Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Garlic Mustard

A number of plants have a smell or taste of onion/garlic. Most, such as Ipheion uniflorum (currently a weed in our front garden) and Nectaroscordum siculum are fairly closely related to the true onions but some are botanically far removed.
One such plant is Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata, also known as Jack-by-the-Hedge. It has a mild garlic smell and, like many members of the Cabbage Family, Brassicaceae, is edible. The young plants have kidney-shaped leaves on rather long petioles and are reasonably distinctive but the later leaves are pointed at the tips. Any doubt is quickly removed if they are rubbed between the fingers.
Young plants of Garlic Mustard beside the Golf Club, Byfield, Northants.
11 April, 2018
Its flavour has made it valued over the centuries and it was once regularly used as an ingredient in fish sauces but, surprisingly, herbalists seem to have found no uses for it.

It is quite valuable in terms of wildlife: the leaves are the food plant for the caterpillars of Green-veined White (occasionally) and Orange-tip Butterflies (regularly). The green caterpillars of the Orange-tip are easily overlooked when beside a slender green 'pod' - technically a siliqua - of the plant. The small white flowers are visited by a variety of insects including hoverflies. The weevil, Ceutorhynchus alliariae, feeds on the stems but the scent seems on the whole to deter grazing animals.

A fortnight later and the same plants are in flower.
25 April, 2018

There may be another factor at work besides the odour, for recent research in the U.S.A. has shown that the tissues of Garlic Mustard contain cyanide; for vertebrates the consumption of large quantities of the herb could have serious consequences. Apparently the whole plant was once boiled to provide a yellow dye.

The flowers are of a typical cruciform shape.
25 April, 2018
In the pocket park at Byfield I was delighted to find Cuckoo Flower, Cardamine pratensis, in flower. It is a new record for the pocket park and may have been introduced in a deliberate scattering of a wild flower mix. Like Garlic Mustard, it is edible and may be used as a substitute for cress in salads and sandwiches - or so I am told. It too is a member of the Brassicaceae with an almost identical flower structure.
The Lady's-smock has pale lilac-pink flowers but the colour is not clear
in this photograph. Byfield Pocket Park, 25 April, 2018

The Lady's-smock, to use an alternative name, has pale pink-lilac flowers. It was once abundant in damp meadows and in Northamptonshire there are still good colonies here and there. Inevitably John Clare referred to it on a number of occasions:
                                            And wan-hued Lady's Smocks that love to spring
                                            Side the swamp margin of some plashy pond.

                                                                   Clare's Village Minstrel, 1821

Despite its name. phenological studies have shown that its flowering usually precedes the arrival of the cuckoo by a couple of weeks.

The name Cardamine is from the Greek cardamon - water cress, and is derived from kardia - the heart, and damao - to subdue; it was once used medically as a heart sedative.
(The cardamom of Indian restaurants is derived from any one of several members of the unrelated Ginger Family, Zingiberaceae.)


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