with pale marks on each lobe.
Bulbous buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus): Bulbous is the buttercup I see least often. The distinguishing feature I find easiest to remember is the way the sepals underneath the flower bend back against the stem, rather than cupping the flower. I had to turn over a lot of flowers before I found this one!
It’s grey here in south Wales today, which is not a bad thing as we desperately need the accompanying rain, and it also makes me appreciate even more the days when vibrant, sunshiny, cheery yellow is the dominant colour of my day. Here’s some of the yellow that’s been brightening my walks in recent days.
Dyer’s greenweed (Genista tinctoria), found at several local sites, and the food plant for the larvae of a couple of rare moths, though I’ve yet to find any.
Evening-primrose (Oenothera agg). There are several different species, which can be difficult to differentiate, and they also hybridise with each other, hence the ‘agg’.
Silverweed (Potentilla anserina). The Plantlife website has some fascinating information about this pretty plant – did you know, for example, that Roman soldiers used to pad their shoes with Silverweed to ease their feet on long marches?
Prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper). Most thistles have flowers in shades of pink-lilac-purple but not this one. I’ve included two photos, one to show the structural beauty of the flower, one to show the prickly leaves.
Smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus). Another sow-thistle, but without those pesky prickles, and with flowers a more lemon-yellow.
Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), a plant of hooking-bristle seed heads, as you may remember from my earlier post Hooked, September 2019.
Creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans), a plant that thrives on waste and bare ground.
I walk past this magnificent display of Oxeye daisies quite often, and it always makes me smile.
It runs alongside a local footpath, behind a wire fence that borders a school playground, and transforms an ugly bank of earth, which prevents footpath walkers from seeing the children at play, into a stunning floral flourish.
You might be forgiven for thinking the flowers look a bit ‘empty’ – where are all the insects that love feasting on these wildflowers? Well, though sunny, this was quite a windy day, with huge clouds scudding rapidly across the sky, changing bright warmth to grey coolness in the blink of an eye. But, when I looked closely in the more sheltered spots, the insects were there, sometimes more than I expected on a single flower head, sharing the nutrient power of these glorious daisies.
When I saw this field of Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) nodding their flower heads in the gentle breeze, I had to make them my post for the day.
My Flora Britannica lists several common names for this plant, including Fighting cocks, Short bobs, Soldiers and sailors, and Black Jacks, which all come from the fact that the plant is apparently used for children’s games. This is not something I had heard of but it seems one variation of the game is similar to conkers, where kids try to knock off each other’s flower heads.
Though the gardeners amongst you may regard this as a pesky garden weed, I think it’s an attractive plant. Its flowers provide sustenance for insects like butterflies, moths and hoverflies and, if its seed heads are not chopped off, they provide food for seed-eating birds like Goldfinches. Interestingly, though, the Plantlife website says ‘ribwort plantain is surprisingly unpopular with slugs and snails [as] they find the leaves unpalatable.’
One of the benefits of some local councils not mowing all the road verges at the moment is that wildflowers that would normally be strimmed to death are now being allowed to grow and bloom.
Not only does this mean we get to enjoy their glorious rainbow of colours but the wildflowers’ pollen and nectar also provide a nutritious feast for all the newly emerging insects.
And it was on one such uncut verge that I spotted my first Common blue butterfly of the year today, this stunning, pristine, little male.
If only the councils would mow less all the time, then we’d be able to enjoy both the flowers and the insects all through spring and summer, and it would also go a little way to reversing the huge decline in insect life that’s happening all over the world.
Here are this week’s newly flowering wildflowers …
Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), also known as Woody nightshade and Deadly nightshade, though my Flora Britannica assures me this is actually one of the less poisonous members of the nightshade family.
Cut-leaved crane’s-bill (Geranium dissectum), one of the many lovely members of the extended Geranium family.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum), a small delicate plant, with beautiful pale blue flowers. This is rather different from the plant I, as a New Zealander, usually associate with this name – see my September 2018 post Flax.
Goat’s-beard (Tragopogon pratensis). As well as producing these glorious large sunny flowers, this wildflower, also known as Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, has the most wonderful seedheads.
Wood avens (Geum urbanum) – you may know this wildflower by its alternate name of Herb Bennet.
Common milkwort (Polygala vulgaris). Discovered during my walk to Lavernock Nature Reserve earlier this week, this was the first time I’d seen this pretty little plant, though it’s very small and was almost hidden amongst the other wildflowers and grasses so it may be that I had simply overlooked it on previous visits.
One theory behind its common name is that the flowers of milkwort are shaped like udders and so medieval herbalists, following the ‘signature’ belief (that body parts can be treated by plants that resemble them), used to prescribe this plant to nursing mothers to increase their milk flow.
At Grangemoor Park on Friday, I spotted my first flowering Ragged robin for the year.
This gorgeous wildflower was formerly known as Lychnis flos-cuculi, but is now Silene flos-cuculi – from a scientific article I browsed, this seems a complicated story of almost constant reclassification of the species! You will still see both names used in books and on line, which is why I’ve mentioned both here.
According to a couple of books I discovered on the ‘language of flowers’, Ragged robin’s symbolic meaning is ‘wit’, and it is dedicated to Saint Barnabas. The ever-informative First Nature website says:
Lychnis, the genus name, comes from the Greek noun lychnos, meaning lamp; it refers to the use of a plant in this genus as the wick of an oil lamp. The specific epithet flos-cuculi means ‘flower of the cuckoo’ and was probably chosen because the first flowers of Ragged Robin appear just as the first cuckoos are being heard (in Britain and Ireland at least) in May.
A special moment: to try to stop it swaying in the breeze so I could get a sharp photo, I was holding one of the blooms when a bee-fly decided to zoom in for a feed of nectar. That super long proboscis comes in handy for long narrow flowers like these.