Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Robin’s pincushion

A tip-off earlier this week had me stumbling around a local meadow hunting for an elusive Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera). This is a difficult botanical time of the year for hayfever sufferers. A warm June evening with a slight breeze is perfect for wind pollinated grasses to exude their zillions of sneeze-inducing dust granules. So with sandpapered eyes, streaming nose and rapidly numbing brain I wandered through thigh high Cock’s-foot, Sweet Vernal and False Oat grasses. No orchid for my pains, but I was attracted to a red tufty moss-like ball attached to a rose sapling. A dim memory flickered about parasitic growth but no more ID knowledge was forthcoming. Further on I came across many more of these and was struck by their weirdness. A few days later I was back in the meadow with an accomplice on the Bee Orchid trail, Mary, who was very quick to identify the rose associated curiosity as a Robin’s pincushion.

Its other name is Rose Bedeguar gall and the cause of this splendid manifestation, as stunning as any rose flower, is a gall wasp Diplolepsis rosae usually found on wild dog roses like in this case. It is actually fairly common and I have seen it before but without knowing that it was indeed a gall. In addition to the gall wasp there could be up to 14 different insect parasitoid species that live within the gall making up a broader community (Randolph, 2005). The gall has inevitably attracted interest over the ages, such as its use in medieval medicine for restricting blood flow and as a remedy to help sleep if placed under a pillow. Pity it has no use for hayfever sufferers. It is remarkable how nature has evolved to allow an insect to dupe a plant to alter its growth to create such a bizarre home. In contrast the Bee Orchid has turned the tables on the insect world, duping the bee into trying to copulate with its flowers and in doing so aiding the reproduction of the plant.

..and if you’re interested, I did find the Bee Orchid with a little help!

Randolph, S. (2005) The natural history of the Rose Bedeguar gall and its insect community. Sudbury: British Plant Gall Society.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Surprising Salad Burnet betters Blueberries

“It looks like disco-ball, smells like a cucumber and is a better antioxidant than blueberries”

I recently came across a Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) plant and decided to take a closer look at this easy to miss herb. A member of the rose family it has characteristic globular heads that look red-purplish from a distance, like miniature botanical disco balls. But look closer and then closer still (you may need a x10 hand lens) and you will may notice that there are no petals and the striking colour is actually from feathery structures, the stigmas. These are the female flowers. The more subdued male flowers have long stamens replacing the colourful stigmas.

Salad Burnet leaves has long been used as an ingredient in salads, where their slightly bitter taste has a distinct cucumber aroma. Apparently Sir Francis bacon recommended it in the herb garden, whilst Napoleon enjoyed it whilst in exile on St Helena (Mabey, 2007). More recent scientific investigation has however found it to have potentially valuable health benefits. It has long been known that cardiovascular disease is low in Mediterranean areas where plant foods rich in antioxidants make up a considerable portion of the diet, often through the seasonal harvesting of wild plants. Did Napoleon just have a ‘gut’ feeling about this! My wife’s Father and family from the Italian deep south frequently collected wild herbs to supplement their diet, such as wild rocket and dandelion, often through necessity rather than choice. This has been backed up in some recent research by Vanzani, P., Rossetto, M. De Marco, V., et al. (2011), where wild Mediterranean plants used as traditional food were analysed for their antioxidant properties. They were compared against wild and cultivated chicory and blueberry, representing vegetables and fruit amongst the richest in antioxidants ( the “reference plants”) . They found that the antioxidant power of Salad Burnet was “remarkably higher than those of reference plants”.

Little did my wife’s Italian family know that driven by poverty they were forced into some healthy eating options. So maybe I should start selling Mediterranean medicinal herb bags as a cheap alternative to heart drugs and operations.

Mabey, R. (2007) Food for Free. London: HaperCollins
Vanzani, P., Rossetto, M. De Marco, V., et al. (2011) Wild Mediterranean Plants as Traditional Food: A Valuable Source of Antioxidants. Journal of Food Science, 76 (1): 46-51