Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Hedgerows, Roadsides, Campion and Queen Anne’s Lace
This time of year is when roadsides, hedgerows and woodland edges are resplendent in wild flowers. Two plants, cow parsley and red campion, are especially obvious now. The former a member of the carrot family with tall upright stems and large but delicate ‘umbels’ of tiny white flowers, has many common names including Queen Anne’s lace, lady’s lace, fairy lace, mother die, kek, kecksie, hedge parsley, and even rabbit meat. According to Richard Mabey, the name Queen Anne’s lace was because when she travelled the country during one particular May, apparently people said the roads had been decorated for her. Suffering from asthma the Queen would travel the countryside around Kensington (then still fields and hedges) in search of clean air. She and her accompanying ladies carried lace pillows and so there is an alternative explanation. Cow parsley means the parsley that is not as good as real parsley! Richard Mabey states that this is perhaps the most important flower in the English landscape, and I agree, at least in May and June, livening up almost every patch of neglected ground. Cow parsley brightens every roadside, hedgerow or verge, and is exceptionally pretty. This is a typical example of a native wild flower that is so commonplace that we simply take it for granted. There may be confusion sometimes with the very poisonous hemlock, a member of the same family but with evil-looking purple blotches on the stem and a very unpleasant smell. This is not nice unless like the Ancient Greeks you want to get rid of someone! Another plant that causes confusion is the earlier flowering and long-standing introduction, sweet cicely. Smaller than cow parsley but with similar, stunning white, lace-like flowers, is the ground elder – a pernicious weed of gardens and disturbed places but with a very pretty variegated variety.
Another wayside flower, and one of my favourites, the red campion, complements cow parsley in the June wayside. It too has other names like adder’s flower (as this and its cousin ragged robin were used to cure snake venom), Robin Hood, and cuckoo flower. I presume the last name ties in with this being the time of year for both the cuckoo and the campion. When abundant, along a woodland edge perhaps or on a sea cliff like Flamborough, red campion is a stunning sight. Like many flowers, this plant freely hybridises with its close relative, in this case the white campion to produce a range from pure white to bright pinkish red. White campion is much more a plant of disturbed ground and the hybrids often occur in intermediate areas. You can see this phenomenon with a whole swathe of hybrid campion on the roadside near Worksop where the by-pass cuts through towards Clumber Park. There you will see a variety of soft pinks and white all mixed in together. However, go into one of our local ancient woodlands and all you get is the pure red campion; that is the woodland plant and the hybrids are very effectively filtered out by nature and ecology. Each plant has its own little niche. Apparently, this was also called mother dee or mother die with the suggestion that if you picked it would bring misfortune upon your parents. In the Isle of Man, red campion was a flower of the fairies was therefore unlucky and should not be picked. In parts of Wales, it was called the snake flower and people were convinced that they would be attacked by a snake if they brought it into the house. I wonder if this somehow links to the idea of it as a cure for snakebite. Another concern was that if you picked red campion flowers there would be a storm of thunder and lightning and so it was called thunder flower. Perhaps like the good folk of Sussex you used its ‘corrosive juice’ to cure your warts, or in Gloucestershire to get rid of corns.
Ian D. Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change
Ground elder in bloom