THE LAST of the Wakefield Naturalists’ summer field meetings; this morning we take a leisurely stroll around Walton Colliery Country Park, an area which is as botanically rich as any that I know in the area. There’s waterside, remnants of waste-ground and heathy slopes which will become woodland before too long unless they’re managed to keep their open aspect.
I’m not going to have the time to draw so I take the camera and the copy of the Collins Gem Guide to Wild Flowers which we keep in the glove box of the car. I found myself influenced by my 1972 diary illustrations in this dip pen and watercolour sketch.
When the group comes across a tricky flower half a dozen of us compare descriptions in our different field guides.
Melilot and Memory
For example we have to decide between two tall yellow members of the Peaflower Family; Ribbed Melilot and Tall Melilot. The Gem Guide points out that Ribbed has ‘hairless brown seed-pods’ while Tall has ‘downy black seed-pods’. I take a small piece home – it’s a common plant here – and photograph it under the microscope.
There are a few sparse microscopic hairs on the seed-pods but I’d hardly call these downy, so I’m plumping for Ribbed Melilot, Melilotus officinalis.
‘Officinalis’ means that this species was reputed to have a medicinal use; Culpeper tells us that ‘A plaster made of this herb boiled in mutton-suet, wax and rosin, is drawing, and good for green wounds’. He also recommends it for inflammation, tumours and as an eye drop ‘to take away the film that dims the sight’. Washing the head in distilled water of the herb will ‘strengthen the memory’.
Members of the Peaflower Family have nodules on their roots containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Accessing extra nutrients seems to be a theme of the plants on the grassy trackside; Red Bartsia, Odontites verna, a member of the Figwort Family, goes for a more direct approach in grabbing nutrients; it is semi-parasitic, tapping into the roots of other plants.
You can probably guess the use that Culpeper suggests for Common Fleabane, Pulicaria dysenterica, a plant of damp, grassy places: ‘The smell of this . . . is supposed delightful to insects, and the juice destructive to them, for they never leave it till the season of their deaths.’
I last recorded Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine, in my diary for 10 August 2000 on the nature trail at Collier Wood, the now defunct and much-missed picnic site in County Durham. None of our group remembers having seen it here at Walton Colliery Country Park before but it seems to be establishing itself as we see a second small colony of it later on our walk on a semi-shady woodland edge.
Helleborines are members of the Orchid Family.
It’s useful to go on a wild flower walk with a group because other people will point out details that you might miss. I don’t recall having noticed that some of the white umbels of Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, have a few red flowers at the centre.
Branched Bur-reed, Sparganium erectum, has flower-heads that resemble a spiked medieval weapon. It’s an aquatic plant, growing in a water-filled ditch at the park amongst reedmace, Purple Loosestrife and Yellow-flag Iris (see top picture).