Meadow yellow

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

Monday, 13 February 2012

A Devilish Mis-Tor-y Tour

Over the last few weeks as the weather has turned colder I have felt a compelling draw towards Dartmoor. Most days I glimpse this wild plateau, discrete in the distance; a feint hint of something awesomely ancient, soaked in legend and mystery. Last week we paid a quick visit to the highly accessible Haytor, cloaked in snow and ice. However I yearned for something more remote and wild and so geared up yesterday to do a circular walk around Great Mis Tor on the west side of the moor. Driving to our starting point we crossed an iced and undulating landscape, intermittently crested by tors, the granite outcrops resembling the broken teeth of giants or fossilised horse dung. Mis Tor is aptly named, frequently wrapped in mist as it was yesterday, filling the whole of the Merrivale Valley. Undaunted we trudged up the icy track barely able to see more than a few yards ahead, until quite unexpectedly loomed a huge grotesque visage out of the mist - a contorted ugly witch-like head, featuring a hooked nose, goitre and warts (see image above). This was Little Mis Tor glaring upwards to its more foreboding fellow. It did not take much longer to find Great Mis Tor, or at least its large collar of broken stones. There is apparently a notable rock basin on the peak, Mistorpan or ‘the Devil’s Frying Pan, which has led to “speculation about sacrificial rituals, with blood collected in the basin running out along an [adjacent] groove” (Sale, 2000). There is a more logical geological explanation about natural erosion but don’t let this get in the way of a good story.

Down on the slopes my eye was caught by the striking red of the lichen Devil’s Matchstick (Cladonia floerkeana) (see image below), an apt discovery on this spooky walk. The Cladonia genus of lichens are common on heathlands, enjoying the clean air of such habitats. The name is derived from the Greek ‘’cladon’, meaning branching – these are easy to recognise lichens with their brightly covered fruiting bodies (ascocarps) borne on the top of the podetia (Cladonia Resources, 2012).

As we descended into the Merrivale valley, crossed the rushing brook, and climbed the other side we found ourselves in the middle of a Bronze Age settlement. Standing within the remains of an ancient hut circle we tried to imagine a thriving community looked down on by the imposing tor. Our final mystery lay above this settlement; a stone circle, or at least what remained after past misdemeanours of troops using it as target practice during the Second World War (Sale 2000). By this time the sun had broken through the mist to show us the full breathtaking beauty of an aged landscape decorated by human antiquities; geology merging with mis-tor-y!

Sale, R (2000) Dartmoor – Collins rambler’s guide. London: HarperCollins.
Cladonia Resources (2012) [online] What is Cladonia? [Accessed 13/02/12]

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Wild tapas from Alexandria

Walking along a local Devon lane last summer I came across a striking black seeded umbel (see image) - An umbel is the flat topped inflorescence, like an upturned umbrella, characteristic of the umbellifers or carrot family. The black colouration, large size (up to 1cm) and angular ridges of these seeds was a good indicator that it was an Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) plant. A sample of this structural plant architecture has contributed to an interesting display in our lounge, embellished at Christmas with a touch of glitter. In the last few weeks I have observing the fresh green growth of the Alexanders celery scented leaves fighting the winter cold in many of the local hedgerows (see image).

Alexanders seems to enjoy the slightly warmer climes of maritime and sub-maritime habitats such as many parts of Devon. It was introduced by the Romans, but now fully naturalised in hedgerows, roadsides and on cliffs. The first written record in Britain was before 1562 when S. olusatrum was recorded “in Ilandes compassed about the se, as in a certain Iland, betwene the far parte of Somerset Shere and Wales” (Turner, 1562; cited in Randall, 2003). Its name possibly derives from the Italian and German denomination, Herba alexandrina having been supposed to have been brought from Alexandria in Egypt (Randall, 2003).

Alexanders was a common pot-herb in kitchen gardens for many centuries, but fell out of favour in modern times. Today’s wild foragers however certainly do not turn up their nose at such a useful plant. Young leaves add a bit of ‘spice’ to salads, but most prized are blanched stems eaten like asparagus with melted butter and a dash of lime juice. For the more culinary adventurous you could try the wild tapas of ‘Spicy Alexanders in Hot Tomato Sauce’ using stems, or ‘Pickled Buds’ with their heavy scented flavour (Harford, 2011). Of course do make sure you are clear about your identification as there are a number of poisonous closely related species!

Harford, R (2011). Eatweeds: Wild Food Recipes (Volume 1)
Randall, R.E. (2003) Smyrnium olusatrum L. Journal of Ecology, 91(2):325-340
Turner, W. (1562) A New Herbal. Pts 2 & 3. Arnold Birckman, London, UK.