Overlooked Urban Nature: the Surprising History of Some Early Spring Flowers

Guest post by Miles King of People Need Nature

Early spring is possibly my favourite time of year. Day by day, Nature comes back to life in front of us. For me, it lifts my spirits. Even in this most bizarre winter, when the winter didn’t look like it was going to arrive at all, but finally did so in early March. But of course as the sun gets ever stronger, the cold nights quickly disappear and beautiful warm sunshine greets me as I let the chickens out first thing in the morning.

Nature survives at the margins

Today I found a particularly pleasing, though very small, sign of spring – Whitlow grass (Erophila verna) flowering here in Dorchester. It pops up in scrappy places around the town – at the base on horse-chestnuts along the “walks”, the paths that mark out where the Roman walls used to stand; and in cracks at the edge of the pavement, such as in the photo below. It is a truly diminutive plant, but very appealing in its own way. The tiny white flowers positively glow in the early spring sunshine. The blooms last only a couple of days and the whole flowering is over in a matter of a few weeks. I imagine people do wonder what I am taking photographs of, as I bend down by the side of the pavement with my iphone. Perhaps they think I’m from the council recording deteriorating pavements.

Whitlow grass
Whitlow grass (Erophila verna), growing on the edge of the pavement, Dorchester. © Miles King

Another flower, which lives in the same sort of place, is the Rue-leaved saxifrage (Saxifraga tridactylites). This one came out quite a full six weeks earlier than the Whitlow grass, before the coldish weather arrived. I photographed this plant growing by the side of the car park in the middle of town. It’s supposed to have been developed into a new shopping centre, but for the fourth time in as many decades, the development has stalled. Eventually the development will happen, but I expect the Saxifrage will, in time, take up its place growing in the spaces in between.

Rue-leaved saxifrage
Rue-leaved saxifrage (Saxifraga tridactylites) ©Miles King

Pretty and resilient though both these tiny flowers are, they also have their own history, a history where in the past they were greatly valued for their medicinal properties.

Flowers and fingers – an ancient medical mystery

The Whitlow grass and Rue-leaved saxifrage were both also formerly known as nailwort – and it’s easy to imagine that they were thought to be the same plant; indeed I have made that mistake. At first sight it’s not entirely obvious why they should be called nailwort, as neither look anything like a nail. The clue is in the word Whitlow, which means an abscess formed near a finger-nail or toe-nail, as a result of a herpes virus infection. So, I imagine, people in the past believed that the Whitlow grass and Rue-leaved saxifrage were an effective remedy against what sounds like quite a nasty health problem.

According to Wikipedia, Whitlow derives from the Scandinavian Whickflaw, which means “quick” “flaw”. This makes sense when one thinks of the quick of the nail (technically called the hyponychium). This is the bit where your nail meets your finger at the “free” end. This is where a Whitlow would develop. Another word for the condition is Paronychia.

All this reminds us that before the advent of science and modern medicine, it was left to remedies such the use of Whitlow grass or Nailwort, to remedy infections. I have no idea whether the remedy worked or not. It’s worth noting that the root of the Whitlow grass was used by The Blackfoot tribe of native Americans, to bring on abortion.

A confusion of plants

The term paronychia apparently goes back as far as Dioscorides, the ancient Greek botanist and pharmacist whose five volume work de Materia medica was so influential on Renaissance scientists, having been translated from Greek to Latin and Arabic. The text was still influential in herbalism and pharmacy even into the 19th century. 2000 years ago Dioscorides named a plant Paronychia on account of it being a remedy for Whitlows. An early 19th century encyclopedia by Abraham Rees considered which plant it might be. Rees says that Dioscorides describes it thus:

“A diminutive shrub growing in stony places, and resembling purslane, but of more humble growth, though the leaves are larger.”

He names Erophila verna and Saxifrage tridactylides, as well as the now rather rare (in the UK) Coral necklace as possible candidates for Paronychia, and mentions others who have pointed the finger at Wall rue and the very rare (in the UK) Four-leaved allseed.

It’s interesting that both the “nailworts” Rees identified are growing together to this day in the centre of what was Roman Dorchester. Is it remotely possible that they have survived together here for 2000 years, having escaped from a Roman military herbalist’s garden (or mediaeval monastery garden)?

Famine flowers

The Dutch and Germans have a different name for Whitlow grass for the Dutch name it Vroegeling which means “the early one”, while the Germans name it Fruhlings-hungerblumchen, or spring hunger-flower. This would suggest the plant was eaten in times of famine; a variety of other local German names included Our Lord’s spoon, goosegrass, screeflower and worry.

Spray-free streets

One of the reasons that I can enjoy the spectacle of a tiny flower like Whitlow grass growing on the pavements and car parks of Dorchester is because the Town Council do not spray the pavements with herbicides, such as Round-up. This is apparently a very common practice in urban areas of England.

Campaigner Brigit Strawbridge, who lives in the north Dorset town of Shaftesbury has, along with others, persuaded the Town Council there to stop spraying the municipal areas of town (including pavements) with herbicide. This is fantastic news and I hope this will encourage more towns to stop spraying. The Pesticide Action Network is keeping tabs of places where herbicide is being phased out – as of December 2015 these places had stopped using it. Quite apart from it being pointless and a waste of money, spraying with herbicide deprives all of us of the pleasures of seeing wildlife, however common, in the places where we live. There is also increasing concern about the impacts on human health of herbicides such as Round-up.

People Need Nature is a new charity, created to highlight the positive relationship people have with nature and promote the value of nature to people. We are especially interested in the spiritual value of nature and nature as a source of inspiration to everyone, from artists and writers, to strange people enjoying the flowers growing at the side of car parks. We also believe that the nature of public land needs protecting, celebrating and valuing.

Miles King, CEO People Need Nature