Friday 28 November 2014

Edible wild plants found near the sea: Tree Mallow

Tree Mallow in Santiago del Teide, Tenerife. Photo by Steve Andrews

The tree mallow is a very tall species of mallow, hence its name, and is often found growing on cliffs and at the tops of beaches. It has attractive pinkish-purple flowers and blooms in summer.

Known to botanists as Malva arborea or Lavatera arborea the tree mallow is a biennial or short-lived perennial. It can grow to as much as 3 metres in height and forms a very thick stem like a small trunk. It is a handsome plant that stands out in its natural habitat.

The seeds are tiny nutlets and are edible and known in Jersey as “petit pains” or little breads. The leaves and flowers can also be eaten The leaves have a lot of mucilage and this is good for combating inflammation.

In herbal medicine the tree mallow´s leaves are steeped in hot water and used to make a poultice for treating sprains. Like other mallow species the tree mallow has a lot of mucilage in its leaves.

The tree mallow is listed in the book Food For Free which is Richard Mabey´s classic guide for foragers. It is a wild flower to look out for when on a coastal walk.

The tree mallow grows on coasts in the UK but is also found in Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as Libya, Algeria and the Canary Islands. It is resistant to salty spray from the sea and is often found on the coasts of islands.

The tree mallow makes an attractive garden plant and will grow happily away from the sea. It will self-seed and is easy to maintain year after year. 

Saturday 22 November 2014

Dragon Trees in Portugal and Gibraltar

Dragon Tree growing at the Lisbon Botanical Gardens. Photo by Steve Andrews

Dragon trees come from Tenerife and the Canary Islands, and it is said they are also found in Cape Verde, Madeira and parts of Morocco, so I wasn't expecting to find them in Portugal or Gibraltar. However, they do grow in these places and grow very well there, as I was to discover.

Dragon trees can be seen in a botanical garden in the centre of Lisbon in Portugal and also in parks and gardens in Gibraltar. The dragon trees in these locations were just as healthy and well-formed as most of their counterparts in Tenerife, though admittedly not as big as some of the very old trees found in the Canary Islands.

Dragon Tree in Lisbon. Photo by Steve Andrews

The dragon tree (Dracaena draco) is a weird plant, not really a tree, although it grows to tree-like proportions. It has spiky leaves that grow in rosettes and bears small white perfumed flowers that turn into orange-red berries as they ripen.

Dragon Tree berries. Photo by Steve Andrews

Dragon trees get their name because if cut they bleed a red sap known as Dragon’s Blood, and also because aerial roots that hang downward can resemble a dragon’s beard.

The dragon tree produces a mushroom-shaped head of branches that fan outwards. The many branches in these dragon tree crowns are said to be like the hundred heads of a dragon that the hero Hercules killed.

Drago Milenario. Photo by Steve Andrews 

Dragon trees can grow for a very long time and the Drago Milenario that grows in Icod de los Vinos in Tenerife is said to be 1,000-years-old, though estimates put it more like somewhere between 250 and 650 years in age.

Whatever its age, the Drago Milenario is a majestic specimen and is the oldest dragon tree in the world. It has become a plant symbol of Tenerife and many tourists flock to see it in the Parque del Drago it stands in.

Dragon trees are very rare in the wild but are extensively cultivated in subtropical gardens and parks. They take a very long time to grow and only have a single trunk until the first time they flower when the tree produces side shoots from its crown. It can take 10 years before a dragon tree is big enough to flower and then branch.

Branching Dragon Tree. Photo by Steve Andrews

The dragon tree has been classed as a medicinal herb because its sap is said to be good for strengthening the gums.

The Guanches, who were the people who lived in Tenerife before the Spanish Conquest made shields out of the trunk and held the dragon tree in great reverence.

Dragon tree berries have one or two seeds and can be germinated easily enough though they may take as much as a month before sprouting. 

Friday 21 November 2014

Edible wild plants found by the sea – Fennel

Fennel flowers. Photo by Steve Andrews

The fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a common medicinal and culinary herb often found growing wild by the sea. It is a tall plant with umbels of yellowish flowers and produces finely divided feathery foliage that is very aromatic and smells like anise.

Fennel is native to the Mediterranean, parts of Europe and the UK but is found in many other parts of the world, including America, Canada and Australia. It is a perennial plant and likes to grow in grassy areas and on waste-ground near the sea and is often to be found when foraging in coastal areas. It is very common in the north of Tenerife in the Canary Islands and can be found on the other islands.

Fennel is included and recommended in Richard Mabey’s Food For Free, which is an excellent book on edible plants that can be found while foraging and that has been republished over and over and is now in its fortieth year after its first publication.

The aniseed aroma that fennel produces is a very good way to identify this herb which is in the Apiaceae or parsley family, a group of plants that also has several very poisonous species such as the hemlock.

Fennel, from Koehler's Medicinal-plants (1887) in Public Domain

Fennel seeds are good in curries and other spicy dishes and can be used to make fennel tea. In Spanish the herb is known as hinojo and teabags are commonly sold in grocery stores and supermarkets under this name.

Fresh fennel leaves can be eaten in salad, used as a garnish or made into sauces which are very good with oily fish. Fennel is actually very good for indigestion so using it in your cooking makes a lot of sense.

There is a variety of fennel known as Florence fennel or finnochio that has a bulb at the base and this is popular as a vegetable to be eaten raw or cooked.

In herbal medicine fennel is recommended for digestive problems and is said to improve the vision. It is also said to be an aid to slimming.

Fennel can be grown easily in the herb garden and will produce large clumps. There is a bronze fennel too with attractively coloured foliage.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Edible wild plants found by the sea – Rock Samphire

Rock Samphire growing at Swanbridge, South Wales. Photo by Steve Andrews

The rock samphire, samphire or sea fennel is a commonly found edible plant that grows in rocks at the top of beaches, growing amongst the shingle and on cliffs. It is found in the UK and along coasts of parts of Europe and the Mediterranean area, as well as on the Canary Islands.

Known to botanists as Crithmum maritimum, the rock samphire is in the Apiaceae or parsley family. It has succulent divided leaves and umbels of greenish-yellow flowers.  It is aromatic if bruised and has quite a strong smell and taste. The herbalist Nicholas Culpeper described rock samphire as having a “pleasant, hot and spicy taste.”

Richard Mabey gives some recipes for rock samphire in his classic book for foragers entitled Food For Free.  This book has proved so popular that it has been republished over and over and is now in its fortieth year. 

Rock Samphire in Portugal Photo by Steve Andrews

Rock samphire can be found all year round and can be eaten sparingly raw in salads, pickled in vinegar or cooked as a green vegetable. It was once so popular that it was mentioned by Shakespeare who describing the dangerous practice of gathering it from high on cliffs, wrote, "Half-way down, Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!”  It was collected too in the Isle of Wight and shipped to London in vats of seawater to keep it fresh.

These days it is illegal to remove plants of samphire from their natural habitat.  Nevertheless the rock samphire is an interesting edible plant to look out for when walking by the sea.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Edible wild plants found by the sea – Sea Beet or Wild Spinach

Sea Beet amongst seaweed and rocks. Photo by Steve Andrews

Sea beet is a common edible plant found at the top of beaches and near the sea in the UK and Europe.
Its leaves are very good cooked as greens and taste very much like spinach. This is not surprising because the plant is an ancestor of cultivated spinach beet and beetroot. In fact, the sea beet is also known as wild spinach.

It produces masses of glossy dark green oval or diamond-shaped leaves in rosettes that can be found all year around. Its flowers are small and greenish and form in summer and autumn.

Sea beet can be found growing amongst pebbles and rocks at the top of a beach and on coastal land and is easy to recognise. You are not likely to find anything else looking like poking its greenery through the pebbles. It can be found growing where seaweed and other floating rubbish has been washed up by the tide.

The leaves of Sea Beet. Photo by Steve Andrews

The stems of sea beet and the leaf stalks sometimes have a purplish-red colouration which shows their link with beetroots.

The leaves of sea beet can be eaten raw in salads as well as being cooked like spinach. Many people think their flavour is actually better than spinach we grow and buy.

Richard Mabey recommends it strongly in Food For Free his classic book on foraging which is now in its fortieth year and contains info with illustrations for some 200 types of edible plant and wild mushroom.

The sea beet is known to botanists as Beta vulgaris ssp. maritma and used to be classed as in the Chenopodiaceae but it is now in the Amaranthaceae. Many other plants in this family, such as the goosefoot (Chenopodium album), are also edible.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

The Swallowtail Butterfly is very rare in the UK

Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) Image by Pixabay

The swallowtail butterfly is attractively marked in yellow and black and is one of the rarest butterflies in the UK being confined to the fenland in the Norfolk Broads area. This is because in Britain its caterpillar will only feed on the milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre).

The swallowtail takes its name from projections on its hind-wings which also have some blue colouration on them and a bright red spot.

The British swallowtail is one of the largest butterflies to be seen in the country and is actually a subspecies known to science as Papilio machaon ssp. britannicus. 

Caterpillars of continental swallowtails will eat a wide variety of food-plants including species in the Apiacae (parsley family) such as wild carrot (Daucus carota) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), as well as the rue (Ruta graveolens).

Swallowtail caterpillars are easy to spot because they have bold blackish stripes on their green bodies. They also have a weird forked organ known as an osmeterium that is protruded if the insect larva is threatened. This organ emits an unpleasant smell that is thought to help ward off predators.

Swallowtail caterpillar on rue. Photo by Steve Andrews

Swallowtails are fairly common and widely distributed in many parts of Europe and in Portugal, for example, they can be seen in gardens where the eggs get laid on rue.

Swallowtails sometimes migrate from France to the UK and there have been reports of them breeding but the only native species are to be found in the Norfolk Broads as already noted.

There are many other types of swallowtail butterfly found around the world. Some of these are common but others are endangered butterfly species.
The swallowtail butterfly is a very beautiful insect and it would be a very great shame if the British type ever becomes extinct.

Detox For Your Home With Houseplant Decoration

Houseplants in window In Public Domain

Most people know that houseplants can contribute to a natural atmosphere, but they might be unaware of the fact that indoor plants can make them a healthier person. As always, being environmentally conscious is important, but we should also be thinking about how to bring the natural world into our living spaces using a variety of  houseplants for our own health as well as considering them for their natural beauty.

Indoor plants, as decoration, not only look good and add a splash of colour but they can actually help make your home a healthier place to live by cutting down on pollutants in the air. Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis), ivy (Hedera helix) and the mother-in-laws-tongue or snake plant (Sanseveria trifasciata), for example, are all recommended for improving air quality.

Mother-in-law's tongue  In Public Domain

One way you can plot out your plants is by using 3D design software on the Internet. This method can help you with deciding where each type of houseplant is most likely to thrive. You can also get an idea of what space is available and how much lighting there is by using a birds eye view.
Natural light coming in through windows, as well as keeping plants in good condition, can enhance the foliage, casting some shadows that add depth and create some interesting visual effects.
Most houseplants look best against a simple and uncluttered background to provide contrast. Plants also help you scale the look of your rooms, as including bigger plants in your space ironically gives rooms a larger feel. The Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) and the rubber plant (Ficus elastica) have been very popular for many years but they need the space to grow and really look their best.

Ficus elastica In Public Domain

You will be spending most of your time in the living room so this is a good place to distribute them. Plants have been proven to have positive effect on mood and they can help your relax. In fact your grandparents were probably resting by an aspidistra or cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior). This traditional plant is easy to grow in the living room or lounge.

Cilantro leaves  Photo by Steve Andrews

Herbs like cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and basil (Ocimum basilicum) can be grown for convenience in the kitchen and provide an array of health benefits. They also add a touch of natural charm to your home and flavour to your cooking.
The symbiotic relationship plants provide extend even into the bathroom. Ferns will benefit from the humidity and release oxygen into the air to help you wake up in the morning. The maidenhair fern in particular (Adiantum aethiopicum) loves cool damp air and has delicate pale green fronds.

Christmas cactus In Public Domain

You can even add a seasonal touch to your home by growing bulbs like hyacinths indoors in spring, and the colourful Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera species) will flower in the festive season.

Christmas cactus flower In Public Domain