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, last week I was sitting half-hidden behind a gravestone trying to get some photos of the foxes when I saw two of them lope off along a grassy path between the tombstones. I decided to follow them, but of course they had disappeared by the time I’d gotten myself together – they are most elusive for such large animals, and I often sense them watching me with some satisfaction as I lumber past. However, what I did spot was a little patch of this member of the clover family, the intriguingly-named black medick. The citrus-coloured flowers remind me of lemon sherbet.
You might think that the name ‘Medick’ has some reference to the plant’s possible medicinal applications, but apparently not. The plant is closely related to alfalfa, and both are thought to have come from Media, a northern Iranian kingdom mentioned by Herodotus, and now largely lost in antiquity. The word ‘Black’ probably refers to the colour of the seeds.
Black medick is a common native plant, found in all parts of the country except for the north and west of Scotland. It can also be found throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa, and has even made its way to many islands, such as Taiwan and Madeira. It can survive at an altitude of up to 1800 metres, and is cold resistant. It is a member of the pea and vetch family, and as such it helps to fix nitrogen in the soil, and is a source of nectar for honey, and a useful fodder plant. I love the way that the flowerheads look like complex origami, with each individual flower having that distinctive ‘vetch-y’ look. It is certainly a plant that repays close inspection.
This little plant, with its trifoliate leaves, is sometimes seen as the original shamrock of St Patrick , though these days this honour is more often passed to the larger, showier white or red clover. The finding of a four-leaved clover is considered especially lucky, as those of us who have scoured a meadow looking for such a thing as children will remember. I have always wondered why a four-leaved clover was seen as such a lucky thing (apart from its rarity, of course), and have read two explanations on the Flora of Castle Warden website. One is that a four-leaved clover grows where a mare has dropped her first foal. The other is that the four leaves stand for faith, hope, love and luck.
Whatever the explanation is, you can identify black medick even when it isn’t in flower by the tiny claw-like projections (mucro) at the centre of each leaf.
Although black medick is a useful plant for cows and sheep, it has a rather convoluted history when it comes to its ingestion by people. There are some worries that it might be problematic for pregnant women, or for anyone who is taking blood-thinners (Warfarin or Coumadin), or for children. However, in Europe the leaves have been eaten as a pot herb, and in North America the seeds have been used to make a kind of flower. The ever-useful Eat the Weeds website has a full run-down on the pros and cons of making your supper from black medick, but on balance I would incline towards leaving it for the bees and the other critters.
Black medick is one of the plants represented in Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies series, and although they are a little whimsical for my taste ( I prefer to think of fairy folk as being more mischievous and wild than the ones depicted here), I love how accurately the plants are represented (the flowers, leaves and seedcases are spot-on). I am also impressed by the butterfly wings on the fairies, which are fair representations of those of a female Large White.
I have used quite a lot of other people’s photos in my post this week, because there has been a lot of strimming and grass-cutting in the cemetery. When I walked the fox-path again, I found myself ankle-deep in dried grass, desiccated buttercup flowers and the crumpled faces of germander speedwell. The black medick is gone, for now. But it’s the cutting of these areas that keeps their diversity, and I have every hope that some plants will rebound, while others will have already set seed. For every area that has been cut, another is re-growing. The starlings and blackbirds are tossing the hay aside in their search for insects, and the bees are moving on to the red clover just flowering in the less tended areas. And me? I’m just thinking that I should not assume that anything will be here forever.
Photo One – By S. Rae (https://www.flickr.com/photos/35142635@N05/15605449924)
Photo Two – By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2728945
Photo Three – By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2728955
Photo Four – By Sofi (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sofi01/4882620711)
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer