Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Cuckooflower is a cabbage

As we all know too well Spring is late this year and what flowers there have been are sparse. Our local hedgebanks and verges have been dominated with Celandines and Violets, but little else. Driving home yesterday I caught a glimpse of another colour as I turned down a local lane. I pulled over to investigate and was welcomed by the mauve flowers of Cuckooflowers.

The Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis), also known as Lady’s-smock, is a common plant of meadows and moist woods. A literal translation from its Latin name is meadow (pratensis) cress (from the Greek, kardamis). Other wildlife shares the specific epithet, ‘pratensis’ in a similar way such as; Meadow Sage (Salvia pratensis) and Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis). The Cardamines are a large genus of pungent herbs, many known as bitter cresses, and part of the larger Crucifer or Cabbage family. The crucifers are so named due to having 4 free petals arranged in a cross. It is hard to see the cabbage in a cuckooflower unless you have let your brassicas go to flower and then the yellow cruciferic petals become all too familiar.

The closely related bitter cresses, such as Wavy Bitter-cress (Cardamine flexuosa) are common in our garden at the moment, and are a great addition to a salad, sandwich or simply to graze on. The Cuckooflower is also very edible and once used as a salad vegetable (*). However, I would rather leave them to enliven the verge and feed other wildlife such as the Orange Tip butterfly.

(*) Plants for a Future (

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Oh my sweet Violet!

In the last week ‘Violets’ have started to appear frequently on our local hedgebanks and around our garden at the Pinfold (picture shows Violets amongst other woodland plants). I’ve been having fun trying to identify them, which is not easy from casual observation, and made more challenging by frequent hybridisation and escapes from gardens into the local countryside. In Britain, the Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana) is the commonest, but these are not easy to distinguish from others such as the Early Dog-violet (V. reichenbachiana) and Hairy violet (V. hirta). Key differences are; pointed or blunt sepals, features of the spurs (hollow projection at rear of petals) and hairiness. However the Sweet Violet (V. odorata) is easier to identify as it is the only fragrant Violet, with its characteristic ‘parma violet’ aroma. The only difficulty is that in trying to avoid picking flowers I have to prostrate myself to these low growing plants and face the embarrassment of being caught with my nose, dog-like to the ground.

The fragrance of the Sweet Violet has not escaped the attention of scientists interested in its potential as a natural means to control insect pests. Indeed, used as a plant extract it has been shown to be very effective at repelling pests including the yellow fever mosquito and a malarial carrying insect (*). Other uses of the Sweet Violet’s attractiveness are as a decorative addition to salads, perfumery and to flavour breath fresheners (**). I’ve even seen recipes for; Sweet Violet Syrup, sugared violets, and used in iced tea and champagne.

*Amer, A. and Mehlhorn, H. (2006) Repellency effect of forty-one essential oils against Aedes, Anopheles, and Culex mosquitoes. Parasitology Research, 99 (4):478-490
** Plants for a Future (

Thursday, 1 April 2010

One Chiffchaff does not make a Spring

I find this a strange time of year. Last weekend I sat on our veranda in the sunshine with a beer looking down on the belated daffodils. In the woodland I could hear a solitary Chiffchaff’s (Phylloscopus collybita) “Chiff ...chaff...”, the characteristic sound of the first of our ‘summer’ migrants to return to our warming weather. Spring felt well and truly sprung. But today I am back inside with my woolly hat back on, having retreated from the garden by an icy wind. It seems that the weather and nature have become confused; not sure whether to let winter go or to leap into spring. Last week we passed the vernal equinox, marking the point when day and night lengths are equal. Day length sends important messages to much of our wildlife, triggering growth, birdsong and nest building. But the weather does not tie itself so neatly to the trend, oscillating this way and that, challenging the more optimistic wildlife that tries to get ahead of the rest.

The Chiffchaff’s diet is mainly insects. Poor weather will hold back their activity and emergence, making it difficult for their predators to find and dine on them. However it is the male Chiffchaff’s that arrive first and as they are larger than their female counterparts (such physical differences are technically referred to as dimorphism), they are better able to tolerate colder weather with their greater body mass (*). I hope it warms up before the more delicate females arrive and we can soon forget the last gasp of winter’s chill.

*Catry, P., Lecoq, M., Araujo, A., et al. (2005) Differential migration of chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita and P ibericus in Europe and Africa. Journal of Avian Biology , 36 (3): 184-190