Woodwater plants

The house martins were gathering and sporting on the wing, prior to departure for warmer climes, and Mark Lane from Wilderness Guide kindly popped over to retrace my June footsteps in Woodwater Lane, and see what plants we could find in September.

Mark also gave me some tips on triangulation, or plant identification through three pieces of evidence from: smell, leaf, flower, season, family (shared characteristics) and habitat. There are many plant identification apps available, such as Obsidentify and LeafSnap. And here are a couple of helpful websites:

Green Lanes

Green lanes typically follow a ridge, have deep banks, and are typically rich in biodiversity with established hedgerows and old trees. The part of Woodwater Lane we explored has the feel of times of yore, almost enclosed in greenery.

Apart from the occasional meander, probably around a property like Ludwell Lane around Mushroom Farm, the green lanes in this part of town tend to run parallel to the river. Mark told me of a mysterious green lane, supposedly starting at a gate on Barrack Road next to the Territorial Army, and running to County Hall. From the Google Maps satellite view, the eastern half is marked by a line of trees and runs next to Gras Lawn, but it’s not easy to make out the western half, and none of it appears on the 1801 OS map of Exeter.

Fifty Findings

  1. Darwin’s barberry – small purple fruits can be made into jam, end-July
  2. Quinces – won’t go soft; showing signs of turning red; wait til November to pick
  3. Ash
  4. Field maple
  5. Willow – non-native, by look of bark
  6. Nipplewort – lobed leaves, spring greens; so named as cure for cracked nipples, though uncertain re how to prepare and apply
  7. Garlic mustard or Jack in the hedge – spring greens
  8. Has characteristics of euphorbia
  9. Umbellifer – currently plant is too small to distinguish between cow parsley or chervil
  10. Mint family, possibly red dead nettle – square stem, edible but pungent
  11. Possibly same again, although flower purple not red

Mark lives, works and teaches tracking and foraging. They require different ways of looking. Foraging entails focusing on small areas, and alertness to details of particular plants. The wide view is lost. Tracking requires an alertness to the wide view, to the edges of perception, to divergences from normal. I asked Mark about a birdsong – is that a hedge sparrow? But he listens not to identify, but for signs of alarm, and the ‘sparrow’ song was more a demarcation of territory.

  1. Elm – leaf rough like cat’s tongue, lobes of different size; wood doesn’t rot, difficult to split; crossed strains are more resilient to dutch elm disease, and there are huge specimens at County Hall
  2. Oak – particular tree has a few galls and fewer acorns (try Dunsford Gardens instead); acorns are nutritious, and can be made into e.g. coffee and bread flour, though the tannins need leaching
  3. Holly – pig fodder, or tea; dense wood, good for carving; partners oak – ‘king oak’ victorious at summer solstice but then declines and ‘king holly’ victorious at winter solstice; bad luck to cut tree down
  4. Ribwort plantain – named for ribs in leaves; also broad-leaf variety; edible in spring, becomes fibrous; high tannin, anti-histamine (better for nettle stings than dock), anti-inflammatory so good for wounds; seeds can be ground and used as thickener
  5. Hazel – roofing spars, bow drills, charcoal; milk from early nuts
  6. Beech – third best firewood after oak and ash; mast edible and source of oil
  7. Hawthorn – good firewood but also bad luck to cut down; berries used to make fruit leather or Turkish delight; lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular function
  8. Willow herb
  9. Field maple again
  10. Wych elm, 80 years or more – bigger leaves than elm, fluff in leaf joins; more resilient to dutch elm disease
  11. Bird cherry, not wild – weird Latin
  12. Dogwood – distinctive veins in leaves, which produce latex; straight stems used for skewers and arrows; good artists’ charcoal
  13. Spindle – smooth wood so no splinters and good for spindles, hence name; also known as ‘snake wood’ for the bark; wood good for artists’ charcoal; fruit is bright orange and poisonous
  14. Groundsel or ragwort – poisonous
  15. Pink? Pimpernel? – looks like scarlet pimpernel
  16. Hawkbit or catsear – similar to dandelion
  17. Cinque foil – not edible
  18. Yarrow – tea, medicines, wounds; contains beta thujone, ‘active ingredient’ in wormwood, absinthe
  19. Prunus – garden escapee; damsons in wild will degenerate and become smaller and more bitter
  20. Ash – keys are edible, e.g. pickle; buit as I’m allergic, probably best not…
  21. Privet – poisonous
  22. Wood avens or Herb bennet – roots can be used instead of cloves; roots and leaves for tea; leaves have 3+2 lobes; small yellow flower + burrs
  23. Laurel – crushed leaves smell of almond, i.e. cyanide; wood has nice creamy and red grain, used for bowls
  24. Is this privet?
  25. Or is that privet?

Mark’s immense knowledge of wild plants and their uses was giving out as we encountered suburbia!

  1. Cotoneaster family
  2. Box, variegated garden variety – used to make boxes; compare with privet, leaves are smaller, glossier and 3D-er
  3. Garlic mustard seed pods
  4. Honeysuckle – simple leaves (compare clematis); flower edible and good for sore throats
  5. Herb robert – red stem; neither herb nor edible
  6. Sloes
  7. Viburnum – looks like bay from a distance
  8. Black bindweed – seeds black, three-lobed and edible; at first glance looked like Russian vine to me
  9. Compass plant – in lettuce family, lactates and produces latex, hence Lactuca; leaf has spiny central vein
  10. Snow berry – inedible, ornamental
  11. Yellow fumitory
  12. Pendulous sedge – edible heads; plus lots of other grasses we didn’t really look at
  13. Vetch
  14. Orange hawkbit in my garden