Great walk led by wildlife conservationist Daniel Greenwood yesterday (10.05.2014) starting in Dog Kennel Hill Wood and then onto wild Greendale. On the way back we took a look at the Dog Kennel Hill Meadow and Daniel named a few plants for me. Turns out those nettles that do not sting are called dead-nettles. He pointed out White dead-nettle which we have in abundance in the woodland borders and the meadow. I immediately recalled a similar oddity with bright yellow rather than white or red flowers. Daniel informs that that would be Yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon).
All of these are Mints. Yes, I was surprised when later in the day I looked this all up in the book my mother had given me on wild flowers (Field Guide to The Wild Flowers of Britain, Reader’s Digest 1981).
Nettles, those childhood stingers, are part of the English name for a plant with stinging hairs, particularly those of the genus Urtica. There are quite a few so named and even Cnidoscolus texanus, the Texas bull nettle. Not sure what that would sting like. However, the name is also used for dead nettle, blind-nettle or dumb nettle. They don’t sting thus the names are clear in intent. The Common nettle (Urtica dioica) causes stings when touched with the top of each hair on the stem breaking off and releasing an acid which causes a painful rash.
Bane and friend this plant has been both an instrument of torture and used for cloth, food and medicine. Fabric made from nettle stems dates back to the Bronze age and seems to have been used for both table cloths and bed-linen, even until quite recently.
I am looking forward to when we can get some Yellow archangel established as dead or dumb-nettles are a common feature of waste and cultivated land and yellow archangel a much rarer plant of woodlands and hedgerows.
September 29th is the day traditionally dedicated to the Archangel Michael and all of these related plants are still in flower at this time. White dead-nettle (Lamium album) and Red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum) for this reason are also known as Red and White archangel. There is a magic in any close examination of the flower and great wings of an archangel can be imagined with ease.
Bees love dead-nettle as they find a copious supply of nectar at the bottom of the flower tube. Indeed, this plant is a most important food plant of bees, particularly early in the year, before most other nectar-producing plants flower.
Early on red and white dead-nettle are very similar in appearance but when the flowers appear there is no mistaking which is which. Both were used boiled and eaten as pot-herb and had a range of medicinal uses. Two other dead-nettles are to be found in England. Henbit dead-nettle (Lamius amplexicaule) and Spotted dead-nettle (Lamium maculatum).
Mints have fun names – Gipsywort, Water mint, Corn mint, Marjoram, Wild thyme, Basil thyme, Will basil, Wild clary, Selfheal, Black horehound, Hedge woundwort, Hemp-nettle, Skullcap, Wood sage, Bugle and Ground-ivy. This last like the true ivy remains green all the year and until the introduction of hops in the 16th century was a vital ingredient in brewing ale. In Yorkshire and the West Country this use is recalled in the name “alehoof”. Gill-ale and gill-tea was sold in London by street vendors as a cold and cough cure. In my gifted book pages 210 and 211 show Common nettle and Hop (Humulus lupulus) side by side.
Another noted discovery was of large amounts of Green alkanet. For years this has always been identified to me as Borage. Thanks to my new boon companion of a book it was clear this common mistake needed correction.
Borage (Borago officinalis) flowers have narrow pointed petals and conspicuous black stamens. Green alkanet (Pentaglotiss sempervirens) has five blue rounded petals and the whole flower is funnel-shaped with a center of five white scales.