365 Days of Botany: Week 4

Day 22: Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

Feverfew, Tanacetum partheniumA member of the daisy family with pale green, pinnatifid leaves, the distinctly daisy-like flowers of T. parthenium are held in clusters. The plant itself often resembles a small bush (approximately 70cm) and can be found, often in abundance, in urban areas where it utilises bare and cultivated ground to spread rapidly – much to the dismay of gardeners.

Native to the Balkan Penninsula and Anatolia, the species can now be found right across Europe, as well as in North America and Chile, its spread thought to be attributed to its tenacity as a weed, and its supposed medicinal properties.

This species has long been thought of as a healing herb and traditionally, has been used to treat ailments as diverse as migraine, toothache and insect bites.

Fun fact: the word “feverfew” derives from the Latin word febrifugia, meaning fever reducer.

Day 23: Hazel (Corylus avellana)

Hazel, Corylus avellanaThe male flowers, or catkins, of this abundant deciduous shrub are familiar to many; though the tiny, pink female flowers are less obvious. Emerging in early spring, these lurid, star-shaped blooms are a real delight for those who take the time to seek them out.

C. avellana needs little introduction. A cornerstone of British woodlands, later in the year it sports heart-shaped green leaves with serrated margins. A long-lived species, especially when coppiced, its stems are incredibly flexible – perhaps explaining its traditional use in fencing and to create hurdles.

Fun fact: the Gaelic word for hazelnut, cno, is similar to the word for wisdom, cnocach. This highlights the long association of this species with knowledge and inspiration.

Day 24: Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)

Herb Robert, Geranium robertianumA low-growing perennial familiar to many as a plant of gardens, woodland and verges, G. robertianum boasts pretty, pink flowers that can be observed year-round. Its stems are reddish in colour, while its deeply divided, lobed leaves also sport a reddish hue late in the season. When crushed, these emit an unpleasant odour which, to my untrained nose at least, is reminiscent of dirty washing.

Another plant with a rich history of medicinal use – this is becoming a trend for 365 Days of Botany – this petite member of the Cranesbill family was used in history to restore liver function and repel biting insects.

Fun fact: the name ‘Herb Robert’ is a reference to abbot and herbalist, Robert of Molesme.

Day 25: Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

Gorse, Ulex europaeusIt’s hard to mistake Gorse. A spiny, evergreen shrub with an uncanny ability to puncture both clothing and flesh, it’s solitary yellow flowers can be seen throughout the year and emit a delightful, coconut smell synonymous with spring days. A member of the pea family, the ripe fruits of U. europaeus are a typical legume (pod) known to rupture on warm days, ejecting the small, black seeds and aiding in the plants spread. These seeds are known to stay viable in the environment for thirty years or more.

Native to the British Isles, Gorse has proven itself a damaging invasive species elsewhere around the globe and has established itself in North America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. In the latter, it was introduced deliberately as a form of hedging but rapidly spread to problem proportions due to a lack of natural predators. A familiar story, I hear you say.

Fun fact: until recently, Gorse was an incredibly useful plant in the UK; used as fodder for animals, to create chimney brushes and as fuel for bread ovens.

Day 26: Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis)

Dog's Mercury, Mercurialis perennisA low-growing plant synonymous with spring, M. perennis often carpets vast areas of the forest floor – spreading rapidly with the aid of its underground rhizomes. Sporting spear-shaped, serrated green leaves carried on upright stems, this plant is a bit of a stinker and emits a foetid odour reminiscent of decay. This is due to the presence of trimethylamine, a compound that gives off an aroma not dissimilar to rotting fish. This is a good example of a dioecious species, meaning that separate male and female plants are present.

Not so fun fact: this species is highly poisonous and, when ingested, can lead to vomiting, jaundice and even comma.

Day 27: Yew (Taxus baccata)

Yew, Taxus baccataThe second tree to feature in 365 Days of Botany this week and another familiar to many from woodlands, hedgerows and, of course, churchyards. An evergreen tree growing to 20m or more, T. baccata is famed for its longevity, with some specimens reaching over 1000 years of age. Indeed, the Fortingall Yew in Scotland is estimated to be around 3000 years old, making it one of the oldest trees in Britain.

All parts of the Yew, with the exception of its bright red fruit, are known to be toxic, and over the centuries, there have been numerous fatalities as a result of Yew poisoning. Despite its toxic reputation, however, a chemical found in yew – taxol – has been found to have anti-cancer effects. These chemicals have since been synthesised and are now being used in the treatment of breast, ovarian and lung cancers. See here for more top facts about Yew.

Fun fact: Yew wood is extremely hard-wearing and as a result, was used frequently during the Middle Ages to make the renowned English Longbow – a weapon that helped the English win many historic battles.

Day 28: Heath Groundsel (Senecio sylvaticus)

Heath Groundsel, Senecio sylvaticusA new species for me, S. sylvaticus is a groundsel of acid soils – often found in upland areas where the more familiar Common Groundsel would seem somewhat out of place.

A good way of identifying this plant is by the presence of glandular hairs, a feature absent in Common Groundsel. These hairs should not be sticky, ruling out the similar but non-native Sticky Groundsel. The presence of clear ray florets, absent in Common Groundsel, also provides a clue to its identification; while the plant as a whole, at least to my untrained eye, also appears far taller and slimmer.

Sorry, no fun fact in this instance. Indeed, it was difficult to find anything at all written about this plant!

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