Ramsons!  The only plant I know that you smell before you see.  When you’re in a wood and suddenly there’s a strong smell of garlic, stop looking for the Italian restaurant and skim the ground for a carpet of green leaves growing straight from the soil.  These are Ramsons or Wild Garlic.

I haven’t often seen the flowers, which look like small sparklers on fireworks night, but last Saturday near Leatherhead, they were prolific.

Of course, the plant is edible including the bulb though this is nothing like cultivated garlic, resembling more of a spring onion.  We chewed a bit of a leaf on our walk and it was tasty and garlicy but then, since there were so many, we tried the flowers.  These are delicious.  They have the same strong garlic taste but this is combined with the sweetness of the nectar to produce a flavour unlike anything I’d ever tasted before – having never mixed sweet rosewater with garlic paste.  A real wayside treat – just a shame we stank of garlic for the rest of the day!

How about this for a familiar roadside / streamside / pathside / everyside sight at the moment:

Cow Parsley, it’s everywhere!  Like a big sign in white spray-paint all along the hedgerows saying ‘English summertime’.  This particular profusion is near Leatherhead, Surrey not far from the beautiful wooded hilltop that is Norbury Park.

Cow Parsley, or Wild Chervil as it’s also known, is an edible herb.  But it’s not as simple as this.  You see, that head of dozens of tiny flowers means this plant is an umbellifer (that’s its family’s name) and there are a lot of umbellifers which look a lot like each other.  The most worrying are Fool’s Parsley, which is poisonous, and Hemlock, which is deadly. 

These two have leaves which look like Cow Parsley’s.  In his book ‘The Forager Handbook’, Miles Irving has detailed all the differences very precisely in a table.  Fool’s Parsley is easy, underneath the flowers, it has really long green bracts that droop downwards.  We once had some growing in the garden and I was surprised how long and obvious the bracts actually are.  Cow Parsley doesn’t have any such thing.

Although the stem of Cow Parsley can have vaguely purple joints or can be quite darkly coloured, it never has purple blotches like the deadly Hemlock.  The leaves of Hemlock also look a lot more complicated, perhaps being more one extra time more pinnate (divided with leaflets either side) than Cow Parsley which is 3 times pinnate.  One of the nicest ways to identify Cow Parsley, I’ve just read, is by the U-shaped groove down the leaf stalk.  At the end of the day, a plant should only be eaten if you have positively identified it, or in other words: KNOW YOUR STUFF, NEVER BLUFF.

Identification complete, we gathered a load of leaves this afternoon and transported them home in my shorts pocket.  They’re supposed to go well in salads or chopped and sprinkled over cold potatoes as their flavour is only very mildly like parsley.  We were having rice though so I chopped them up and stirred them in just before covering and steaming.

Mmmm… Cow Parsley rice:

I’m afraid it made no difference to the flavour whatsoever, the rice tasted just like… …rice.  Maybe I should try it in a salad – or on cold potatoes.  I’ll just have to convince myself we must have eaten some extra micronutrients and have learned to eat another food source for free.

For a couple of months now, on the sunniest days, I’ve sat outside behind work to eat my lunch to the sound of bird song and the sight of trees and green.  Always glancing around at the plants as they develop, I’ve been perplexed by a set of oval, slightly toothed leaves – like these:

As the weeks went by long, dark, yellowey, greeny, brown (I just asked my girlfriend the colour) stems covered in white hairs began shooting up.  Still I was none the wiser.

We have two gardeners at work and I knew that they’d have it in mind to strim the entire patch soon.  As the plants got bigger and started to grow buds I knew they were about to reveal their identity – but would it be too late?

A couple of days ago, one and a half flowered – Ox-eye Daisy – so obvious when you see that big ring of white petals around a yellow centre – but I didn’t have my camera.  The VERY NEXT DAY, they strimmed!

But, thanks to some environmental policies of theirs or our workplace, they left a large patch of wild flowers for the wild life.  Brilliant:

The genus of it’s latin name ‘chrysanthemum’ means golden flower and the ‘leucanthemum’ species part means white flower so that’s a rather good description.  Richard Mabey says that John Evelyn says that the roots are eaten in salads in Spain while it says in The Modern Herbal that the leaves are eaten in salads in Italy.  I’ll try the latter tomorrow and let you know.  Irving suggests putting the chopped up buds to your dinner as they have a pleasant odour or taste.

Medicinally the flowers, leaves and stalks can be boiled to relieve them of their aromatic resin which seems to be useful against coughs.  The decoction drank or rubbed on the outside is also said to reduce swelling and heal wounds.  Good stuff!

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Whole clouds of white floated by the footpaths near Guildford.  Most of these clouds were made up of Greater Stitchwort, a plant which without flowers would be dismissed as just grass.

Until I found THIS excellent forum post, I wasn’t sure whether to name my specimens Greater or Lesser Stitchwort but now the difference is clear.  Each of the five petals here is only split down to about halfway and overall each flower is 2-3 cm wide, not 0.5-1.5 like Lesser.  The books also say that Lesser Stitchwort has smooth-edged leaves but at the time, I’m afraid I didn’t cop a proper feel of the leaves.

Strangely, there is nothing about this common plant in Mrs M Grieve’s 900 page book but I’ve found all manner of folk tales about it on t’internet.  It used to be called ‘Dead Man’s Bones’ (doesn’t say why, maybe just cos it’s white and everyone was always drunk in those days) and another name is Adders’ meat.  Maybe this latter name came about from its reputation of harbouring vipers – as it says on THIS website which seems to know a ridiculous amount of folklore where old Mrs Grieve knows none.  One thing seems clear from most sources though it’s called stitchwort because an infusion of the leaves can cure your stitch.  Great, no need to ‘run it out’ or raise your arms in the air anymore!  Just soak this in warm water and… and what?  Drink it or rub it on?  No idea.

The western tip of the North Downs near Guildford is a beautiful piece of countryside.  Green hills roll like waves all around you and at this time of year myriad wild flowers spring from every bank, lean as far as they can over rivers and cover every patch of ground that isn’t grass or tarmac.  From this walk, I chose a plethora of plants to write about and can now barely make a decision.  Looking back at the photos however I absolutely have to post these bluebells:

There was no wind this day – weather that always makes wild places feel other-worldly.  Imagine then chancing upon this carpet of bluebells in the woods to the right of your dusty, tree-rooty path.  The blue hovers a foot above the ground like dry ice floating over a stage in an eerie scene at the theatre.

There are few sights more characteristic of shady old English wood than this.  But beware!  There are invaders to be wary of and I keep seeing them; Hybrid Bluebell and Spanish Bluebell.  They seem to grow anywhere, in direct sunlight, up from under fences along pavements, from beside gravestones and in people’s gardens.  They’re a lighter blue and the flowers are more bell than trumpet-like.  The natural history museum asks 3 questions to decide if your bluebell is a true Brit.  These ones are because 1. they have a strong sweet smell, 2. they’re narrowly tubular and the petals are strongly curved and 3. the flower spike nods at the tip.  Look:

This plant grows from bulbs which are poisonous.  I haven’t squeezed any, but it says in The Modern Herbal, that they contain a sticky juice so glutinous that it was used to starch those projecting collars worn in Elizabethan times.  More exciting, it was used to stick feathers to arrows and, if you have a really really old book bluebell juice could be the binding gum!

This plant looks nothing like ivy.  It seems it got its name because of the way it grows all over a patch of ground to form a mat, like ivy sort of does. …but then ivy climbs trees and buildings while ground ivy can do nothing of the sort.  I see this plant all the time, usually in slightly more shaded areas near a tree or around a hedge or fence, but I am always happy when I do see my old friend.  We met during my uni days when I first found it’s picture in Roger Phillip’s book.  I soon discovered it was an edible herb (though too much of it is bad for horses…) and now rarely pass it by without putting a leaf to my lips and thrilling my tastebuds with its strong herbal taste.

In earlier days I used to confuse it with red deadnettle as they both grow to roughly the same height with similar leaves and the flowers look similar to my eyes!  In fact, the leaves are very different with ground ivy’s having relatively deep lobes.  The biggest difference seems to be the location of the flowers which in red deadnettle form only around the top but in ground ivy hang from points all down the stem.  Ground ivy also tends to be darker.

Anyway, on to its uses.  It is a nicely flavoured herb, like a weak mint, useful for flavouring cooking etc but best of all, it makes a very fine tea.  That is the reason I have a handful of its leaves in the picture above.  I carried these home in my trouser pocket and dried them on the windowsil for about a week:

Looks like considerably less now, doesn’t it.

Anyway, tonight I popped the dried leaves into a mug, poured on boiling water and let it brew for 5 minutes – like a proper northerner.  Is this too much detail?  Well, it looked pretty weak compared to what we’re used to seeing in a mug, even though I pressed and squeezed the leaves as much as I could.  The aroma was great though so I put mug to lips and sipped.

Bitter.

I added a third of a teaspoon of sugar and hey presto, flavour sensation!

This is called Gill Tea, from the french ‘guiller’ which means ‘to ferment beer’ – ground ivy used to be used before hops to clear beer and flavour it.

The taste at first hits the nostrils and one thinks it could be mint but not quite; only a mild mint.  In the mouth it reminds me of nettle tea, but that is perhaps just the rounded ‘green’ taste of any wild plant.  All in all though, I finished the cup and could quite happily drink it every day to refresh the senses in it’s minty way or warm the body on a cold spring day.

So, what’ll it do for me?  Well, the ‘Modern Herbal’ written in 1931 quotes centuries older sources that say it’s slightly stimulant and an excellent tonic for nervous headaches and clearing coughs.  The recipe for the latter, however, was sweetened with honey.  I read somewhere that honey in itself is as good as most cough medicines for doing the same.  I wouldn’t listen to the old texts too much though as, reading on, it seems the plant has been used at some stage for curing almost every malady.  Just like a normal cup of tea then.

Eeee, ‘ave a cuppa tea.

Godalming station, Surrey we parked the rented red Skoda and began walking while the sun shone.  It’s brightness was deceptive though as, unlike last week, the wind brought cold air from the north.  As if unsure of its mood, the weather alternated between smiling with sunshine and frowning with clouds and rain. 

The dark brown River Wey oozed steadily to our left, framed in green by the freshly formed spring leaves of dozens of river trees.  To our right were grasses and nettles growing on damp marshy ground.  Out from these shone a patch of a hundred light pink flowers.

Cuckoo Flower (or Lady’s Smock, cardamine pratensis).  I’ve often seen this plant growing in the damp but never been sure whether it was itself or Soapwort.  Checking the books, it seems they’re nothing like each other; Soapwort has broad, ordinary leaves while Cuckoo Flower’s are pinnate.  Furthermore, the flowers of Soapwort are all white with long green trumpets at the back.

The leaves are edible!  Had I known when I found it, I’d have munched on a couple but for now, I can only tell you that Richard Mabey says they’re slightly hot and Miles Irving that they assault the nose, like horseradish, with the ferocity of a clenched fist!  Damn, I really have missed out.  So, it seems they’re fun in salads and, according to both, great in puddings too.  You can be sure that the next post in this plant’s cateogory will include a personal description of its flavour.

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