For the past couple of weeks my front garden has been over-run with a plant that has long leaves, a prickly stem and pretty blue flowers.
Someone told me it was comfrey. I hoped it was, because comfrey has plenty of medicinal uses, according to Culpeper's Complete Herbal, but the shape and colour of the flowers didn't look quite right.
After dusting off wildflower books and browsing the internet, my suspicions were confirmed. The leaves are a bit like comfrey, but it definitely isn't.
If you are going to use wildflowers from you garden for culinary or medicinal purposes, it is vital to know what you are eating. Make a mistake and you could poison yourself.
There are some good reference websites to help identify plants. One I use is: www.botanicalkeys.co.uk/flora/ which is run by the Botanical Society of the British Isles. It has a questionnaire on the characteristics of the plant you are trying to identify and then gives suggestions. In this instance, although it offered several possibilities, none seemed quite right.
I spent a while browsing websites with pictures of flowers, but I still couldn't find my plant. The flowers were darker than forget-me-nots, had less white on the petals than blue-eyed Mary and although the leaves looked slightly like borage I was certain it wasn't that.
I eventually turned to a gardening forum, http://www.complete-gardens.co.uk/forum/register.php?do=addmember, which has a page specifically for plant identification. Members post pictures of their mystery plants and any information they might have for others to comment on. I quickly got a reply identifying my plant as green alkanet.
Green alkanet was imported into Britain hundreds of years ago for use as a dye. It was particularly cultivated by monasteries because the roots of the plant produce a rich red that is ideal for ecclesiastical cloth. Its religious connections may go back as far as ancient Egypt where priestesses are said to have used it as a hair dye.
The plant has no known medicinal purposes but it may be edible. One elderly man told me that he remembers the young top leaves being boiled as a type of spinach when he was a child. He admitted it tasted foul and I wouldn't like to recommend it.
Green alkanet is particularly invasive in gardens. It has long and tenacious roots. If you let it go to seed you will end up with a garden full of it. It is also rather prickly and can sting like nettles.
However, green alkanet is also full of nitrogen. So, unless you fancy dying all your clothes red, the best thing to do is dig it up and take it to your local council green waste recycling centre.
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