Local artist and wildflower practitioner Lora Aziz has helpfully identified some Chelmsford wildflowers from photos sent in by readers. Thanks for all your submissions! Here are her thoughts on them..
This Monday welcomed the midsummer solstice – the summer quarter point, the longest day, return of the dark. Marking the start of summer couldn’t be welcomed more with contributions from this month’s callout on Facebook for your photos of wildflowers around Chelmsford.
For many months going outdoors on daily walks has been many people’s solace, with people stumbling on scattered woodlands behind their house on their daily ramble, revealing to them the magic of the bluebells, wild garlic and flushes of spring primroses. People have a heightened appreciation for the meadows and fields which offer the joys of fragrant summer blossoms, wild roses, elderflower and clovers.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Act 2, Scene 1
During lockdown bedrooms have become offices. Gardens – and the areas within walking distance of home – have taken centre stage as wildlife watch-spots and gyms. Learning to observe and celebrate the subtleties along the hedgerows has been a growing trend. The hedgerow, is for me a defining feature of the British landscape and a familiar sight breaking up the shades of green and amber seen in the sky after a long trip abroad as the plane starts to come into land. It is estimated that there are half a million miles of hedgerows in England alone. It is so familiar, making up the backdrop to our everyday lives, we often take it for granted. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll see the diversity and variety of flowers, plants, animals and insects.
At this time of year, on the floor of the hedgerow baby hedgehogs are being born in a dug out shelter to be nursed by their mother whilst they are still spineless and blind. Badgers are making their appearances, as they make their day nests so that they can sleep above the ground in the warm weather. Campions, red clovers, common orchids and foxgloves are visited by bees crawling inside the flowers to get to the nectar emerging smothered in pollen! Hummingbird hawk moths and painted lady butterflies are also visiting the flowers this month.
The natural world has never been locked down, the sky is always above and the earth firmly below inviting us to connect to that which is around us – watching the dandelion in the crack blossom and then seed on the way to the shops has been quite the activity! The plants that were photographed are found in various habitats, and are to your surprise happy in cities, inhabiting waste land, parks and cracks in paving.
Ox eyed daisy
Ox eyed daisy is a larger relative of the common humble daisy, and shares many of its virtues! The name daisy derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘day’s eye’, from the way the flowers open up with the heat of the sun. Unlike the common daisy, the ox-eye daisy stays open at night too, one of ox-eye’s old names was moonflower. Like many wildflowers, it likes scrubby soils. The flowers can grow up to one meter or more. It has similar qualities to chamomile, and you can try drinking it as a tea. They also make a good addition to salads, or try them sauteed!
Plantain is a plant now regarded primarily as a weed by most people. It is a perennial plant, with ridges along its long leaves. It has a little stub of seeds that sit on top of the long stem that peek out above the grass top. They live in lawns, fields, cracks, all over the show, really! People use all sorts of poisons to try to get rid of these most humbly resilient and very nutritious plants! Plantain flowers have abundant seeds, which can be harvested and used in various dishes. I like to prepare them on a dry pan and enjoy their nutty flavour in some homemade crackers or bread. The green leaves when young are a great addition to your summer salads, or you can steam and roast them too!
Elderflower is the British barometer that tells us summer has arrived. The superstitions associated with the Elder throughout time are quite the read! It was considered severe bad luck to fell an Elder tree as it is home to the unforgiving Elder Mother. Every part, flowers, berries, leaves, bark – and even the soil it grows in and any spring that passes its roots – has been used for ailments of many kinds. I adore the elder for its flowers and juicy burgundy berries. In the summer, we can enjoy a refreshing elderflower cordial, sorbet or champagne and in the winter I have made an elderberry balsamic vinegar, elderberry wine and a sweetened cough syrup.
The tree is easy to recognise, though a few species such as the Wayfaring Tree or Hogweed may be tricky to separate for the beginner. If you are uncertain, the smell of the flowers will be the biggest telling: they are sweet, rich and heady. Only pick open flowers in the sunshine as it is the sun that activates the sweet smell.
There are some 500 speedwell, Veronica officinalis, species worldwide, with about 27 in the British isles, nine of which are considered to be common. The name bears an old meaning of ‘thrive’ or ‘get better’, as in ‘God speed’. The more formal ‘Veronica’ derives from the Latin vero and eikon meaning true image. John Parkinson (1640) ascribed strong ‘virtues’ to the speedwell family, “as a singular good remedy for the Plague, and all Pestilentiall Fevers”. By the 19th century the medicinal interest in speedwell declined and was mostly used in a tea substitute in France as ‘thé d’Europe’, a preference over black tea!
There is so much to share, and an article could have been written on each photographed plant alone. A whole world awaits you. It can begin by just committing to look outside your window each day and I invite you to take a closer look if you can! Although of the plants explored are very commonplace, it’s important that we respect them. There is a responsibility that comes with gathering wild plants, and if you do harvest some elder or ox-eyes never pick the flowers up by the roots and always leave plenty for the birds and bees. Never take too much from one area. Treat the earth well!
Through her current project Wyrd Flora, Lora practices connecting through the living natural world with fellow artist and partner Marley. Their practice embraces interests in herbal art, explorative foraging, wild foods and plant medicine. Together they transpose their experiences by retelling, researching and reviving the wisdoms of the environment. They invite and encourage others to join artist-led foraging workshops and application of foraged materials in traditional and digital practice.