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!

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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!

References

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.