Wednesday, 26 July 2006

Bedstraws delight

It would be fair to say that I am not much of a botanist. Although I can recognise a fair number of different plants, I have never put the time into learning how to identify them in the way that I have birds or beetles. As such, I have a great admiration for those botanists, like Alec Bull and Gillian Beckett, who have studied and mapped the distribution of our county’s flora (some 2,400 species) over many years.  My efforts tend to be opportunistic, in that I will sometimes spot a plant that catches my eye and then set myself the task of working out what it is. Over the years I have got to grips with a number of species, such that my morning walks in the forest are brightened by knowing the names of the various plants that flower alongside my regular routes. At the moment the forest rides are bordered with the greenish yellows of wild mignonette, the bold purples of viper’s bugloss and the dense yellow spikes of lady’s bedstraw. This last species is related to cleavers (known by some as “goosegrass” and by others as “sticky willie”), whose stalks and seeds catch on the dogs and take ages to brush out.

The yellow flowers of lady’s bedstraw have a strong scent of honey but, when dried, are said to smell of newly mown hay. The name itself comes from the old habit of including the plant in straw mattresses, notably those of women about to give birth. This was not the only use that lady’s bedstraw was put to.  Compounds within the plant have coagulant properties and it was used as a styptic to halt blood flow from wounds. Lady’s bedstraw was also reportedly used as a substitute for rennet in the production of cheese but modern attempts to use the plant in this way have proved unsuccessful.

Another species of bedstraw that holds an interest for me is wall bedstraw. This tiny plant (just five to 10 centimetres in height), is not exactly striking. In fact, it is very easy to overlook, even when you know where it grows. It is a nationally scarce annual found on bare ground and old walls, including the 12th Century nunnery ruins in Thetford ­– hence my knowledge of the species. The plant has always been scarce and over recent decades has declined even further as the open, infertile soils it favours have been ‘improved’ through the process of agricultural intensification and the old walls have been demolished or repaired. The choice of sites shows how intolerant of competition the species is and careful management will be needed to retain it within a changing environment. 

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