Dear Readers, one of the things that I love about St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is the sheer variety of habitats. We have damp woodland and dry woodland, grasslands and scrub, meadowy bits and watery bits, and I think it’s probably the best place for plants of anywhere locally because it is relatively little visited. When I saw the meadow vetchling this week it really made me think of the meadows of Austria, which are full of ‘beans’ – members of the Fabaceae family, such as clovers and trefoils and peas. These plants are able to process the nitrogen in the atmosphere (or rather, the bacteria in their root nodules are) and as such are a great help in returning the fertility to the soil. Plus, they are very popular with bees and pollinators of all kinds.
Meadow vetchling is also known as ‘meadow pea’ and ‘fingers and thumbs’. It’s a scrambler, which means that it intertwines with other plants, creating a tangled web of stems. A similar thing is going on underground – the plant proliferates via rhizomes, which can reach up to 7 metres in length. The seedpods ripen to black, which is a good way of identifying them once the flowers have gone. The plant is native to the whole of Europe and Asia, but has also been introduced to North America, and is doing particularly well in Alaska and Oregon.
The flowers of all vetches are very particular and, botanists being how they are, you won’t be surprised to hear that the different parts of the bloom have specific names. In the flower below, the petal at the top is known as the ‘standard’, the two petals below are the ‘wings’, and the bottom two petals, which are joined together, are known as the ‘keel’.
Meadow vetchling is also the food plant for the caterpillar of the wood white butterfly (Leptidea sinapsis). This is the most delicate of our white butterflies, and has declined in number, largely because plants such as the meadow vetchling will not thrive in the complete cover of a mature woodland, and because so often the understorey of woods is neglected until only holly and the odd yew bush remain.
The male performs an extensive courtship ritual to attract the female, who is very choosy – the female will only mate once in her life, whereas the male will try to mate with as many females as possible. The males dance involves fluttering his wings and extending his proboscis. If the female remains still, it means that she’s either already mated or isn’t interested, but if she is attracted to the male she will move her abdomen in his general direction.
The wood white lays her eggs only on meadow vetchling and one or two species of trefoil. If given the choice, she prefers tall plants, and will lay more eggs on lanky specimens. The butterfly identifies the species of plant through chemoreceptors on her feet, and flies low over the foliage, occasionally touching down on a leaf to see if it’s the right one. The caterpillars, when they hatch, are beautifully camouflaged against the vetchling leaves. I wonder if the conditions in the cemetery would be right for wood whites? However, they tend to be local and are not expert fliers, so this would be a bit of a stretch. Plus, I’m not sure how far the gardeners at the cemetery use pesticides – fortunately the wilder bits look as if they aren’t sprayed.
In Ireland, meadow vetchlng is said to repel mice (and is known as mouse-pea in Donegal), and was also used to feed cattle in the past. But although the plant has been used medicinally to ease coughs and bronchitis, it is also said to be poisonous, causing a condition called lathyrism which can paralyse the limbs of human beings or grazing animals. However, you would have to eat an awful lot of the ‘peas’ to get this effect, so no reason to be pulling it up just yet!
And finally, a poem. This feels just right for the days after the summer solstice (here in the Northern Hemisphere anyway), as the year turns yet again. I hadn’t heard of K.V. Skene before, but she’s a Canadian poet, and I love this poem. I can just imagine every flower as she mentions it. My head is full of yellow blossom.
After ‘At the Quinte Hotel’ – Al Purdy
daffodils forsythia marsh marigolds
the mellow meadow vetchling
last year’s dandelion wine yesterday
I unfriended Facebook Twitter LinkedIn quit
http://www.youtube.com cached the laptop iPhone Fitbit
and hit the road unravelled today
I am drinking buttercups loosestrife
birdsfoot trefoil lesser celandine so long ago
those honeysuckle days
so short these sunflower years
Photo One By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105462864
Photo Two By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96576036
Photo Three by By Feel free to use my photos, but please mention me as the author and if you want send me a message. or (firstname.lastname@example.org) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25277317
Photo Four By Gilles San Martin – Flickr: Leptidea sinapis egg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17005838