Pretty, dainty Tufted Vetch started flowering a couple of weeks ago in Surrey.  This is the only vetch I can positively identify because its flowers form long purple rows on one side of the stem, almost like over-populated miniature bluebells.

Tufted Vetch is of the pea family so when these flowers become seeds they will be held inside green, then black (when they’re ripe), seed pods.  Irving describes Common Vetch but notes that the peas of other vetches are small but good to eat too.  The ‘Plants for a Future’ database lists the tiny seeds as edible after boiling or roasting and also states that the leaves are a tea substitute.

My usual confusion about vetches comes from the leaves, which look the same for many of the other species – having opposing leaflets like a ladder along the stem.

Several species, including this one, are too weak to stand tall under their own strength and so use branched tendrils at the end of their leaves to twist and grip onto other plants and drag themselves into the sunlight – sometimes up to 2 metres in height.  This one is growing amongst the Ox-eye Daisies I wrote about some time ago (which are now looking a little worse for wear). 

It’s not a lazy plant though, not by a long shot.  Plants of the pea family are leguminous, that is they grow nodules on their roots which house symbiotic bacteria which can fix nitrogen from the air into the soil.  They thus provide the nitrate ‘fertilizer’ that other plants need to grow… …so they can be forgiven for using them for a little support here and there.  We humans can fix nitrogen too, industrially using the Haber Process.  It takes about 500 °C and 200 atmospheres of pressure to make ammonia from hydrogen and air which can then be oxidized to nitrates for artificial fertilizer.  I bet those Tufted Vetch root nodules aren’t at 500 °C.

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.

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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