Dear Readers, what very fine plants knapweeds are! Greater knapweed is the rarer of the two but it grows in abundance in my newly-discovered ‘meadow’ next to Muswell Hill Playing Fields. It looks almost too exotic to be a native plant, but here it is. A member of the Asteraceae or daisy family, it is closely related to the cornflower, as its flowers suggest, and it is most often seen on chalk grassland, where it is a favourite with bees and butterflies.
Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) is a much more frequent sight, and there were banks of it growing on Hampstead Heath last week. It has smaller, more thistle-like flowers, and a wide variety of popular names: Roy Vickery’s folk flora mentions chimney sweep in Somerset, drumsticks in Somerset and Nottinghamshire, hurt-sickle in Worcestershire and black soap in Devon and Gloucestershire, among a host of others. Some of the names refer to the strange, medieval-mace shaped buds – I can just imagine a mouse in armour walloping someone with a seed head too. I’m sure there must be a children’s book in there somewhere.
Common knapweed is also known as ‘bachelor’s buttons’, as, it seems, are about fifty percent of our native flowers. However, this plant was actually used for a kind of love-divination. Young women would pull out the existing petals, and then put the flower into their bodice. When the as-yet unopened florets began to appear, this would mean that the lover was near. John Clare had a poem about the practice:
They pull the little blossom threads
From out the knapweeds button heads
And put the husk wi many a smile
In their white bosoms for awhile
Who if they guess aright the swain
That loves sweet fancys trys to gain
Tis said that ere its lain an hour
Twill blossom wi a second flower
And from her white breasts handkerchief
Bloom as they had ne’er lost a leaf.
In Guernsey, common knapweed is known as herbe de flon. Vickery points out that flon has two different meanings: it can mean a boil on a human, or a disease of cows that affects the udder after calving. A handful of knapweed is boiled for half an hour, and then used to bathe the affected part. However, knapweed seems to have been used for a variety of human ailments, from sore throats and bruises to ruptures and wounds. In Wales, a combination of knapweed, field scabious and birthwort was used as a cure for the bite of the UK”s only poisonous snake, the adder. Like all the plants in the Centaurea genus (including cornflower), it was named for the half-man half-horse centaur Chiron, who is said to have healed a wound on his hoof with knapweed. The flowers were also eaten with pepper to stimulate appetite.
Knapweed doesn’t lose its value for wildlife once the flowers are gone – the seeds, like those of most thistles, are eaten by finches. Furthermore, the plant is the favoured food of the lime speck pug moth (Eupithecia centaureata), a splendid creature.
The caterpillars are rather intriguing as well.
I can find little information about the eating of knapweed by humans (except as the aforementioned appetite stimulant) but several people mention using the flowers to brighten up a salad, and I was wondering how else you could use the flowers to prettify the dining table. I seem to remember making an ice bowl when I was younger as a vessel for some ice cream – you put water in a bowl, put a slightly smaller bowl inside, poke some flowers into the gap, and stick the whole lot in the freezer. The result is very pretty, if messy and ephemeral. Sigh. I sometimes wonder what used to possess me. I once made a five-flavoured jelly with diagonal stripes by setting each layer in a huge glass dish propped up at an angle.
The 1980s have got a lot to answer for.
Both common and greater knapweed have caused problems when they’ve been taken elsewhere – they are closely related to thistles, with all the free-seeding, deep-rooted habits of their pricklier kin. I note that in the US it’s considered a Noxious Weed in several states, with spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) being the June 2017 Weed of the Month for King County in Washington State. This plant is not either of ‘our’ knapweeds, but it is certainly a vigorous little chap, as the photos on the website show. I rather like the idea of a ‘weed of the month’, though the website does rather concentrate on digging up, blitzing with herbicides and if all else fails, taking a flamethrower to the ‘enemy’, rather than the somewhat gentler appreciation of the Wednesday Weed. Still, it takes all sorts. I just think of all the creatures enjoying the knapweed, and wonder where they will go if we keep destroying things.
And finally, a poem ( a second poem if you count the John Clare earlier). This begs to be read out loud, I think. There is such poetry in the names of plants (and I’m sure a whole epic could be made from the names of moths). If you’d like to hear this read, there is a link here.
buttercup, needle whin,
biting stonecrop, yellow bedstraw,
crowfoot, scurvy grass,
water dropwort, cuckoopint,
grass of parnassus, burdock,
figwort, lady’s mantle,
plume thistle, knapweed,
ragged robin, saintfoil,
dove’s- foot crane’s-bill,
corn cockle, willow herb,
cross-leaved pink heath,
blue bottle, vetch,
wild succory, speedwell,
viper’s bugloss, alkanet…
there’s poetry in wildflowers
and rightly so.
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