April 22, 2010
One of the advantages of not being able to drive is that, as a passenger, you notice more.
Over much of Kent I have witnessed a phenomenon this Spring. Along the many of the bare and ugly road-verges and central reservations of our A-roads and motorways dense, delicate pink or white coatings of low-growing flowers have appeared like stars in the Milky Way, where the previous year there were none. The continued and rapid spread of Early Scurvy-grass (Cochlearica danica) has been quite astonishing this year and the reason is simple; the hard Winter.
How? First of all it is a Northern species, so it doesn’t mind the cold, in fact it thrives within the Arctic Circle. Then it is a halophyte, a salt-loving plant and salt/gritting operations this winter were so extensive as to change the salinity of the roadside soil over hundreds of miles in a strip anything up to 3m wide. Early (or Danish) Scurvy-grass’s natural habitat is bare, sandy or gritty seashores but it is colonising far inland. I first encountered it on the hard shoulder of the M25 some years back (don’t ask). The salt burns away the natural vegetation leaving a bare strip, which the scurvy-grass and other maritime plants can and do colonise in a long linear fashion. However it has been noted that where bare soil leads away from the road edge but is no longer salty, the plants refuse to follow. Incredibly, the seeds appear to be dispersed in the slipstreams of motor vehicles and also in the mud attached to them. The Kent populations could have originated from the M25, though in truth lorries from all over the country and the rest of Europe pass through the county. In parts of the country it is colonising at a rate of over 30km per year.
The plant is rich in Vitamin C and like other members of its family, is so called because it if famously antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy). Scurvy still occasionally occurs in badly nourished people in Britain but the affliction used to be particularly common in sailors whose diet after a long time at sea lacked fresh fruit and vegetables and also in country people after a long winter without the same. Although symptoms could become severe and unpleasant (gradual weakening, pale skin, sunken eyes, tender gums, muscle pain, loss of teeth, internal bleeding, and the re-opening of old wounds), the restoration to health on Vitamin C rich plants was rapid.
The irony is that this immense new crop is likely to be so full of heavy metals and other roadside pollutants that it would do you far more harm than good. And that is without being mown down by a juggernaut when you stop to pick some.
April 11, 2010
Would you mistake the highly poisonous woodland plant, Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) for the edible, semi-aquatic Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga)?
In 1982, a 40 year old schoolmaster and his 39 year old wife did, with near-fatal consequences. They based their identification on a small black-and-white line illustration in the 1975 edition of Richard Mabey’s Food for Free.
In fairness to the book, the image, which in my opinion looks like Brooklime as intended, and not like Dog’s Mercury, was clearly never meant to be used for ID. There is no additional description or further detail. So why stake your life on it?
Well, enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of us. Every now and then the impatient desire to forage a free meal overrides a person’s knowledge or experience or powers of observation; the notion of a patient apprenticeship is exchanged for a steep learning curve.
Acquiring identification skills takes time and practise. If all you want to do is give something its correct name, there is no harm done if you later find out you were wrong. We all have to learn. When studying, a sound approach is to give your specimen (or perhaps a digital photo) a provisional identification that may one day be confirmed. Read the additional information in the text, and use all your senses. ID first then, perhaps eat it the following year after you have seen the plant in all stages and looked at it carefully. Training your eyes and brain to recognise subtle differences between things take time, and the keener we are sometimes the less we look. In fact, we carry preconceptions in our heads that can stop us seeing what is truly there.
This was brought home to me very strikingly recently. I had a display of Natural History items at a country event. Amongst them were several black ‘mermaid’s purses’, the egg cases of skates/rays that get washed up on the beach. Several times that day different people said to me ‘Those are bats’. Something black with vaguely hook-shaped appendages, no eyes, mouth, ears or any features at all, had defaulted to ‘bat’ in their minds and they looked no further until I pointed out their mistake.
We are probably all guilty of doing it to a greater or lesser extent but we should take special care whilst foraging. Dog’s Mercury has also been taken for Spearmint (Mentha spicata) (despite not smelling minty) and Fat Hen (Chenopodium album), amongst others. Compare the Brooklime and Dog’s Mercury in the photos. I hope they are helpful, but don’t base your breakfast on them.