Ian Clayton: Hedge plants offer food for thought

Share this article

THE pleasures of exercising a dog every morning are many, but some of the best ones are being lost in your thoughts, remembering, saying good morning to people at bus stops, watching the seasons change ever so gradually and occasionally getting soaked through to the skin.

Alright, I’m not sure that last one is a pleasure, more of a hazard of the job, but to be fair, I don’t really mind walking in the rain, if it’s not too heavy, it gives you a different slant on thinking about stuff.

The other morning after a particularly heavy downpour, I brushed past some cow parsley in the hedge bottoms on a farmer’s track I use.

I’d forgotten how much water the flowers on cow parsley soak up and how wet your trousers get when you then flick past them. I was transported straight back to short-trousered childhood, nettle stings, dock leaves and the lovely local names we gave to plants in hedges bottoms, woods and fields.

I recalled “gipsy bacca”, dandelion clocks and buttercups held under chins to see if you like butter. I couldn’t for the life of me remember what we called cow parsley.

My mate Dave put me right when I walked back up the field. “We called it Mother Die,” he said “and do you remember we made pea shooters out of the dried stems and it left you with chapped lips.”

Mother Die, of course we called it that, but why? I looked it up, isn’t Google great? Mother Die is the local term for cow parsley and is a name still in use across northern England, in some parts it’s called “Stepmother’s Blessing” because when the mother dies this leaves room for the stepmother to move in. And it’s called that because children were discouraged from picking it due to its close resemblance to hemlock, which is of course a deadly poison.

I also found out that cow parsley, anthrisus sylvestris to give it it’s grown-up name, is a relative of chervil in the wild carrot family and can be used to flavour salads and other dishes.

Any regular readers of this column will know of my love of hedgerow food, I have a particular fondness for sloe gin and, when I can find them, blewit mushrooms, or blue stalks as they call them round here.

I now have a recipe for haricot beans flavoured with cow parsley – I’ll let you know what it’s like when I make some.

I mentioned hemlock. Did you know that this was used to put poets and philosophers to death? In 399 BC the mighty Socrates was found guilty of “impiety” (he’d said something he shouldn’t have done about the Greek gods) and was killed by a lethal infusion. Plato, a dedicated follower, wrote about his teacher’s horrible death.

I told my mate Dave about this when I next walked John (funny name for a dog I know, but John he is) and he told me about another plant with a mythology all of its own.

He asked me if I could remember the darkish red fungus that grows mainly on elder trees and if I knew what it was called. I’ve seen it many a time but didn’t know its name. He said “It’s called Jew’s Ear and it’s called that because Judas Iscariot was so ashamed of himself after betraying Jesus that he hung himself from the branches of an elder tree. Look it up!”

So I did and I found that it’s true and not only that, the Latin name for it is “auricula-judae” and it’s very tasty in an omelette.

So there you go, you start off walking a dog and before you know it you find something out about the founder of western philosophy, the betrayer of Jesus, the origin of local plant folklore and how to spice up a dish of beans.

Told you walking a dog is more than just exercise.