Thursday, July 14, 2011

A harrowing experience

I do sometimes wonder if I spend half my waking moments with my eyes tight shut. I've driven up the Hatley Road to Potton Wood umpteen times, and never, ever looked at the verge on the way up the hill.

As I was driving up the other day, I caught a flash of some pinks flowers on the roadside. I parked by the water tower (GR TL 24709 49462) at the top of the hill and walked back to investigate. 'Probably mallow,' I said to myself.

But, not so!

Spiny restharrow (Ononis spinosa) was spilling out onto the road. 
I don't often see spiny restharrow on a verge so was inordinately happy. Potton Wood will have to wait.

The old English name for spiny restharrow is cammock (Grigson, 1958). Restharrow is literal; the plant is shrubby and woody, and could snare a plough. Gerard (1597, p1141) has this to say;

'...the roote is long and runneth farre abroade, very tough and hard to be torne in peeces with the plough, in so much that the oxen can hardly pass forward, but are constrained to stande still; whereupon it was called Rest Plough, or Rest Harrow.'

He continues.......

'These grow in earable grounds, in fertill pastures, and in the borders of fieldes, in a fat, fruitefull and longlasting soile: it is sooner founde then desired of husbande men, bicause the tough and woodie rootes are combersome unto them....''

It can't be much fun to walk on either, with those spines.

Restharrow could also taint milk and butter; Grigson says 'Cammocky butter' caused a great nuisance especially in southern counties. According to Mrs Grieve it was a favoured delicacy of the donkey, hence Ononis, from the Greek onos, ass. She also adds that the plant is 'obnoxious to snakes'. Unsure when that might come in handy, but you never know.

Old herbal uses of the root included; treatment for bladder stones, a cure for delirium and epilepsy, boiled in vinegar for toothache, used as a diuretic and for skin lesions, and allegedly it once cured a man 'of a rupture' (Gerard, 1597, p1143).
Not only did I find spiny restharrow, but also non-spiny restharrow (Ononis repens), which has paler pink flowers, and less pointy leaves. Two restharrows on the same verge! Happy days indeed!
As both species occur together in this verge it is possible they have hybridised. A fellow botanophile is going up to check in the next few days, so I'll update if any news.

Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis) was also sprawling about over everything.

And there were a few clumps of wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare) further down the hill.
And free snacks available too;
I think these are dewberries (Rubus caesius). They look as if they're covered in a waxy 'dew'; caesius is Latin for lavendar blue. Dewberry plants are smaller and more delicate than other 'brambles'.

I believe this chappie, on some yarrow, and looking rather like a victim of anabolic steroid abuse, is the thick-legged flower beetle, Oedemera nobilis.

This lovely moth, hiding under some dewberry leaves, is a small scallop (1712 Idaea emarginata). Very pretty.
Burnet moths were just emerging from chrysalises (is that the correct plural?)
And I found something I'd not seen before. It's hard to see in this photo below but attached to the bedstraw leaf is a tiny stalked egg of (I think) a lacewing.
There is a picture of lacewing eggs here.

Lovely verge.

Gerard J (1597) Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes.
Grieve, Mrs M (1931) A Modern Herbal. Online here.
Grigson G (1958) The Englishman's Flora. Published by Paladin 1978.
Weiss, RF (2001) Weiss's Herbal Medicine. 6th Edition. Thieme. See pps 237-8. Preview only on Google Books.


  1. Fantastically interesting references! It just boggles my mind to think about living in a place where people have been writing about the local plants for 400 years. Great pictures as well -- I love the colors on that Burnet moth!

  2. Dewberries have a flavour, but understandably are eclipsed by the later blackberries. I've tasted them, but have not been drawn to repeat the experience.

    Thanks for the comment about narrower leaves on spiny restharrow, as that will save me grasping each plant to check for pointy bits (painful if successful).