I keep changing my mind about my favourite plant family – one day it’s the carrot family, with Queen Anne’s lace and wild carrot and angelica and all those other fluffy, useful flowers. Then it’s the brassicas, the origin of so many foodplants and with such useful plants for insects as well, such as garlic mustard for the orange-tip butterflies. On balance it’s probably the peas and beans, because of their variety, and the way that they improve the soil, but it’s quite possible that I’ll change my mind again. Do you have a favourite type of plant? Do share. There are so many candidates, all contributing to the ecosystem in their own particular way.
Before the advent of nitrogen fertilisers, ribbed melilot was used as a green manure, and was ploughed back into fields so that its nitrogen content could improve the soil. These days, the plant is also used to ‘clean’ soils contaminated by dioxins, and it is also very drought-tolerant, a great feature in these uncertain times.
Various creatures eat the seeds of the melilot species, including game birds such as partidge and pheasant, and a whole raft of tiny moths and butterflies. The caterpillars of some Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) butterflies seem to have taken a shine to the plant, as have the larvae of the Clouded Yellow, a migratory butterfly that sometimes crops up on the coast, and the larvae of the Grass Eggar, a rare moth found pretty much exclusively on the south and west coasts. The moth is discreet and furry, but the caterpillar is clearly something of a dandy.
And finally, for a poem, how about this one by Sappho? I am not sure that the translation quite does it justice (if it was me I would certainly be doing something about that garden grot, which has quite different connotations these days). Melilot crops up a lot in her poetry (it is originally a southern European plant, as we’ve noted), with its hay-scented perfume, and flowers in general (and roses in particular) stand for female desire. Phaon was said to be Sappho’s (male) lover, and she was supposed to have thrown herself into the sea for the love of him. It’s all very confusing when, nowadays, we associate Sappho much more with her love for women, but then who said that humans had to be consistent? If you know more about Sappho and her love life than I do, fire away!
Golden pulse grew on the shore,
Ferns along the hill,
And the red cliff roses bore
Bees to drink their fill;
Bees that from the meadows bring
Wine of melilot,
Honey-sups on golden wing
To the garden grot.
But to me, neglected flower,
Phaon will not see,
Passion brings no crowning hour,
Honey nor the bee.
The caterpillar photo above has the following attribution – No machine-readable author provided. Svdmolen assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=845999)