The first two weeks of May have seen our bluebell woods at their enchanting best. This year other woodland plants like clumps of golden kingcups, stitchwort, with its white starry flowers and airy tracery of stems, and stands of red campions – not really red but a vivid pink – have all come into flower at the same time, enhancing Wharfedale’s Spring glory.
However, this week I shall sing the praises of the humble and overlooked! As I strolled through Strid Woods, I noticed how the dog’s mercury, the first plant to put out new green shoots in Spring, is now thick and luxuriant. Its flowers are green too – insignificant tassels – and its smell is rather unpleasant. (My flower book actually describes it as ‘foetid’). Smelly and unshowy it may be, but I was glad to see it on February’s bare woodland floor and now it makes a fine foil to its more glamorous neighbours.
But my hero of the week is not a woodland plant but one we have been seeing along roadsides and footpaths for months. It’s garlic mustard – tall, straight stems with apple-green leaves and flower heads composed of white flowerlets each comprising four petals in cruciform arrangement. It has a number of other common names – Jack-by-the-hedge, sauce-alone and poor-man’s-mustard. You can learn a lot about a plant from its nicknames, not just about its wayside and field edge habitat, but a certain affection in the ‘Jack’ and a definite appreciation in ‘sauce alone’ Perhaps the ‘poor man’s mustard’ is the give-away here – it’s one of the oldest spices to be used in Europe, with traces discovered by archaeologists dating back to 6100 – 5750 BC, the age of hunter-gathering.
It’s important for wildlife too: 69 species of insect and 7 of fungus rely on it. Among the former, my favourite is the orange tip butterfly. The male orange tip is simple to recognise; it’s white with bright orange tips to its wings. The female is more difficult – very easy to confuse with the small white – but she has smudgy charcoal wing tips and both male and female have under-wings patterned in mossy green – attractive and excellent camouflage. Their small green caterpillars feed on the flowers and seed-pods of garlic mustard – and on each other should they chance to meet – so the female lays just one egg per flower, cleverly leaving a pheromone marker to show it’s occupied. Sturdy, tasty and ecologically valuable – Jack-by-the-hedge!