Country Diary: Medicinal plant in the hedgerows

The feverfew.
The feverfew.

The loud, shrill screams of swifts zooming low over roof tops always thrills me in summertime. Locally, they seem to have been sadly diminished this year. Their dark plumage and very long, narrow, bow-shaped wings distinguish them from swallows and martins. It’s the only insect-eating bird whose young hatch at staggered intervals. It ensures that at least the oldest survives!

A pair of house martins captured our attention as we parked the car opposite a row of houses. Their nest was built beneath the eaves, and the martins returned again and again with insects taken in flight for their young. As they swooped low, it was the conspicuous white rump and white underparts contrasting with the blue-black upperparts that readily indentified them. One wonders why they select certain houses on which to construct their nest.

One flower, which changed the course of my life in 1978, was Feverfew. It evoked a huge response to my ‘letter’ published in the Scarborough Evening News, as it was so-called then.

It’s like a tall, leafy and well-branched daisy blooming from June well into autumn. Introduced from south-east Asia as a medicinal plant, it has colonised walls, wasteland and hedgerows. Smell the foliage, and you’ll recognise the smell of chrysanthemums – strong aromatic and spicy. Taste a leaf, which has a bitter flavour.

It used to be known as vegetable aspirin – useful in reducing a patient’s temperature and driving away fever. Feverfew’s leaves contain a drug reputed to relieve arthritic pain and migraine. It has been recored that the pain disappears after seven days, soreness, swelling, and inflamation go within 21-28 days, and joint mobility returns over the next 28 days.

Of those seeking advice, the recommended dosage was two medium-sized leaves eaten daily, either singly or in a ‘tasty’ sandwich to disguise the flavour. Increased dosage does NOT speed the cure. Should you be allergic to the leaves, just discontinue the treatment.

Well, such was the response, I received over 40 communications within the week. Many requested plants to grow in their gardens. For weeks I trudged or cycled the environs of Scarborough, Seamer, Cayton, Osgodby and Scalby bearing free supplies of this wonder-weed. All promised to report on its effectiveness or otherwise. I wonder why no-one returned!

Our friend and country walking companion, Martin has a new hobby. Having acquired a laptop this year, he’s enjoying photographing the variety of wild flowers discovered in their natural, diverse habitats. Nowadays, a permanent collection of plant recordings can be made, without the pressing and drying of plant material for a herbarium.

Widespread and abundant in woods and hedgerows is a prickly shrub we all know – the blackberry. Its flowers of five white or pinkish petals are now in full bloom, so we look forward to our first pickings in August .... mmmm!