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, I have been most remiss in my visits to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery this year. Apart from one trip just after Christmas, I have barely been past the place. Partly it’s work, partly it’s visiting the family, partly it’s a kind of post-Christmas doldrums. Plus, I have gotten my self into a state of mind where, if I’m not visiting every day, I feel embarrassed to visit at all. The phrase ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’ could have been invented for me. But today, Easter Monday, I went for a walk with my husband, and I was so glad that I did, because the flowers this year are extraordinary. There are stands of bugle all along the damper, shadier paths. They always look rather upright and martial to me, and there is a faint metallic sheen to their leaves, but their common name is, according to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, nothing to do with the musical instrument. but more to do with cylindrical glass beads called ‘bugles’ – maybe they were often made in a blue colour reminiscent of the flowers. Another theory is that it is a corruption of the Latin name ‘ajuga’, which means ‘without yoke’, and could refer to the missing ‘uppper lip’ of the flowers.
In Germany, there is a belief that bugle can cause fires if brought into the house, so maybe the gunmetal notes of their foliage reminded people of how easy it is to cause a spark.
I love getting a different perspective on plants, and, if you look down on a bugle plant, it has a much softer, fluffier appearance. The blue and white flowers look like little men in nightshirts, and the opening buds are surrounded by a red-mauve ‘fur’. It’s not surprising that many ‘domesticated’ varieties of this plant are now available, many of them taking the metallic-tinged leaves and turning them to full-on bronze with the power of genetics. As usual, I still find myself preferring the original version.Bugle is a member of the Lamaiaceae, or dead-nettle family, and is a great source of nectar for bees and butterflies. The hairy-footed flower bees were enjoying it in the cemetery this morning, and it’s known to be a primary nectar source for the pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne). Bugle is so important to the adults of this rare species (which also requires a mosaic of bracken and grasses for its caterpillars to be successful) that land management for the species recommends using cattle rather than sheep, as the latter are not averse to eating bugle.
Bugle has had a variety of medicinal uses: it is known as ‘Carpenter’s herb’ because it is said to be able to stem bleeding, Culpeper was very impressed by the herb, recommending that it be made into a drink for internal use and an ointment for wounds and bruises. In fact,
‘it is so efficacious for all sorts of hurts in the body that none should be without it’.
I note that a tea made from bugle is said to be very useful for those suffering from ‘an excess of drink’. I shall just leave this here for future reference.
The young shoots of bugle are apparently edible, but as this is such a small plant, and so valuable to wildlife, I would be tempted to leave it alone. Various websites also describe it as poisonous, but if so it must be very mild – none of the other dead nettles are toxic. Some have mentioned that the plant has a narcotic effect, which is not so strange when you consider that catmint (Nepeta) is a member of the same family, and look what it does to cats.All in all, bugle is a most elegant and attractive plant. Even so, I was impressed by the flower display that I found online, which features bugle along with Asian elderberry and perennial geranium. I love how this wildflower holds its own against the big hitters that surround it.
Now, you might not be surprised to hear that Cicely Mary Barker, the creator of the Flower Fairies, has a Bugle Fairy, and a Bugle Fairy poem.
The Bugle Fairy
At the edge of the woodland
Where good fairies dwell,
Stands, on the look-out,
A brave sentinel.
At the call of his bugle
Out the elves run
Ready for anything,
Danger or fun,
Hunting or warfare,
By moonshine or sun.
With bluebells and campions
The woodlands are gay,
Where bronzy-leaved Bugle
Keeps watch night and day
And whatever you think of the Flower Fairies, I do think that Cicely Mary Barker was a keen observer of the plants, and had a good eye for their ‘characters’. As I walked in the cemetery, which was indeed laced with bluebells and spotted with campions, it wasn’t too hard to think of the bugle as ‘keeping watch’.
Photo One (Bronze-leafed bugle) By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two (Pearl-bordered fritillary) – By Iain Lawrie – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33507212
Photo Three (Cat in catmint) – By T (too much cat mint Uploaded by snowmanradio) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four (Ikebana) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomronworldwide/16891727343
All blog content free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!
I learn so much from you!
I’m learning so much myself, Becky 🙂
There seems to be no end of the bounty in the cemetery! I’m wondering if cat mint will send other four legged creatures into such a peaceful looking stupor?
Interesting….I wonder if the foxes like it too? I haven’t seen any of them laying about in a stupor…
The first thing I thought of when I saw your title was the Bugle Fairy. I adored those books when I bought them for my daughter and I think I still have a few. Interesting that they are related to dead nettle and nepeta.
Hi Toffeeapple, I was a bit dismissive of the Flower Fairies too, but the details in the drawings are very well observed, and the author often manages to capture the spirit of the plant. I learn so many things through doing this blog, and one of them is to be humble….
Thankyou so much for this post. I looked at this little plant the other day and could not recall its name. As you mentioned Richard Mabey in this post it reminded me of something he said in one of the books he wrote, he called the sparrows who were diving across the hedgerows ‘like rubber bullets’ I have never forgotten this and thought it quite apt.
Hi Briony, yes, Richard Mabey has a great way with words. I am always astonished at the speed of the sparrows, and the way that they zip from bush to bush too…
Here Ajuga is cultivated and used as a ground cover in shade! Hearing more about its history is very interesting.
Glad you liked it, Laurin – I’m in Canada at the moment, and it’s interesting finding new plant ‘friends’ and seeing the old ones too…
I am learning so much about wild plants through this blog; my dream is to be able go walking in the countryside as I do regularly and be able to name all the plants I see! One day…
Me too, Veronica! As I walk along the street now, it’s as if I’m greeting old friends….’chickweed, groundsel, dandelion, hairy bittercress, ivy-leaved toadflax, white dead-nettle, buddleia, green alkanet, stinging nettle…..’
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