Cassop Vale, July 2021

I finally got back to Cassop last week on a very hot morning – a solo trip for the first time this year.  My usual route in was so overgrown as to have almost disappeared amidst grasses as tall as me but at least they are mostly setting seed now and don’t set my hay fever off so spectacularly.  Everywhere has that late-summer crisped feel about it but there are still new things to see and the grassland is buzzing with pollen beetles and pollinators of all sorts. 

It’s hard to believe that the waist high thistles, willowherb, meadowsweet and knapweed have all grown up in the three or so months since the highland cattle were taken off the reserve. Sadly, these are not the only things which have grown rapidly – there is plenty of Himalayan balsam and Rosebay willowherb on the damp ground around the pond – far from ideal in a National Nature Reserve, Natural England!

Last month’s Common spotted orchids and Twayblades have largely finished flowering but have been replaced by Fragrant orchids and many spikes of Betony doing their best impressions of orchids. 

Betony, Stachys officinalis

Betony’s specific name, officinalis, is a nod to long held beliefs about its medicinal and magical properties, though Geoffrey Grigson, author of The Englishman’s Flora, declared Betony to be, “a fraud, with no outstanding virtues of any kind.”

The pond is now surrounded by a fringe of Bullrushes and Phragmites and a pair of Canada geese have clearly raised their brood there, alongside the moorhens I’ve been hearing and seeing all year.

One botanical new kid on the block at this time of year is the easily-overlooked but abundant Red bartsia, Odontites vernus; the ‘Odons’ part of its generic name indicates that Red bartsia was once regarded as a cure for toothache.  Just like Yellow rattle, which flowers earlier in the year, Red bartsia obtains some of the nutrients and water it needs by parasitising the grasses amongst which it lives.  It is also an important source of pollen and nectar for carder bees and wasps, as well as the solitary bee, Melitta tricincta.

Red bartsia, Odontites vernus

Otherwise, there are no real surprises in the grassland, just a lovely mass of pink and purple flowers, with yellow highlights.

Clockwise from top left: Great willowherb, Fragrant orchid, Bittersweet, Self-heal, Herb Robert, Marsh woundwort, Yarrow, Betony, Creeping thistle, Greater knapweed.

One of the most abundant yellow flowers, particularly around the pond, is Slender St John’s wort, Hypericum pulchrum, a clear indication of the range of micro-habitats at the site as it is not supposed to like lime! This St John’s wort has the same black dots edging its petals as its more robust neighbour, H. perforatum or Perforate St John’s wort, but is a ‘finer’ looking plant and is distinguished by the petals’ red underside, which gives the whole plant an orange tint.

Hypericum pulchrum

Extracts of Hypericum perforatum are valued in traditional medicine for their putative mood-regulating, anti-depressant properties.  The plant’s common name comes from being one of the ‘St John’s herbs’, which were traditionally collected and dried on the night before the feast day of John the Baptist, on June 24th, to improve their medicinal and protective properties.  Other herbs gathered at the same time included Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Greater plantain (Plantago major), Corn marigold (Glebionis segetum), Dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Ivy (Hedera helix), Vervain (Verbena officinalis) and Orpine (Sedum telephium) – a real mixture of species from a range of plant families. The practice probably had much earlier, pre-Christian roots in ceremonies designed to protect animals, crops and people against the vagaries of European summer weather.

Though extracts of St John’s wort contain a number of bioactive compounds, such as hypericin and hyperforin which may affect the activity of brain chemicals such as serotonin and noradrenaline, there is no clinical evidence for their efficacy in treating depression and they can interact negatively with other common medication.  St John’s wort is not currently recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) because of this and because of uncertainty about appropriate doses and variations in preparations. It seems safer just to value the plant for the pleasure its beauty brings!

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