Tag Archives: alkaloid

Flowers and frogs at Milton Country Park

Not long after my lunchtime spin around Cambridge Science Park I paid a visit to Milton Country Park which is about a mile from where I work, as the crow flies. Wild flowers were everywhere, the sun was out, and there was lots to see including a family of treecreepers (Certhia familiaris, Dansk: træløber). Prior to this I’ve only seen treecreepers individually but this time a whole family of at least five birds was flitting around a tree trunk before flying to an adjacent tree. Treecreepers are fun to watch, they begin hunting low down on a tree trunk and climb up it in a spiral pattern to ensure they don’t miss any insects lurking in the crevices of the bark, they are very aptly named. I didn’t have my long lens with me so I couldn’t get any photographs of the treecreepers, but I did capture some gorgeous flowers on this outing:


Scarlet pimpernel flowers

I’ve never noticed scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) growing around Cambridge before but I’ll be happy if it spreads. The flowers, which were less than a centimetre across, open in the morning and close mid afternoon and were shooting from amongst the short grass. It’s common in England but less so in Scotland.

The purple and yellow flowers of the woody nightshade flowers (Solanum dulcamara) were illuminating the undergrowth:


Woody nightshade

The flowers of the woody nightshade are beautiful and eventually give way to berries which are green before they ripen into a lovely deep red colour. As the colour may suggest they are toxic, the main ingredient being an alkaloid called ‘solanine‘ (an alkaloid is a plant-derived nitrogen containing compound which can exert a physiological effect on humans. More infamous members of this category include opium, cocaine and marijuana).

The glycoalkaloid ‘solanine’ found in members of the Solanaceae family including the nightshades and potatoes

Solanine is also the active ingredient in deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, and is the compound which makes green potatoes toxic! The green pigmentation is due to chlorophyll which is produced when potato tubers become exposed to light and is not therefore toxic, but it is produced along with solanine. Solanine isn’t degraded by cooking so eating lots of green spuds is a bad idea.

As you might expect, solanine has physiological properties which make it a useful compound. Ancient Greeks would take it before consulting the priestess Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, to utillise its halucinogenic properties. And Italian ladies used the sap of the deadly nightshade in days of yore to dilate their pupils as they believed this made them more beautiful. Hence the specific name of the deadly nightshade ‘belladonna‘ (‘beautiful lady‘ in Italian). It was also used by torturers as a medieval truth drug to extract confessions. In more recent and enlightened times therapeutic doses have been used to treat a range of conditions incuding inflammatory eye diseases such as uveitis, and it has also shown inhibitory properties when applied to melanoma (skin cancer) cells. It’s amazing stuff!


Common frog – Rana temporaria

A frog hopped across the path in front of me and hunkered down in the undergrowth to avoid being spotted and/or predated, so I got up close to capture some portraits. I was within 8-12 inches and it didn’t flinch, so I took half a dozen pictures before it hopped off deeper into the bush.

Rosebay willowherb – Chamerion angustifolium

At the edge of a lake a stand of rosebay willowherb was just coming into flower. The flower spikes and leaves of willowherb have been used to treat grumbly bowels and apparently it makes a good mouthwash too. The willowherb was interspersed with spears of aarons rod:

Aarons rod – Verbascum thapsus

This aarons rod was a very fresh example and was only just coming into flower but when in full bloom the spear is full of yellow flowers from the leaves to the apex. They have been lining my route to work since June and there are still some hardy individuals lingering on into the autumn. Aarons rod has been used medicinally as an expectorant to treat coughs and for numerous other conditions including colic, eczema, boils and warts. It’s a very versatile plant.

Tufted vetch – Vicia cracca

Many shrubs and bushes were festooned with the flowers of tufted vetch which is a European native and has also been introduced to the Americas where it is a weed. The flower heads were several inches long and a rather fetching blue/purple colour. It grows over other plants by shooting out tendrils which grasp stems and provide an anchor for further encroachment. It can grow up to 2m tall and can strangle smaller plants. But the flowers are lovely

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The wild flowers are blooming

A combination of the recent rains and the rising temperatures we’re getting now is creating ideal conditions for wild flowers. Any piece of uncultivated land is starting to bursting forth with flora which in turn is providing food and cover for flies, bees, beetles, butteflies and a plethora of other insect life. Which is also good for the birds, small mammals and other predators, and so on up the food chain. And on top of that it’s lovely to look at. So here’s a selection of flora currently blossoming in my patch of East Anglia:


Ground ivy – Glechoma hederacea

I like ground ivy because it occurs early in the year, first appearing in March, but like many other phenological phenomena it may now be happening earlier. It creeps across the ground, like ivy, forming carpets of blue flowers and with the green and red leaves it adds lots of colour to the undergrowth. It has numerous names and here are a few from the Royal Horticultural Society website: Devils candlestick, creeping charlie, crows guts, wild snakeroot, hens and chickens, gill-go-by-the- street, and my favourite: ale gill.

Another creeper which grows across the ground and in hedgerows and which has lovely blue flowers is the periwinkle. There are two types of periwinkle, the lesser (Vinca minor) which may have been introduced to the UK and the greater (Vinca major), which was introduced (both according to my wild flower guide).


The greater periwinkle

I’m a tad confused by this flower because they are meant to have 5 petals but this one only has 4. It is also known as creeping myrtle, cut-finger, flower of death (!), grave myrtle, and sorcerer’s violet, among others.

Sprouting next to this periwinkle flower was a nascent white deadnettle, Lamium album. It normally has white flowers which haven’t yet arrived, but the closed buds are visible below the crown. Everything is very green at the moment because of all the rain and looks beautiful against the red wing cases of the ladybird .


White deadnettle about to burst into bloom


Greater celandine, Chelidonium majus

It is thought the greater celandine is named after the swallow (‘khelidon’ is Greek for swallow) and it’s a member of the poppy family. When the stems are broken they ooze a latex sap which is as yellow as the flowers, and the colour can be as deep as orange. It contains a host of alkaloids which confer therapeutic properties but it can also be toxic. It is also known as cocks foot, sight wort and wart wort as the sap has been applied as a treatment for warts. I’m not sure where ‘sight wort‘ comes from, but if it burns off warts I wouldn’t want it anywhere near my eyes!


Cow parsley – Anthriscus sylvestris

As far as I know cow parsley doesn’t have medicinal properties and according to Wiki it’s not pleasant to eat. But I think the flowers are lovely and they bring back childhood memories of running through the woods in springtime when the cow parsley or ‘keck‘, as it was referred to by my Dad, was as tall as me. There’s nothing quite like a forest floor which is full of cow parsley, in it’s own way it’s as iconic as blue bells. It’s also known as wild chervil and Queen Anne’s Lace.


Beefly – Bombylius major

At the end of my flower finding mission I was looking for a ground ivy flower head and I found this little beauty, and just as I was just about to open the shutter a beefly zoomed in to sip the nectar. Flower pictures can benefit from some insect action and I like beeflies, so this was a highly serendipitous encounter!

Erratum: Maggie from http://www.intouchwithnature.co.uk‘ has pointed out that the last flower with the beefly on is in fact red deadnettle  – not ground ivy. So a big thankyou to Maggie for keeping me honest with my plant identification 🙂