Each month I lead a relaxed Sunday evening walk around the beautiful Grenoside Woods, we look at various aspects of tree and plant knowledge as well as some specific bushcraft knowledge. During June’s walk we had a couple of discussions which I wanted to summarise concisely here for those that attended, but also to those that haven’t been on a walk with us yet an insight into what we find when we’re wandering around.
One recurring theme that I mention while looking at plant identification is Family characteristics. By that I mean that often when learning about wild plants you’ll find examples of plants you’ve never noticed before, or don’t recognise and need a way of quickly narrowing down the potentially broad possibilities to a more manageable set of options. Knowing what certain plant families have as common traits means that even if you don’t know the exact species you're looking at, you can focus your search through just a few pages of a field guide instead of an entire book.
Case: Wood Sage (teucrium scorodonia)
We came upon this example in the woods in June, without it’s flowers yet it still caught our eye and we asked what it might be. As a group I previous introduced some of the key features of the Mint or Dead Nettle family, the Lamiacae: many in this family have a square stem, oppositely paired leaves growing in alternate sets. Often they are also quite aromatic. So in finding this example the group quickly narrowed our options to the mint family, and one of the group correctly suggested Wood Sage. Wood Sage has historically had some medicinal properties, though used sparsely across the UK, there are records of people using it to settle stomachs (as with other Mints) and as a treatment for Rheumatism.
Case: Figwort (Scrophularia)
We also found this example of a plant we didn’t at the time recognise for certain, so applying the same method we noted it’s square stem, opposite leaves in alternate pairs… however this one isn’t in the Dead Nettle/ Mint Family. So a bit of extra deduction was needed and here is where a field guide can be useful to search for similar plants. Here then we have Figwort, most likely Common Figwort S. Nodosa given it’s location. It’s similar sister Water Figwort S. Auriculata is very close in appearance (it has pronounced ‘wings’ at the corners of the stem which S. Nodosa lacks) and has historically in Ireland been used interchangeably with S. Nodosa for several medicinal practices. Water Figwort is mostly found in wet environments, such as beside rivers and stems and is why I’d be inclined to think our find of indeed the Common variety. The Figworts are widely used for skin conditions varying from Poultices applied to sores as the Native American Tribe Costanoan used, to our own Forebears in Devon collectively referring to the Figworts as ‘Poor man’s Salve’, where the roots have been ground into a powder and mixed with lard to produce an ointment for an array of skin conditions.
We’ve also been looking at Fireweed, Rosebay Willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium) and importantly how to tell it apart from other willowherbs before the flowers start to develop. Essentially only really comparable to Greater Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) and as the Latin name suggests the clue in hirsute: Greater Willowherb is Hairy! Soft and Downy. This can be true of many of the willowherbs, as they also hybridise with each other as well. Rosebay W. on the other-hand is hairless, and the stem is often reddish or ‘rosy’. Rosebay Willowherb will not hybridise with other willowherbs so stands alone as the ever useful: Fireweed.
To finish this summary of June’s walk then we were wondering about ants nests, and their structure. As we mentioned on the walk wood ants will situate their nests on the south facing sides of trees to make the most of the sun to warm them up at the start of the year when the morning can be quite cold. What we were wondering was whether wood ants followed the same nest building pattern of other ant species and built underground also: they do! Typically you’ll find however large the above section of the nest, there’ll be an equally large underground section. The whole structure is a maze of tunnels and chambers and the ants will move their larvae around these chambers to fine tune the temperature their held at to aid their development.
As I was discussing during the walk, a good source of fat and protein can be harvested of the ants nest in the form of these Larvae, and in research this further I found they’re a prized meal in Mexico often eaten at Easter, called Escamoles!
Next Month Walk is on 9th July, feel free to join us and we’ll take a walk in the woods to see how things are developing as we enter Summer.
Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition. David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield 2004
Native American Medicinal Plants. Daniel E. Moerman 2009
The wild flower key Francis Rose Updated Clare O’Reilly 2006