I can’t help feeling a certain sadness as the flowers fade, the grass verges are cut and the most beautiful time of the year fades away.
It is hard to visualise anything more captivating than clouds of feather-white Cow Parsley lining country banks during April and May. Its Latin name Anthricus Sylvestris echoes the silvery quality of the light shining through its leaves. Cow Parsley is an unbellifer the flower heads having ribs underneath reminiscent of a parasol. Its other names include Queen Anne’s Lace, Wild Chervil and rather unflatteringly, Keck. It is also sometimes referred to as Mother-Die – but we will come to that later.
Cow Parsley is part of the carrot family and its stalks can be eaten although it is an acquired taste. It is certainly beloved of horses who will crunch the stalks with the same pleasure that humans bite into biscuits. It grows throughout Europe. Rather as we use dock leaves as an antidote to nettle stings, the sap from Cow Parsley is said to soothe mosquito bites – but as with eating it, it comes with a Government Health Warning. Cow Parsley bears a strong resemblance to Hogweed and Hemlock that bloom at the same time – and both are poisonous.
HEMLOCK AND HOGWEED
Hemlock has a sting in its tail. It tends to flower later than Cow Parsley, grows taller and has deep reddish, smooth, spotted stalks. Happily it also smells foul. Recognised as a poison, it is forever associated with the death of the 70 year-old Socrates sentenced by his peers for not recognising the state gods. In Athens criminals were executed by poisoning and Socrates voluntarily swallowed the drug. Even today there is no antidote.
Once swallowed, the central nervous system is initially stimulated then gradually numbness sets in, followed by headaches, sweating, paralysis and respiratory failure. The opening line of Keat’s’s Ode to a Nightingale sums it up: My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk.
Hogweed, similar in appearance to its white cousins is also apoison and can cause problems for humans and animals alike. Contact with the skin results in itching and blisters that often leave permanent scars while the smallest amount of the sap in the eye could result in blindness. Fortunately the leaves are quite different from its cousins being ‘palmate’ – shaped rather like maple leaves while the stalk has rusty marks and is hairy.
It is because of their visual similarity and poisonous qualities that the name Mother-Die has sometimes been added to Cow Parsley, Hemlock and Hogweed, as a warning to children not to mess with nature. If one is unsure it is definitely better to look and not touch – and certainly not to eat.
Woody, shaded banks can come alive in springtime with carpets of white, bluebell shaped flowers nestling in beds of long scythe-like leaves. Pass through the area and one is enveloped in the distinctive smell of French cooking. Like its cultivated relative, wild garlic is edible but it is the leaves rather than the bulb that is favoured. Would-be gatherers are warned not to mistake the leaves for Lily of the Valley which is poisonous. There is one very obvious difference in that garlic, when squashed, gives off its familiar, pungent, smell. Insultingly it is sometimes called Stinking Jenny.
Lily of the Valley
Hawthorn along the hedges
Hawthorn makes up some of our most familiar hedgerows, providing nesting, shelter and hibernation sites for small creatures. It also supplies a valuable food source for moths and beetles. Walk along a country track in spring and hawthorn hedges are vibrant with birdsong. A member of the rose family, the Hawthorn flowers are a cluster of creamy white, from a distance forming a blanket of blooms. In autumn, blackbirds, thrushes, finches and the omnipresent robins feast on the red haws or berries. The wood also burns well.
In mythology, Hawthorn, also known as May, is a powerful symbol of female fertility and as such worn by the May Queen. It is considered unlucky to bring it indoors. Hawthorn has medicinal qualities and has been used to treat heart conditions. The haws are edible and are used in cookery to make jellies and as an ingredient of wine.
Tradition says that when Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury he struck the ground with his staff from whence a hawthorn bush grew. It was still growing in the 1640s until it was destroyed by Puritan soldiers. An aged example in All Saints churchyard at Hethel in Norfolk is said to be 700 years old.
OTHER FLOWERS OF TREES AND MEADOWS
The flowers already mentioned are really the tip of a spring iceberg. It is a pity to overlook the common Daisy and worth taking time to enjoy the Dead Nettle, disguised as a stinger but in fact a member of the mint family, aromatic and edible. It has pretty bell-shaped flowers where Bumblebees love to harvest nectar.
Flowers often have names recalling a distant rustic idyll. Delicate white Milkmaids grow among the grasses, also known as Lady’s Smock and the Cuckoo Flower because their blooms and the migrant bird arrive together.
Bluebells sometimes appear wearing white, as does the stately foxglove and clover. Then of course, there are the tree blossoms, wild cherry and apple, synonymous with brides.
All in all, spring is a time of awakening and definitely worth leaving the office or the factory and simply staring at the banks and hedgerows, fields and copses – but hurry, before it is too late!