Summer at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum? Well, this year it’s been dreich and dismal (just like the rest of Scotland). It’s been an appalling season in terms of the rain and yet, as the wheel of the year turns; little coloured symbols of summer have shown their face. I’m referring of course to our array of wildflowers. Walk along the Poet’s Path just now and there are plenty to see and appreciate (Look especially along the hedgerow atop the dyke).
St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been visible for a number of weeks now. Its little yellow flowers, growing on woody, shrub like stalks, tend to appear around midsummer. Midsummer’s Eve is the feast of St John, hence the sacred-sounding name of this plant. It was used medicinally in the past to treat wounds; heal sprains and muscular pain such as lumbago and yield yellow and red dyes (I recently saw fibre coloured with it during a demonstration of the dyers art in Bulgaria)
A more striking specimen is the White Musk Mallow (Malva moschata ‘alba’) whose large white flowers are very much in evidence just now. Musk Mallows tend to be a delicate pink but this white variety (which is not native to the UK) is found along the dyke top on the path. Musk Mallows were used by herbalists in the past to prepare a treatment for coughs and throat disorders.
Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca) can be found growing up through the hedgerows along the path just now. Its bunched purple blooms seem to be stacked up on top of each other. It’s a climber and its little tendrils spread like bindings through bigger support plants (such as the hedgerow hawthorns) and allow it to spread. It’s a member of the pea family and will eventually develop little pods – like miniature peapods – as the season progresses.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is also in bloom at the moment. Its flower-heads – composed of many florets of white or pinkish white blooms – appear in creamy sprays along roadside verges and hedge bottoms at this time of year. Its feathery leaves are subdivided many times to give the impression of thousands of miniature leaflets (hence the specific part of its scientific name ‘millefolium’ (Latin ‘mille’ – thousand and ‘folium’ – leaves) The genus part of the name ‘Achillea’ derives from the Greek hero of the Trojan wars, Achilles. Yarrow is a styptic – it can be used to stanch wounds and suppress bleeding and Achilles –who numbered medicine among his many talents – was said to have used it to treat his troops in exactly this way.
So, when walking along the path, take time to admire these little gems of nature – often labelled as ‘weeds’ by the more unenlightened gardener, and think too about their uses and the stories behind their names.