If you’ve read through our materials for the ‘In The Sticks’ virtual workshop, and are planning a trip to Brindley Village this month, you might be wondering what kind of plants you’ll be able to see.
Plants which are native to the UK usually have a long history of practical application, such as cookery, medicine, building, or crafting. Often these plants have folklore associated with them too. People lived alongside these plants for centuries, observing their cycles, experimenting with them, and using them to understand the world around them. Trees such as oak, birch, and willow make up the deciduous woodland around Brindley Village, with thickets of bramble, nettles, and bracken between them. See below for some more examples of plants you can see in July.
The Rowan, or Mountain Ash trees (Sorbus aucuparia) have shed their white blossoms and are starting to grow their berries, which in time will turn bright red. Rowan is entrenched in folklore and has a long history of medicinal and culinary use. It was thought to offer protection, especially from witchcraft. In the Wyre Forest, a branch would be hung above the front door to protect a house from witches. Rowans are also strongly linked to journeys – they’re said to prevent travellers from getting lost, as well as signifying a threshold to another realm, or the afterlife.
Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) is a witch’s herb, being named after Circe from Greek Mythology, and the Latin name for Paris – the ‘Witch City’. It’s not actually a nightshade and isn’t poisonous, but is a member of the willowherb family. It has delicate white flowers and deer love to eat it.
Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) or hedgenettle has been used for many centuries to treat maladies from bleeding cuts to sore throats to gout. The 17th-Century herbalist John Gerard documented its use and promoted its healing properties through his work. The plant looks like a stinging nettle but with slender, purple flowers and is popular with bees.
The purple flowers of Cow Vetch (Vicia cracca) can be found in the more open parts of the village. This plant thrives in areas where the ground has been disturbed, where it enriches the soil with nitrogen. Because it grows quickly and plentifully, it has been used as food for cattle – hence its name.
Cannock Chase is known for its thick pine forests, which are regularly harvested and replanted by The Forestry Commission. However, these aren’t the only non-native species which can be seen in Brindley Village – although it can be hard to tell at first glance. These plants were typically brought to the UK as ornamental plants, and many are now considered invasive. Their presence is a key sign that Brindley Village was once inhabited – after the buildings were demolished, the trees, plants, and hedges from the village gardens grew up among the indigenous plants. Below are some examples which have found themselves on Cannock Chase from far-flung corners of the world.
Rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) is one of the most easily-recognisable plants in the village area. Although the flowers have finished now, you’ll be able to spot their dark glossy leaves and twisted branches. Rhododendrons were first brought to the UK from Asia in the 1700s as an ornamental plant. Did you know that honey made from rhododendrons is poisonous, and in some parts of Asia, it’s ingested as a hallucinogen? (Do NOT try this at home!)
Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) is a highly-toxic shrub which is popular with gardeners and is commonly used as a hedge. Every part of the plant – leaves, stems, and berries – contains harmful levels of cyanide. Native to areas around the Black Sea, this isn’t actually a laurel, but a type of cherry. At this time of year you can see the cherries starting to form under the large, waxy leaves.
You’ll probably smell the Sweet Mock Orange (Philadelphus coronarius) trees before you see them. With their sweet aroma and masses of white flowers, they’re hard to miss. Sweet Mock Orange was imported to the UK from Southern Europe, and has flourished here due to its hardiness, surviving harsh winters and growing in shaded areas.
The plants which live around the Brindley Village area can conjure all sorts of inspiration for writing poetry. Their colours, textures, and scents provide vital sensory detail for poems. We can also ask ourselves questions based on our knowledge of the plants. How do the folklore and traditional uses of the plants tie in to the lives of people who lived here? Can we equate how non-indigenous plants thrive in the woodland to the human relationship with the countryside? How do these plants support the wildlife living in the area? If you get out and about on Cannock Chase, keep a keen eye out for the details all around you – we can’t wait to see what you come up with!