Wildflowers on the Sussex Downs

Or a rambler’s ramblings…

The days of packing my gym bag each night in anticipation of an endorphin generating session in the circuits studio after work are firmly behind me.

Poppy looking at poppies on the Downs
Poppy looking at poppies on the Downs

These days my fitness requirements are much simpler and considerably less expensive. Every day I pack the baby into her car seat, grab my car keys and the Baby Bjørn sling (possibly the best baby buy I’ve ever made), and whistle up the dogs for an hour’s jolly up on the Downs.

We’re lucky enough to live only five minutes from six good walks – beach, river and hills – and some really excellent National Trust routes are only 15 minutes’ drive away.

Chalk paths leading to the top of Saddlescombe Farm walk, Sussex
All roads lead to Rome, or at least to the top of the hill...

One of our favourites (dogs included) is Newtimber Hill / Saddlescombe Farm opposite Devil’s Dyke. Less famous geographically than its hellishly steep neighbour, it offers rolling downland, interesting wooded areas and some rabbit infested gorse patches on an incline which really gets the heart beating!

However, it’s not just the variety of the terrain and the spectacular views over Sussex and out to sea that make this one of my favourite spots in the whole county, it’s the many different species of wildflowers that carpet the fields and hedges every spring and summer.

Earlier this month Poppy and I took our camera along with us to photograph every different type of flower we could see, and we were delighted with the results. Not just pretty pictures, but a wealth of botanical information as we carefully identified the different species we had found.

Here’s our top ten…

Speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys

Speedwell, veronica chamaedrys
The pretty blue flowers of Speedwell, veronica chamaedrys

 

Very common across British grasslands this variety of speedwell is a welcome sight each spring with its tiny, vivid blue flowers and almost furry leaves. Veronica is the largest genus in the Plantaginaceae family with about 500 species.

Although this variety can invade lawns and be hard to get rid of, other members of the Veronica family are a delight in the garden. It was only through researching for this blog that we discovered that what we had hitherto taken to be a Salvia nemorosa in our own garden is actually a Veronica longifolia! No matter what its name the bees still love it…

 

Daisy, Bellis perennis

Daisy, bellis perennis
The cheerful white & yellow daisy, bellis perennis

 

Who among us has not sat in the sunshine making daisy chains at some point in our lives? One of the most common English flowers, believe it or not the daisy is not actually a white flower with a yellow middle, in fact each white ‘petal’ is actually an individual flower and the yellow centre is made up of lots of tiny, individual yellow flowers too – every day’s a school day huh?

Daisies were used in traditional medicine thanks to their astringent properties. Roman army surgeons would order sacks of daisies to be collected and their juices extracted. Bandages would then be soaked in this juice to bind sword and spear wounds and stop bleeding.

 

Hawthorn, Cratageus

Hawthorn, cratageus
Frothy white hawthorn blossom

 

Another native species yet one shrouded in myth and folklore is the Hawthorn, or May tree. I’m sure we’re all familiar with its frothy white blossom in Spring, and its diminutive, bright red berries in Autumn, but did you know that people in England have used hawthorn branches as May Day (1st May) decorations for hundreds of years? Oddly though, since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 the tree is rarely in bloom before mid-May!

In Celtic lore, the hawthorn is said to heal broken hearts, but in Serbian and Croatian folklore it does just the opposite – it’s reputed to be the only timber from which you can make vampire slaying stakes…

 

Silverweed, Argentina Anserina

Looking sneakily like a buttercup, this is actually silverweed, argentina anserina
Looking sneakily like a buttercup, this is actually silverweed, argentina anserina

 

Often mistaken at first sight for the buttercup, Silverweed is actually a completely different plant which can be easily differentiated by its leaves which are silvery and slightly feathery. It is these leaves which give the plant its name.

Its root can be used to make a herbal tea which is said to aid delivery of a baby and to be helpful in treating an upset stomach.

A favourite food of cattle, horses, goats, pigs and geese, oddly enough, sheep won’t touch it…

 

White deadnettle, Lamium album

White deadnettle, lamium album
A pretty stand of white deadnettle, a bee favourite for their sweet nectar

 

Strangely these don’t seem to be as common I remember them from my childhood, but then maybe that’s just age playing tricks on me… However, I did spot several drifts of them as I was driving to Saddlescombe Farm and came across a particularly fine swathe of them at the bottom of the field.

Unlike their feisty cousin the stinging nettle, these are gentle and don’t sting at all. The young leaves are edible and good in salads, and can also be cooked and served as a spring vegetable. As a child I remember gently plucking the flowers and sucking the nectar from their stems…

 

Red Campion, Silene dioica

Red campion, silene dioica
The vibrantly pink flowers of the red campion blooming among the brambles

 

I always think this plant looks completely out of place in the wild as its garish colour seems far more suited to the herbaceous border. However, it really is a native of the hedgerows, woodlands and rocky slopes, along with its cousin the white campion.

The first part of its name, Silene, refers to Silenus, the drunken, merry god of the woodlands in Greek mythology. The second part of its scientific name, dioica, means ‘two houses’, and refers to the fact that each Red Campion plant has either all male or all female flowers so that two plants are needed to make seed.

The crushed seeds of red campion have been used as a cure for snakebites and the root, when simmered in hot water, can be used as a soap substitute.

 

Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris

Cow parsley, anthricus sylvestris
Cow parsley flower heads, nodding lazily beside a wooden fence

 

Cow parsley grows rapidly in the spring and its gently nodding clusters of white flowers are a common site on roadsides and along pathways. A relative of both parsley and carrots, cow parsley can be eaten although you wouldn’t necessarily want to do so as it’s quite bitter.

It has a plethora of alternative names throughout the northern hemisphere including Queen Anne’s Lace, Cow Mumble (love it!) and Grandpa’s Pepper in the UK. I also learned from reading James Alexander-Sinclair’s blog that in Norway it is called dog’s keks!

I haven’t been able to find references for many uses for cow parsley but some of these are as a natural mosquito repellent if rubbed on the skin, and to remove stones and gravel in the gall bladder and kidneys. If I were you I’d stick to feeding it to goats and using the stems as pea shooters like I did when I was little…

 

Red Comfrey, symphytum rubrum

Red comfrey, symphytum rubrum
The bell shaped flowers of the red comfrey are a delight for bees

 

Goodness knows how this ended up growing wild as it seems to be quite highly prized by gardeners, but we spotted it growing near the chalk pit at the bottom of Newtimber Hill.

Comfrey’s list of attributes is impressive in the extreme. Not only is it a recognised slug deterrent but thanks to its high levels of potash it also makes a fabulous natural fertilizer for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and potatoes. This comfrey tea is obtained by soaking the leaves in water for between 2 and 4 weeks and using the resulting ‘tea’ on the garden.

Medicinally it is known to be effective in healing wounds, broken bones, burns, sprains, sore joints, dry skin and for reducing the swelling associated with fractures.

 

Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris

Mugwort, artemisia vulgaris
Elegant, pale yellow spires of mugwort

Although it sounds like something straight out of Harry Potter, mugwort is actually a fantastically useful plant. Traditionally used to flavour drinks it has also been used as a tea substitute and is often used in continental Europe as stuffing for roast geese.

There are many superstitions associated with mugwort including its ability to protect from fatigue, sunstroke and even evil spirits.

Medicinally it is said to be a remedy for epilepsy and an infusion of the leaves and flowering tops is used to treat digestive problems.

A weak tea, similar to that made from red comfrey, is a good, all-purpose insecticide.

 

Red sorrel, Rumex acetosella

Red sorrel, also known as sheep's sorrel, rumex acetosella
Red sorrel had turned large areas of the ground a rusty red colour

I was intrigued to see that the ground stretching away from us at the top of the hill had turned a rusty red colour. As we got nearer I realised that this colour came from the plants growing thickly in this area.

Red sorrel, also known as sheep’s sorrel, is an important source of food for caterpillars of the small copper butterfly which native to the UK, and Poppy and I saw several of these pretty, fast flying insects on our walk.

One of the biggest challenges of this blog has been to find some useful information about these plants, aside from ‘it’s a weed’ and I think the only one I really failed with was the cow parsley although red sorrel came a close second. In the end, however, I was able to discover that with their lemony, tangy and slightly tart flavour, the leaves can be used (sparingly) in salads and also as a curdling agent for cheese.

Medicinally it seems to have several uses, primarily as a detoxifying herb as the juice of its leaves are an effective diuretic.

 

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