Wednesday Weed – Black Medick

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…..


Black Medick (Medicago lupulina)

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.

IMG_6460You 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.

By S. Rae (

Black Medick seeds (Photo One – see credit below)

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.

By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The complex flowerhead of the black medick (Photo Two – see credit below)

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.

By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The leaves of black medick (Photo Three – credit below)

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.

IMG_6458Black 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.

By Sofi (

Mary Cicely Barker’s ‘Black Medick Fairies’ (Photo Four – credit below)

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.

IMG_6459Photo Credits

Photo One – By S. Rae (

Photo Two – By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three – By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four – By Sofi (

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer

6 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Black Medick

  1. Sarah

    Thank you for this, I love your Wednesday Weeds – and this was one whose name I didn’t know till now. On a side issue, I love the Flower Fairies too And have always seen the fairies in them as wild. I attribute my daughter’s early interest and skills in botany to repeated ‘readings’ of the Flower Fairies books in her pre-literate years. She now works at Kew.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, Sarah! And this was the first time that I’ve really looked at the way that the flowers are depicted in the Flower Fairy paintings – they really are very accurate, and I can well imagine a child going out to look for them. How lovely that your daughter works at Kew, it’s one of my very favourite places….

  2. Anne Guy

    I was only looking at a patch of black medic last week when I was in Cornwall, so what a timely and fact filled post yet again! Many thanks!

  3. shawdian

    I was going to cancell receiving your emails as I receive so many in my e box. However;
    once I did this, I suddenly regretted my action as I realised that to receive your blog is to receive a little bit of nature we all tend to dismiss but what is actually important and beauty in itself and I would miss my education in Bugs & the beautiful little flowers we describe as ‘weeds’. Your photographs are so beautiful and refreshing and it is a delight to learn about the side of life we all rather take for granted (and think we ignore) until one day, those little weedy flowers have been squashed under ugly hideous concrete adding to yet another deppressing sight. My husband recently designed & dedicated a small part of our garden to what is called a Cottage Garden, which is infact full of the little flowers you kindly provide in your blog. Now we learn through you what these are called and they bring so much pleasure to the eye and most important we have some wonderul little visitors that fly into our garden to which we have provided them with a Bee Hotel that provides solace for Lady Birds, various tiny Bees and many kinds of little bug wonders we never realised inhabited our garden bringing it to life. So A BIG THANK YOU for opening our eyes to nature and its little bug goodies and plants that are
    so important to natural beauty.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Shawdian, thank you for your lovely comment, which really cheered me up yesterday! I am delighted that you have a cottage garden, they are wonderful for the insects, and I’m sure that you will see all kinds of creatures who will pop in to enjoy the plants. The bee hotel is a great idea too! A garden is a never ending source of enjoyment and interest and amazement, I am so glad that you are enjoying yours.

  4. Pingback: Wednesday Weed – Enchanter’s Nightshade | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

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