My observational skills are lacking. Even after six years of life on a narrowboat, continuously cruising 2,000 miles of mostly rural waterways, I see things I’ve never noticed before. For the first time I have spotted wild crocuses. At least if I have seen them before and known them to be wild, I have forgotten. I always thought crocuses (croci if you insist) were exotic garden plants. I didn’t realise that they have wild counterparts in Britain.
On the towpath in Northamptonshire two or three peep purple here and there through fallen oak leaves in a wooded cutting near mile-long Braunston Tunnel. They seem delicate and fragile and I protect them from a team of strimmer-wielding workmen clearing the towpath. But perhaps these pretty flowers are nothing more than garden escapees after all?
After my protestations to the hard-hatted destroyers, I read in my 1970s’ cloth-bound flower guide that the natural habitat of wild crocus (Crocus neapolitanus) is mountain meadows, not shady towpaths. Wikipedia goes further and tells me my initial instincts were right. Crocuses hail from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The ‘wild’ ones in the UK must be escapees. Oh well. They are a bright splash of colour and I welcome their presence.
This stretch of canal is also home to a budding yellow bloom. With leafless stems resembling little asparagus spears, the sunny pompoms, like small dandelion flowers, give colour to a boggy patch of towpath. Keen botanists among you may have deduced the plant to be coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) as I learn from my pre-Internet era guidebook, A field guide in colour to wild flowers.
My desire to name the nature I see and hear around me seems to grow with age. Our forebears named plants as they found them, without national consensus, so that some flowers have several names. Coltsfoot (with hoof-shaped leaves, yet to appear) is also known as coughwort and foalswort.
The mention of flowers in literature gives some indication of their decline. In the 1930s, the canal enthusiast and author of Narrow Boat, LTC Rolt, records ‘a boatman’s wife, Mrs Hone’, telling him: ‘In the Spring up ‘leven mile pound you can smell the violets in the banks something lovely as you goes along.’ That eleven mile pound (a distance between locks) is not far from here. I wonder if it still smells of violets in the spring?
In the 19th century, Anne Brontë, in Agnes Grey, writes about wild pansies. Like wild crocus, I wondered if there really were such plants. It turns out the wild pansy, Viola tricolor, has a starring role in Shakespeare’s A midsummer night’s dream. “The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid will make man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.” I will look out for wild pansies more keenly now I know this magical association with the flower commonly known as Love-in-Idleness.
Such knowledge of names and literary connections seems but a mere indulgence. I would rather learn to appreciate the practical uses of ‘nature’; uses that we have mostly forgotten. Even our much-maligned Neanderthal ancestors knew which plants could be used as medicine. Recent studies of plant DNA found in the dental plaque on the teeth of a Neanderthal male who lived over 40,000 years ago show that he chewed poplar bark to help alleviate the pain of a dental abscess. Poplar bark contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin.
If we made more use of plants we might care more for their habitats. We might not trash our waysides with litter if we thought of the plants growing there as our larders and medicine cabinets. (Dog poo bags hanging from branches does rather diminish the appeal of harvesting food or medicine from hedgerows it has to be said.)
Sometimes the common name gives us a clue to an ancient remedy, barely remembered. Coltsfoot is also known as coughwort. An extract from its leaves is still used as a flavour in medicinal coltsfoot rock made by a Yorkshire sweet company. Stockleys Sweets also suggests that the leaves can be smoked to alleviate asthma. As the plant has been found to contain high levels of liver-damaging alkaloids, you might want to moderate your consumption.
Before taking to life afloat, I imagined I would live well from my abundant natural larder and perhaps even heal myself with herbal infusions. I pictured hunting for rabbits with ferrets and gathering baskets of wild salad and berries. Autumn is the season of fruitfulness and fungi but now, springtime, is when waysides become rich again with greens and flowers.
In previous springs, I have picked and cooked St John’s mushrooms, made elderflower fritters and nibbled hawthorn leaves but that diet would barely provide the calories required to unwrap a chocolate bar. Forager extraordinaire Fergus Drennan has lived for weeks at a time solely on wild food and documented his diet in a column for this magazine. He aspires to spend a year living solely on wild food. This week he has been leaching the tannins out of 30kg acorns in a stream and tapping sap from 20 birch trees. I should meet him. As for my natural medicine cabinet, I now know a remedy for a tickly throat and it’s available from a sweet shop.
Paul Miles writes regularly for the Ecologist on the joys (and otherwise) of his low impact lifestyle choices