Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Wall Pennywort is a delicious edible plant

Wall Pennywort

Wall Pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris) is an interesting edible wild plant that you are not likely to mistake for anything else. It grows, as its name suggests in old stone walls, and also in crevices in rocks, and has round leaves hence its name.
The Wall Pennywort is also known as Navelwort because its leaves have a small indentation in the middle that could be likened to a navel in a human stomach. The leaves grow in rosettes. An alternative name for the plant is Penny-pies.
Wall Pennywort is found in the UK and parts of southern and western Europe as well as in the Canary Islands. It has spikes of greenish-pink flowers on stems that may be a reddish shade and it flowers in spring and as late as May and early summer depending on location. These flower-spikes can reach some 10in in height and the small flowers are bell-shaped.  It is a member of the Crassulaceae or Stonecrop family and is adapted for surviving in dry conditions. The leaves and plant are succulent and fleshy.

Wall Pennywort in flower

The leaves can be eaten as a salad and have been compared with a crisp lettuce in flavour. They are best when found growing in moist conditions or after rain when they are really juicy. Wall Pennywort tends to turn a reddish colour in very dry conditions and will lose it succulent fleshiness. Take care when gathering the leaves because Wall Pennywort is very shallow-rooted and the whole plant can easily be pulled out of the small amount of soil it is growing in.
Wall Pennywort has been used in homeopathic medicine and is known as Cotyledon umbilicus to practitioners. The plant is thought to be the “Kidneywort”, described by Nicholas Culpeper in the English Physician. The famous herbalist said of the Wall Pennywort: : "the juice or the distilled water being drank, is very effectual for all inflammations and unnatural heats, to cool a fainting hot stomach, a hot liver, or the bowels: the herb, juice, or distilled water thereof, outwardly applied, heals pimples, St. Anthony's fire, and other outward heats. The said juice or water helps to heal sore kidneys, torn or fretted by the stone, or exulcerated within; it also provokes urine, is available for the dropsy, and helps to break the stone. Being used as a bath, or made into an ointment, it cools the painful piles or hæmorrhoidal veins. It is no less effectual to give ease to the pains of the gout, the sciatica, and helps the kernels or knots in the neck or throat, called the king's evil: healing kibes and chilblains if they be bathed with the juice, or anointed with ointment made thereof, and some of the skin of the leaf upon them: it is also used in green wounds to stay the blood, and to heal them quickly."
Wall Pennywort is a plant that is easily recognised and is worth adding to the plants you are foraging for. It really is an enjoyable edible wild plant to be eaten as a salad vegetable or to add to sandwiches.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Rare Canary Islands Bencomia shrub grows to the size of trees in Cuevas Negras

Bencomia caudata Photo by David Parkes

Many years ago the Findhorn village in Scotland made the news because of the gigantic plants and vegetables that grew there, and this was believed to have happened due to the magical assistance of nature spirits. Findhorn was soon to become a thriving New Age community and still is to this day. Now a rare shrub known as Bencomia caudata has been found growing to the size of small trees here in Tenerife in the Canary Islands.
According to author and botanist David Bramwell in his book Wild Flowers of the CanaryIslands, this particular species of Bencomia only reaches 2 m in height and he describes it as a “small shrub.” However, whilst out walking with friends I discovered a number of specimens of this rare plant that had developed into small trees and reached 4 m or more. Some of these had proper branches and trunks as well. They are of the beaten track and hidden away in the garden of an abandoned house in the Cuevas Negras area above Los Silos.

Bencomia caudata tree. Photo by David Parkes

I contacted Bramwell and he has confirmed that the small trees are B. caudata but a lot bigger than usual. It is thought that the fertile soil where they are growing has caused their fantastic increase in size. The Cuevas Negras ravine they are in is sheltered and receives plenty of water. Most of the vegetation growing there is very tall, green and luxuriant. There are very high plants of some sort of Cabbage in the garden as well and my friend Holly van Heffernan was photographed by one of these to show just how tall they are.

Holly van Heffernan with a Cuevas Negras cabbage. Photo by Steve Andrews

The Bencomia genus of shrubs is actually in the Rosacae or Rose family but only an experienced botanist would be likely to realise this because the shrubs do not look anything like the popular flower we all know so well. They are evergreens and have attractive pinnate leaves. The flowers are carried in inflorescences that later on turn into tightly packed globular fruits. The flowers are either male or female and the plants are dioecious.

Palo de Sangre the Stick of Blood. Photo by Steve Andrews 

The leaf-form of the Bencomia species bears a resemblance to those of the Stick of Blood or “Palo de Sangre” (Marcetella moquiniana) that is another uncommon shrub found in Tenerife. It gets its name from having the upper parts of its stems covered in bright red hairs. This shrub is in the Rose family too. It grows on cliffs, slopes and in ravines in the wild but is frequently cultivated in parks and gardens for its ornamental value.
There are another three species of Bencomia that are endemics of the Canary Islands.  B.exstipulata grows in various locations in the highlands of Mt Teide, B. sphaerocarpa is surving in small populations on the forest cliffs of El Hierro, and B. brachystachya is a shrub that is only found in Gran Canaria. All of the Bencomias are very rare plants and protected species.

Copyright © 2013 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.