Sorry for the delay, I've been on holiday down in Dorset. But that did give me some great opportunities for taking phototgaphs of plants that are perhaps a little less common here.
A little reminder of what this blog series is about. We are surrounded by beautiful and amazing wild plants, and those who came before us understood that they had many amazing properties to heal and make us better. Some of that understanding was well founded but, sadly, the vast majority of it is now known to be cobblers and indeed many of those uses are outrageously dangerous.
So with no further ado, here's the second part in this series - plants pictured on holiday, by the Sea, in Dorset.
Vipers Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
I didn't need to go as far to photograph it, but it makes a magnificent display on top of the cliffs near Durdle Door at this time of year so I'm happy I did.
This is a glorious plant, it has sort of spiky leaves, but for me the stand out feature is blue pollen on red stamen filaments (the dangly 'male' bits int he flower). Its a glorious thing to see a mass of it in a field, although I gather it may be fairly invasive in parts of the world where it is an introduced species. Here in the UK we can simply enjoy it for what it is.
It thrives on chalky ground, and does extremely well on sand dunes. And it seems quite resistant to pollution, thriving in places like abandoned brick and cement works.
Its one of the borage family, but you shouldn't be putting flowers of this one in your Pimms. It contains a range of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that will destroy your liver over time. Although I should think the occasional flower might not be as dangerous as all that it isn't uncommon to have an adverse skin reaction from handling the spiky, hairy leaves. So it can ruin your liver and give you a rash - best not to touch it.
An interesting thing happens when the flowers fall and leave the seed pod behind. The pod itself is vaguely reminiscent of the shape of a snakes head, and from that we may perhaps have our first encounter with one of the most hilariously absurd concepts in herbalism. The Doctrine of Signatures.
A whole book could be written on this venerable and ancient nonsense. This pseudoscientific claptrap goes back at least as far as Dioscoridies and Galen, and has been supported by theologians and other quacks over milenna. The idea is that if something resembles a body part or something else, then clearly the purpose to which God or the Gods, or nature, or whatever other force you imagine intended it to be used for that. So the shape of liverwort leaves means it is meant to be used to treat liver problems. Lungwort might treat lung infections. And should you fall upon a fine specimen of Phallus impudicus one might suppose someone could be in store for a very interesting night.
Culpepper said it is the finest cure for any kind of venomous bite (it isn't), and related that Dioscoridies said that it would protect you from such bites (it won't). It had a range of other unremarkable claims associated with it, such as protecting against passions, tremblings or swoonings - the kind of thing charlatans love to say because it sounds good but doesn't mean anything.
Bluntly you shouldn't be using this plant to treat anything internally or externally. There is no evidence of efficacy, and it can be seriously poisonous. It is, however, quite beautiful. Leave it where it is.
And if you're bitten by a snake, call an ambulance.
And if you're bitten by a snake, call an ambulance.
Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)
Perhaps I'm easily pleased but of all the wild plants I find by the coast, this is one of my favourites. Its an incredibly variable plant, due to hybridisation with the innumerable cultivated cousins. Its basically the same plant as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, sprouts, broccoli and their huge variety of overlapping forms, and of course that breeding has impacted on the wild population. But to an extent the breeding of these plants must also be playing upon variability that exists in the genomes of wild plants. The wild cabbage I've found on cliffs in Dorset isn't the same plant as the cabbage growing on steep slopes by the steps up to Whitby Abbey. And the so-called Monks Cabbages of Tynemouth do not resemble those clinging to clifftops in Kent.
Its a fascinating plant. It grows a rosette of leaves in its first year, which are thicker and more succulent than those in any domestic variety. In its second year the store of nutrients in those leaves support a huge effort to produce flowers and seed. Opinion is split among foragers as to whether it should be gathered, and although to the best of my knowledge it has no specific legal protection, I would be cautious. Unless you know the site your're on and its history, leave it alone - how awful would it be if you were part of the decline of one of the very, very few truly wild sites. And in all honesty if you're by the coast you'll find plenty of other delicious wild edibles so that isn't a problem.
In herbalism, cabbages have been put to such a bewildering range of uses that, were they to all be true, it would be astonishing that anyone ever died at all. Culpepper had the most wonderful sentence "The cabbage or coleworts boiled gently in broth, and eaten, do open the body , but the second decoction doth bind the body". So it makes you shit and then stops you shitting? That doesn't seem entirely reasonable. It also stops you being drunk or sobers you up, cures kidney stones, resolves menstrual problems, protects against consumption, cures scabs, I mean the list of things it can do is amazing. Even if you've got sore joints, burn a cabbage and mix the ash with pig fat before rubbing it on.
Eating cabbage was more or less universal in Britain until very, very recently. Indeed cabbage and kale formed such an important part of our diet that parts of cities were given over to the cultivation thereof, and for much of the year one might be subsisting on potages containing kale, withered root vegetables, grain and little else. Yet people suffered from all of those ailments. It doesn't work.
Cabbages, in all their forms, remain a wonderfully useful and healthy foodstuff. But don't be fooled - they aren't a herbal panacea. Wild or otherwise.
Birds Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
And like most ubiquitous wild plants it has found many herbal uses over the years. And they're all bad, without exception. Like most very common plants it seems to cure nearly everything, including anxiety, depression, insomnia - all things that are hard to measure so are great claims for disreputable charlatans to make. But the use that really should worry you is that some herbalists recommend its use for tachycardia - thats rapid heart rate, to you and me.
Lets assume you've got a fast resting heart rate - you're sitting, feeling uncomfortable and your heart is going a mile a minute. You could go to a doctor but instead you look at an online herbal site and it tells you that a tea made from this plant will help. I've got that outside, you think, so you go and gather it in and put the kettle on. What you haven't been told is that the plant contains a significant concentration of cyanogenic glycosides. Its a big scary phrase, right? Well what it means is simple enough 'cyanogenic' means it makes cyanide, 'glycoside' is single sugar molecule. It contains variants of sugars that when metabolised make cyanide. Or in other words as this plant is crushed up and gets into you, you make cyanide out of it. And now things are going to get a bit nasty.
Once you've got cyanide in you, histotonic hypoxia comes next. That means the enzyme you have that has the job of making ATP, which you need for everything where you spend energy, can't do its job, cyanide stops it. You can't now use oxygen to make ATP, and your cells respond as if they're hypoxic - and your heart starts beating faster to make up the shortfall. But that doesn't help, you aren't really short of oxygen, you just can't use it...
The result? Well for most people, they get better in half an hour or so. Thats why you can eat some apple pips without it killing you, they also contain cyanogens. But lets be clear - giving a cyanogen containing tea to someone with an abnormally fast heart rate can very easily kill them. Don't do this. In fact don't do anything because a herbalist says so on the internet.