Friday, 16 May 2008

Identifying wildflowers

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.

For more information:
www.botanicalkeys.co.uk/flora/
http://herbaria.plants.ox.ac.uk/vfh/image/index.php
www.rhs.org.uk/Learning/Research/Horticultural_Themes/plantid.htm
www.floralocale.org/
www.nhm.ac.uk/fff/index.html
www.complete-gardens.co.uk/forum/index.php
www.expertgardener.com/article/plant-identification
www.bibliomania.com/2/1/66/113/frameset.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_alkanet

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you badwitch, I've been trying to identify this pervasive but not unattractive plant that takes over my garden for years. Blessed be.

Anonymous said...

me too!! It's all over my garden and no matter how deep I dig nor how many roots I pull up - it still comes back. It really hurts as well because of all the tiny hairs on the leaves. I am pleased to finally identify it even if I still can't get rid of it!!!

Charlie said...

Green Alkanet is a different plant from the smaller Alkanet tinctoria or Dyers Bugloss!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentaglottis_sempervirens

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkanna_tinctoria

Pat said...

Yes - I have also just ID-ed this fella in our local fields. Very nice.

Carol said...

Round up is very effective but I don't like to use it. If you persevere you can get rid of it and it is far easier to dig up when it is small ( just 2 small leaves) but a good deep spade will get all the root out on larger plants

badwitch said...

Yes, the deep roots are easiest to get up when the soil is very damp wet too!

Just Is said...

This is a very valuable plant for caterpillars.Snails and slugs will also prefer them before they eat yoyr veggies. You can indeed make a tea off it.The plant has various purposes.I think it depends on the country you are in as the search engines differ from country to country.You can find more about the Green Alkanet in medical books.here is also a nuce link with little information in it. http://herbs-treatandtaste.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/alkanets-health-benefits-and-other-uses.html?m=1

Jasmine Lee Spicer said...

You should not cold compost the root or flower, otherwise your compost when made and spread about will sprout this weed everywhere it touches! The leaves are compostable. The bees adore the flower, so one way is to wait for the flowers, then cut off and compost all leaves. Allow the flower to remain for the bees. Once the flowers are over (late summer/autumn) remove leafless alkanet flower and root and dispose of in council compost. :) from Jasmine

Jasmine Lee Spicer said...

You should not cold compost flowers or roots, as when you spread compost the plant will grow everywhere it touches! The bees love the flower. One way is to cut all leaves and compost as they are great food for your heap. Leave flower (and root) intact for the bees. Once flowering season is over (late summer) remove leafless flower and root and dispose of in council compost as theirs gets hot and is therefore suitable. BB

Badwitch said...

You are quite correct Jasmine. I will correct the blog post

Anonymous said...

One way to is to make a liquid/feed compost by soaking the plant.

Donna said...

I was on Youtube and a British Man was talking about it. It's under a minute. He says some people cook the leaves but he does not recommend it. However he say he uses the flowers, but did not say what for. Can you eat the flowers of this plant, i.e put in Salads like you can with the leaves and flowers of Herb Robert???? Donna

Badwitch said...

Donna, I don't know - maybe someone else here will be able to answer your question about whether the flowers are edible.

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