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Wildlife Garden blog

2 Posts tagged with the sweet_woodruff tag

A family of long-tailed tits were noisily searching the woodland canopy for insects, as I arrived at work - a welcoming sight and sound! Following a week's absence from the Garden, the woodland vegetation has changed to a darker green, while the meadows and ponds are now brighter with meadow clary (Salvia verbenaca), bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and an increased number of oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). All these are great plants for insects to forage amongst, but what about the native plants good enough for us to eat?


Our resident foodie, forager and wildlife gardener/ecologist, Daniel Osborne, explores some of our edible plants:


"Until about 7,000 years ago, every human that lived in the British Isles hunted and gathered all of their food. They had and shared a rich knowledge of the uses and edibility of the plants in their landscape and were able to sustain themselves throughout the year. They had skills that, through the study of bushcraft and books like Richard Mabey's Food For Free, I have become confident enough to dabble in. The results have been truly enriching.


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Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)


In these few paragraphs I do not intend to list all edible native species, share recipes or discuss the health benefits or legality of wild food, as these are covered elsewhere with much more expertise and clarity than I could achieve. Instead I will talk about what thrills me: finding new flavours and connecting with our hunter-gatherer ancestors.



Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium)


I think I came to wild food relatively late. Some things like blackberries were familiar to me as a child and my brother and I often gorged ourselves on them in late summer. But I didn't discover wild garlic until my twenties, on the banks of the River Medway near my girlfriend's house at university. And I have not, to this day, ever eaten a pignut.



Wild garlic (Allium ursinum)


The Wildlife Garden at the Museum changed everything for me because it was here that I really started to learn about plants. My identification skills improved, and continue to improve, and what was once an anonymous field or woodland floor is now a host of familiar friends.



Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)


I have been truly amazed at how many of our native plants are edible. I have many still on my list to try, but have sampled a new plant at least every week as my knowledge and interest have grown. During spring I had cheese sandwiches for lunch with wild garlic, chickweed and ground elder. The almond taste of young rowan leaves and the caramel taste of sweet woodruff have opened my eyes to the fact that the range of flavours of the commonly cultivated salad leaves, like lettuce, rocket, cress and spinach, is but a small part of the spectrum.


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Wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosa) in the Cairngorms National Park


When I go camping now or go for long walks in the wilderness, which is, happily, becoming increasingly frequent, I am able to stop and pick leaves, such as young beech, rosebay willowherb or wood-sorrel, or flowers such as primrose and dead-nettle and enjoy the variety of flavours. A big part of the enjoyment for me is knowing how little I know.



Commom nettle (Urtica dioica)


I am not alone in this passion for wild edibles. There are a number of outstanding books and YouTube videos on the subject and our friend and colleague Viv Tuffney recently added her name to the list of wild food authors.



Viv Tuffney's new Nettle Cookbook


Viv Tuffney's book of nettle recipes 'Nettle Cookbook- Recipes for Foragers and Foodies' - inspired by our biennial Nettle Weekend is devoted to the use of one very common and nutritious species. I have been lucky enough to sample some of Viv's cooking, and have used recipes from the book myself.



A delicious nettle and cashew stuffed mushroom made from a recipe in Viv Tuffney's Nettle Cookbook


It encapsulates everything I like about wild food. How, with a little bit of knowledge and effort, it can connect us with our landscape and our past."


Thank you Daniel.


If you would like to try Viv's nettle recipes for yourself, you can get a copy from the Museum's online shop.


Spring is marching on and keeping us all very busy. As the season progresses colour becomes more varied and the changes are noticed daily - its an exciting time!.


The dates of first flowers are early compared to last year's late Spring: trees in blossom this month - several of which first flowered in March - included Wild cherry (Prunus avium), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), bird cherry (Prunus padus), apple (Malus domestica), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and last week - also earlier than in previous years - elder (Sambucus nigra).

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Apple blossom, Malus domestica, from the 'Brownlees Russett' variety in the Wildlife Garden

© Jonathan Jackson


On the ground the variety of texture, scent and colour is changing even more dramatically, especially in woodland areas, which are now bright with whites: sweet woodruff (Galium odorata), wild garlic (Allium ursinum), greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea); blues: bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), bugle (Ajuga reptans), wood speedwell (Veronica montana); and yellows: a few primroses and celendines remain with the more recent flowering of yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon); and, of course, the deep pink of red campion (Silene dioica) as well as grasses wood millet (Milium effusum), false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum) and more.


While in water, the delicate flowers of bogbean float daintily in the upper pond...


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Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata
© Jonathan Jackson


But the star of April is undoubtedly cowslip. In grassland areas cowslips have provided a long season - a few were spotted in flower on 25 February; ten days earlier than the first cowslip flower last year -  and there has been a succession ever since.


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Cowslip, Primula veris
© Derek Adams


Cowslips were once a common sight throughout April and May on chalk downland, and in meadows and pastures as well as hedge banks and railway embankments throughout downland areas of Britain.


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Cowslip on Wye National Nature Reserve
© Natural England


But although now sadly a rare sight generally, cowslips are still plentiful on nature reserves such as Wye NNR managed by Natural England and there are many conservation projects encouraging the return of cowslips to their former habitats…


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Cowslips in a restored meadow on the north downs in Kent this week.
© Peta Rudduck


And, some say they are returning to road sides and motorway embankments. In gardens once established they will reward you by continuing to spread both vegetatively and by seed. Our own chalk downland and pond-side meadow habitats have been crowded with cowslips all month.


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Chalk downland, with cowslips, in the Garden.

© Jonathan Jackson


And there are still a few in bud in our meadow where the flowering has been delayed due to recent grazing (at the end of March our sheep were here for a short visit, to graze the too-lush grasses in the meadow).


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March grazing in the meadow
© Sue Snell


In rural areas cowslips were traditionally harvested to make wine which was also taken medicinally. They are rich in nectar and, in former times when cowslips were a common sight, children would pick flowers and sip the nectar. Here in our Wildlife Garden, the nectar is strictly for the bees and early butterflies including the brimstone. Cowslip is also the food plant of the rare Duke of Burgundy fritillary. Other insects benefit, including pollen beetles...


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A pollen beetle, Meligethes aeneus, pays a visit to a cowslip flower.
© Jonathan Jackson


Once cowslips are in bloom I feel that spring is really, truly here and although I want these beautiful flowers to last a little longer, there are now many seed heads amongst the blooms. Not so radiantly yellow, but it's good news for next year.


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Cowslip seed heads

© Jonathan Jackson


You can find out more about cowslips in folklore from Roy Vickery. If you are out and about this weekend and spot the violets of bluebells rather than the yellows of cowslips, do join in with the Museum's survey.


And at the end of May visit us here in the Garden and discover more about Britain's most common flower, the stinging nettle. Nettle Weekend is 31 May to 1 June. More on that soon...