20 plant friends I found
The following section of the book is the result of my own local exploration with a camera, cataloguing and researching what grows around where I live and learning about its traditional and modern relationship with people. I have put it here to inspire you to go out into nature around you, the garden, the fields, meadows, woods, hedgerows, even city ‘wastelands’ – what a misnomer that is – and see what plants you can find and come to know. I challenge you here to go out and find just 20 useful plants growing around where you live, and learn about them and maybe even come to help them survive and integrate them into your life!
Buttercup. Ranunculus acris.
Only the fresh plant is poisonous but homeopathic extracts have been used for skin diseases, rheumatism, sciatica, arthritis and rhinitis, with properly informed supervision. Also known as Gold Cups, Gold Knobs, Crow Foot and Butterflowers as the strength of the yellow reflection of the flower on skin is supposed to indicate a love of butter. Flower language attributes the Buttercup with ‘Radiance’ – “What golden beauty is yours”. Spending time with buttercups certainly gives me a warm feeling through their glowing colour.
Cherries were first brought to Britain by the Romans and were being grown here by 50 AD according to Pliny. In natural medicine cherries have cleansing properties, helping to remove toxins and supporting the kidneys. They have a mildly laxative function that helps to lower uric acid levels. Although the picture below is of ornamental Cherry blossom it is still possible to find Wild Cherries and if you can get them before the birds they can make Wild Cherry Brandy, Wild Cherry Soup and Wild Cherry Wine. In the language of flowers to give Cherry Blossom means: ‘Increase’ – “To the ripening of our friendship”. At its best Cherry blossom is a thing of wonder.
Cinquefoil. Potentilla reptans.
This wildflower has been used as an antispasmodic and astringent. It is a useful short-term remedy for diarrhoea and is said to be good for cramps and some cases of dysentery. Gerard states “The decoction of the roots held in the mouth doth mitigate the paine of the teeth”. In flower language the gift of Cinquefoil means: ‘Sisterly affection’ – “I regard you as a brother”.
Dandelion. Taraxacum officinale.
The roasted roots of this incredily useful plant make a delicious coffee substitute with beneficial diuretic qualities and the Japanese cook them as a vegetable. The young leaves are refreshing in a salad but the plant will also make wine, beer or ‘nitsuke’ (sautéed greens). Highly prized as a treatment for kidney, liver and circulatory disorders. Said to disperse acidic deposits from joints and help arthritis. A truly versatile plant but don’t give the flower to your lover as it means ‘absurdity’ – “Your pretensions are ridiculous”. It flowers early in the spring and gives the bees early food. You can taste the sweetness in the flower by sucking the base of an extracted petal (if the plant is out of ‘dog reach’). I have made dandelion flower wine a couple of times and it can be delicious, like a Retsina.
The name derives from ‘dent de lion’ – lion’s teeth – because of the shape of the leaves. Highly prized as a treatment for kidney, liver and circulatory disorders. Dandelion is said to disperse acidic deposits from joints and help arthritis. Also known as ‘Clock Flower’ or ‘Fairy Clocks’ because you can tell the time from how many breaths it takes to blow all the seeds off! The milky sap that comes from the stem of a dandelion works well on some warts, pimples and spots; a truly versatile plant. It is such a shame that so many people view such a ‘medicine chest’ of alternative uses as basically a weed, and seek to destroy it with poisons. Edible weeds often contain more nutrition than the foods you can buy in a supermarket!
Dog Rose. Rosa canina.
The biggest of the British wild roses and the bushes can grow large. The rose hips carry a large amount of vitamin C and are beneficial in teas, wines and syrups. In Sweden a soup made from rose hips is a popular winter dish. Myth has this flower originally called the ‘Dag Rose’ due to its dagger-like thorns, in the language of flowers it symbolises pleasure mixed with pain. ‘Roses of all flowers embody the deep mystery of life: thorns and sorrows and glowing joys’. ‘Maidenly beauty’ – “You are fair and innocent as this flower”. The subtext is clear even in such an archaic way of relating.
This Common Briar Rose has immune system boost written all over its hips. Its tonic effect boosts immunity to colds and influenza and it contains proanthocyanidines with a protective antioxidant effect. Because the petals are quite fine they can be used in a number of ways. Eat them raw in salads but for fun why not try making: rose wine, rose in brandy, rose and coconut candies, Turkish Delight, rose drops, rose water, crystallised rose petals or rose petal jelly. In the Middle East, rose petal jam is a popular delicacy.
The use of Echinacea has an established history as a useful immune booster. It was used originally by North American Plains Indians who named it ‘Elk Root’ after observing Elks eating it when they were wounded or sick. Although the Plains Indians used it for a range of treatments such as painkilling, sore throats, coughs and headaches its general use now is as a cold remedy, although it finds many other uses. Trials have shown that taking this herb can reduce the risk of catching some colds (there are over 200 sorts) and improve recovery times, especially when taken with vitamin C.
Echinacea contains phenols with antioxidant properties and alkamides which have an effect on the immune system. It also contains polysaccharides, glycoproteins, and caffeic acid derivatives. As a complex compound with several active ingredients working in synergy it has researchers, used to testing the efficacy of single active ingredients, somewhat baffled as to how it works. It is thought that taking Echinacea for short periods of time helps to increase disease-fighting Natural Killer Cells by stimulating Interferon production in the body.
It is also a beautiful plant to have in the garden. Bees and butterflies seem to adore it and put on a display that lasts into autumn. The roots of plants over four years old are most often used in tinctures, extracts and powders and make a most useful addition to the household natural pharmacopiea.
Evening Primrose. Oenothera biennis.
A 17th century garden escapee from North America, the remarkable soothing properties of this plant are well known. The whole plant is edible and has a stimulating effect on the liver, spleen and general digestion. In the past the whole root was boiled and eaten. This plant is rich in polyunsaturated fats and can help new nerve sheaths to rebuild. It is used in the herbal treatment of Multiple Sclerosis. The language of flowers says ‘mute devotion’ – “Humbly, I adore you”.
Fennel. Foeniculum vulgare.
Fennel has been traditionally used for eye complaints, to induce sleep, aid digestion and to help nursing mothers express milk. Gerard says: “The pouder of the seed of Fennell drunke for certain daies together fasting preserveth the eye-sight”. The aniseed-like flavour is excellent for dispelling wind and has a calming effect on bronchitis and coughs. It also helps to stimulate an appetite. All parts of the plant help with the digestion of fatty meats such as lamb or oily fish such as mackerel.
You can add the leaves to salads and as a garnish with fish, potato, eggs, lamb and mutton, pork and ham or use it in a herb butter. The seeds are used in both bread and fruit dishes. Fennel is a herb with long historical use. The Romans cultivated it for seed and would put the herb under their loaves while cooking to add flavour. They would also take roasted seed to chew on long marches to prevent acidity on the stomach. I often add powdered fennel seed to my bread mix as it gives a delicious flavour and increases the bread’s digestibility. Anglo Saxons used it in both cooking and medicine and it has been used in obscure rituals to dispel evil spirits and counter witchcraft.
Feverfew. Chrysanthemum parthenium.
Feverfew is an escapee from cultivation that has small groups of daisy-like flowers. It is known to help with migraine headaches that benefit from warmth to the head. It was once so respected it was planted near homes to ward-off disease. The active constituents contain anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, vasodilatory and relaxant properties. In lover’s flower language it means: ‘Protection’ – “Let me shield you”. It is a useful plant to have in the garden as hover flies like it and they are a natural predator to many insects. According to Gerard “Feverfew dreed and mad into pouder, and two drams of it taken with honey or sweet wine, purgeth by siege melancholy and flegme: whereforeit is very good for them that are giddie in the head … melancholike, sad, pensive and without speech”.
Foxglove. Digitalis purpurea.
Nowhere is the link between herbalism and modern medicine more obvious than with ‘Folk’s Gloves’, ‘Fairy Fingers’, ‘Fairy Gloves’ or ‘Finger Flowers’ and other names by which it was known.
This plant contains the glycosides that make a heart drug. Even touching it can cause rashes, headaches and nausea in some people. Don’t use it without medical supervision. In the language of flowers it says ‘shallowness’ – “You are not really in love”. There are many stands of wild foxgloves in Cornwall where I live and I let them self seed around the garden as the bees love them.
Fragrant Valerian. Valeriana officinalis.
One of my favourite plants. In the language of love the gift of Valerian means: ‘merit in disguise’ – “Conscious of my lowliness, I aspire nonetheless to wed you”. Valerian had a reputation for its mystic power of disturbing the sexual desires and maidens would carry a small piece about their person in the hope that the smell might attract a lover. There is certainly something a bit ‘musky’ about the aroma of this plant. This plant was once known as ‘Phu’ for these qualities. Also known as ‘Cat’s Valerian’ because cats seem to like the smell and will actually dig-up and play with bits of the roots, helping the plant to spread. Rats too are attracted by the smell and it was once used by rat catchers.
Another plant once named ‘All-heal’, Valerian is a useful sedative herb, it is often a component of ‘sleepytime’ teas and the like. Gerard says the dry root was put into concoctions and “counterpoysons and medicines preservative against the pestilence”. It is a hypnotic, anti-spasmodic, hypotensive and carminative. It is used to reduce tension and anxiety over hysteria or over-excitability. As an anti-spasmodic it aids colic or cramps and helps with pain associated with tension. Frequent or prolonged use may lead to the symptoms of poisoning. The flower heads have a delightful aroma of chocolate along with something something a bit earthy.
Greater Stitchwort. Stellaria holostea.
One of the commonest hedgerow flowers, with the largest flower of the Stitchworts. Its petals are more separated than in the Lesser Stitchwort. When a wildflower has the designation ‘wort’ in its common name it is an indication that the plant had a common folk-medicine use. This plant was once known as ‘All-bone’. Gerard claims “They are wont to drink it in wine with the pouder of Acornes, against the paine in the side, stitches, and such like”.
Hairy Violet. Viola hirta.
This is a scentless relation to the Sweet Violet and the Field Pansy and other species of the genus Violacea. The Sweet Violet is well known for its crystallised flower candies and the plant has long associations as a cough remedy useful for bronchial problems. It is also gaining reputation as a useful herb in an holistic approach to cancer. In Switzerland it has been used to treat Angina Pectoris. The language of flowers says, for Sweet Violet and its heart-shaped leaves: ‘Modesty’ – “Pure and sweet art thou”. Its association with love was so strong it was considered unlucky to take just a single Violet flower into the house.
Hawthorn Berries. Cratoegus oxyacantha.
Once known as ‘bread and cheese’ the young leaf shoots of the Hawthorn were a country child’s early taste of wild food. The hawthorn was once regarded as a holy tree and to cut one down was asking for trouble from the supernatural. There are many myths and legends surrounding it. The fruit is used as a tonic for the heart muscles and its use dissolves gristly matter in arteries that leads to arteriosclerosis. It is also used in the treatment of insomnia. The berries make a wonderful fruit jelly or a ‘fruit leather’ that can be stored for quite a while! The language of flowers says ‘Hope’ – “Despite your answer, I shall strive to win your love”.
Herb Robert. Geranium robertium.
The Robert after which this wild flower is named is not recorded. It has its own unique aroma and sometimes appears bright red – earning one of its names as ‘Dragon Blood’. Its leaves have a unique pattern and have been used for astringent purposes as a poultice. It has found treatment for diarrhoea, gastritis, enteritis, gout and blood haemorrhage. In the language of flowers it says ‘steadfast devotion’ – “I am your slave”. The leaves have a visually interesting texture and I have used them in artwork as a mask to spray through.
Lady’s Smock. Cardamine pratensis.
Also known as ‘Cuckoo Flower’ this common plant is found in damp places in early summer. The name relates to the perfect lilac colour of the flower, which ranges to white. The leaves have a strong, hot flavour like Watercress and can be used (sparingly) in salads or sandwiches, although its much nicer to just leave them as this is another wild plant in decline due to habitat loss..
Primrose. Primula officinalis.
Primrose is a favourite wildflower with many people. Disraeli was particularly fond of this flower and his birthday (April 19th) was once called ‘Primrose Day’. The name comes from ‘Primus’ meaning ‘first’ as it is an early flower. In the language of flowers Primrose means ‘Dawning love’ – “I might learn to love you”. Poets haven given much time to writing about Primroses.
Primroses were once used to dress corpses and strewn onto graves and for this association it was thought dangerous to bring less than 13 flowers into the house if picking them. The flowers make a delicious country wine. The Primrose is considered useful as a blood purifier for gouty or rheumatic pain due to contaminated blood. The leaves have been made into ointment for skin problems and a decoction of the rootstock is a good expectorant for lung problems. Some people are allergic to Primrose though and should avoid any treatments containing it.
Gerard observes; “The roots of Primrose stamped and strained and the juice sniffed into the nose with a quill or such like, purgeth the brain and qualifieth the pain of the megrim!” I bet it does! Oh the pain of the megrim.
Lesser Celandine. Ranunculus ficaria.
One of the earliest and cheeriest spring flowers appearing like burnished golden stars. Its roots are a haemorrhoid shape and once used for their treatment according to the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’.
It was once known as Pilewort and used as a cream, ointment or suppository. It has astringent and soothing properties which are attributed to its saponin content. It also contains a severe internal irritant called protoenemarin. In the language of flowers, giving Lesser Celandine means ‘Reawakening:’ – “Let this harbinger of spring tell you of my love”.
Meadowsweet. Filipendula ulmaria.
This plant loves damp places and thrives along the river. Its cream-coloured, fragrant flowers are like stands of candyfloss along the banks of rivers. Along with Watermint and Vervain, Meadowsweet was a sacred herb of the Druids. Legend has it that it is unlucky to bring it into the house – the scent might promote a sleep from which the sleeper might never wake and the plant has associations with death somewhere along the line. Despite this it was Gerard’s favourite strewing herb: “The leaves and floures far excell all other strewing herbes, for to deck up houses, to straw in chambers, halls and banqueting houses…it maketh the heart merrie!”
Meadowsweet is a gentle astringent and one of the best remedies for intestinal problems as it protects and soothes the mucous membranes of the digestive tract, reducing acidity. It has been used in the treatment of heartburn, hyperactivity, gastritis and peptic ulceration.
One of its old names ‘Courtship-and-matrimony’ refers to the difference in smell before and after it is crushed, from ‘warm and heady’ to rather ‘clinically sharp’. Another name ‘Meadwort’ shows its slightly honey flavour was used in place of honey to make mead when supplies were low. The language of flowers rather surprisingly says: ‘Uselessness’ – “I look for a lover who is more than something merely decorative”.
All of these plants, and many more share a long and intimate history with humankind – get to know them!