Guest post by Alan Halewood
Alan Halewood is a respected friend and colleague (occasionally – happy for it to be more often!). He is also one of the UK’s top mountaineering instructors. When he accepted my invitation to share his wisdom and love of Scotland, I was thrilled. Learn about five fantastic flowering plants found in Scotland and their interesting uses. Then the next time you go walking, mountaineering or climbing make sure you look out for them.
The recent pandemic has limited our ability to travel further afield. I’m lucky to have a Highland moorland only 100m from my house and the change of pace has given me time to slow down and notice carefully the arrival of some common flowering plants. Many of them have even more uses than the ones we commonly attribute to them.
A NOTE OF CAUTION: I do not advise ingesting these plants or trying to make any of the remedies mentioned below. Please seek information from a foraging specialist or herbalist if you want to try edible plants in the UK.
Tormentil: Potenilla Erecta
On every moorland and hillside from May you will see these small 4 petalled yellow flowers and their deeply cut green leaves creeping along attracting bees and butterflies with their rich wells of nectar.
A truly valuable plant if all the uses to which it has been put are to be credited. Its other name of “Bloodroot” refers to the red die that can be produced from it. 17th Century herbalists also recommended it for toothache, inflamed gums, applied it to wounds and even to bathe piles!
Highly astringent, the roots have been used to tan leather and make fishing nets in island communities where the tree bark used for this purpose was in short supply. Harvesting the required number of roots would be far from easy labour however!
Its common name is thought to be related to the fact that it could be used to make a medicine to treat the tormentum of stomach ache and diarrhoea. However, it also figures in the “Encyclopaedia of Aphrodisiacs” as you might guess from the Latin name!
Heath Milkwort: Polygala Serpyllifolia (and closely related Common Milkwort Polygala Vulgaris)
These flowering plants are tiny blue (but also pink or white) udders that are commonly found on upland grasslands. The common variety is more usual on chalky soils and can be distinguished by its leaves alternating up the stem. On Heath Milkwort the lower leaves are opposite one another.
Ancient Greek Dioscorides named it Polugalon or ‘much-milk’ and over the years this seems to have been applied to both nursing mothers as well as the ancient grazing cows! On Speyside this flowering plant’s milky connection went further. It was used as part of a curse lifting spell and was immersed with other ingredients in milk that was bewitched to make neither butter nor cheese.
Lousewort: Pedicularis Sylvatica
Pediculus is the Latin for Louse. It was believed in the past that eating too much gave cattle and sheep lice. Whilst there is some evidence that they do carry snails and may introduce liver fluke larvae in this way, it is known for certain that the plant itself is a semi-parasite. White ‘suckers’ on its roots leech minerals and water from the roots of neighbouring flowers.
Most commonly pink it is not unusual to see white flowers in some areas e.g. the upper part of Glencoe at the base of Buachaille Etive Mor and its neighbouring hills.
In Shetland the nectar bearing flower was prized amongst children as “honey flooer” for the sweet taste when sucked.
Bog Asphodel: Narthecium Ossifragum
The Latin name literally means “bone-breaker”. It was believed that eating too many of these caused brittle bones in herd animals. Given that the plant grows happily in calcium poor soils it is however more likely that it is an indicator of mineral deficiency in the grazing rather than an actual cause. Furthermore the plant is believed to lead to photosensitivity and illness in new born lambs. Regardless the bright yellow stars of this heath loving plant will soon be brightening the moor above my house.
Butterwort: Pinguicula Vulgaris
The tall drooping violet flower (it can grow up to 3 atop the stem) we get in late spring and early summer lends this well-known plant two of its other names, bog or marsh violet.
The star-shaped clutch of rubbery leaves below secrete a clear substance that traps and dissolves insects, making Butterwort a rare insectivorous plant in the UK.
The name “Butterwort” is often thought to come from the belief that rubbing it onto a cow’s udders would protect the milk and butter from evil; but it may be no coincidence that the leaves also can be used to thicken and curdle milk. In Shetland it was called ‘ostin girse’ (cheese plant).
But this is also a plant of great magical power. A girl kissing a boy with a cuach (woven hoop) of Butterwort in her mouth would find him hers forever. Carrying 9 roots from the plant was meant to keep you from harm in the Uists (two islands in the Outer Hebrides) and curiously the Owekeeno people of Canada also carry the dried roots for luck. So it must be true!
About the Author
Alan Halewood lives near Fort William, at the base of Ben Nevis, in Scotland. Alan holds the Mountaineering Instructor Certificate (now the winter mountaineering and climbing instructor) and the International Mountain Leader award. When he is not in the UK working you will find him leading overseas expeditions. As well as having an interest in mountaineering and climbing, Alan is passionate about the nature in Scotland. He has a wealth of knowledge about Scottish Flowering Plants, and their uses.
Go to https://www.climbwhenyoureready.com/ to find out more about Alan.
If this has interested you, then you may want to read about the fascinating winged fruit (yes, they are not a seed!) of Field Maple, Ash, Sycamore and Norway Maple. To read this click here.