Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, the challenge of identifying plants which are not in flower continues this week with this wonderful plant. I found it growing on a long-neglected grave in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, and with the help of the good people at the British Wildflowers Facebook group, I discovered that it is Germander Speedwell, not Ground Ivy or any of a number of other possibilities. How do I know? Well, the stems of plants in the Speedwell family are round, unlike the square stems of the Deadnettle family, and also, a close look at the stem of the plant shows that there are two rows of long white hairs on either side of the stem. Of course, if it had been in flower there would have been no problem.There is so much to love about this little plant. I love the deeply-veined, softly-triangular leaves. I love the intense blue of the flowers, with their two stamen that look for all the world like the antennae of bees ( all speedwells have only two stamen). Perhaps most of all, I love that because the flowers wilt very quickly after picking, it is named ‘Men’s Faithfulness’ in German. The flowers also drop from the stems very easy, giving the plant the alternative names of ‘Farewell’ and ‘Goodbye’. I imagine the robust heroines of Wagnerian opera looking at a drooping, flowerless posy of speedwell in much the same way as I do when presented with a bunch of yellowing chrysanthemums from the garage on Valentine’s Day. This is one plant that is definitely best appreciated where it is found.
Normally, the Germander Speedwell is fertilized by flies, but the flowers will close during the rain, which means that the pollinators can’t get in. If the downpour lasts for long enough, the plant will self-pollinate, which is a handy tactic when times are hard, though not good for the species long-term. Still, the weather in every summer is something of a lottery, and it’s always good to have something to fall back on when times are hard.Germander Speedwell is also known as Cats-eye, or Birds-eye, probably as a result of its white centre spot. But the name Speedwell relates to the belief that it was a blessing for those about to go on a journey, and in Ireland they were sometimes sewn onto the jackets of travellers for good luck. They also have a reputation as a gout cure, and as a vulnerary ( a healer of wounds). There is certainly something very uplifting about those pure blue flowers, but even without them I found it a most endearing plant. Although the person whose grave it covers has long since been forgotten, it felt as if the Speedwell was wishing them good luck on their journey, wherever the destination might be.