Today we are going to do something a bit different. I’m tired of commenting on the antics of Theresa May, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin et al, so here is a chapter from my book-in-progress, “Medicinal Plants of the Isle of Man”. The information in it is extremely local to the Isle of Man, so I would like to apologise in advance to readers in Texas and other foreign parts who have never seen a wild garlic or Wall Pennywort plant, but you might find the general principles interesting. This book is meant to be a companion volume to “Post Peak Medicine” and to explain to local readers in the Isle of Man how and where where to find local medicinal plants and what to use them for. The post on WordPress includes a picture of a blackthorn flower, taken by me at Ballaugh, Isle of Man, yesterday, so if you are getting this by email which doesn’t include the photograph, you might want to take a look at the original. So here goes:
If you are new to herbal medicine and wondering where to start, I’d like to take you on a guided walk from Ballaugh to Bishopscourt in the Isle of Man, along the old railway track, and encourage you to practise mindfulness along the way. No, I’m not talking about some New Age hippy nonsense, I’m simply asking you to pay attention to what you see along the way, and particularly to what plants are growing where, and why, as this will help you to find them later when you need them. If you don’t live in the Isle of Man, you can still practise doing your mindfulness walk somewhere else; just follow the general principles.
First please note that I’ve described the walk as taking place in “early Spring”, and not for example on 25th March (which is when it actually took place). This is because Spring is when the plants think it is, not when you think it ought to be. Owing to some unusually harsh weather recently, Spring is at least a couple of weeks later this year than usual, and if you were to do this walk on 25th March next year you might find it entirely different.
Our walk takes place on a section of the old Manx Northern Railway, which opened in 1879 and which used to run from Ramsey to St Johns. It closed in 1969, the track was taken up and part of the route is now a public footpath.
Because it is a former railway, the track bed is level but the surrounding land isn’t. As a result the walk goes through a series of embankments and cuttings which create a series of micro-climates favouring the growth of different species. As you walk, you should of course admire the breathtaking Manx scenery, but I also want you to pay particular attention to what is within 10 feet of you.
The embankments are raised above the level of the surrounding land, creating an exposed, dry, sunny, windy environment. This favours the growth of plants like grasses, gorse, blackthorn and bramble, which grow vigorously and tend to crowd out other species.
In the cuttings there is more shelter from the wind and sun, favouring the growth of other species. As you walk through a cutting, are the sides gently or steeply sloping? It makes more difference than you might think. Gently sloping sides let more light in and favour the growth of grasses. Steeply sloping sides let in in less light, discouraging the more vigorous species and allowing the rarer and more delicate species to gain a foothold. Take note of the compass bearing or the direction of the sun. The north facing wall of the cutting is cooler and damper and here you will find damp loving plants such as mosses and hart’s tongue fern. The south facing wall is slightly warmer and dryer and you are more likely to find wall pennywort (navelwort) here, which loves vertical surfaces (hence its name) and has in the past been used as a sterile dressing for wounds and burns.
The trees are mostly still bare, but the blackthorn flowers are coming out (the flowers appear before the leaves) and the new shoots of elders are beginning to show. Take note of where the elder bushes are if you are planning to make elderflower wine later this year. In late Spring these bushes produce masses of sweetly scented elderflowers which make a very nice wine, but you only have about a two week window to collect the flowers. If you miss them, then they are gone until next year.
At some places along the way you will see daffodils and primroses. Look up and you will see a cottage within 100 feet. These are not native wild plants; they were planted by the cottage owners.
At a couple of places along the way you will pass a stream, and at Bishopscourt you can go up into Bishopscourt glen. In these damp places, and in most of the Manx glens at this time of year, wild garlic grows in great profusion, choking out for the time being any slower growing and more delicate plants.
If you are planning to collect plants for use in herbal medicine, it pays to be familiar with your patch and to walk it several times a year, because different things can be seen at different times of year. For example, at this time of year, early Spring, it is obvious that the flowering trees are blackthorns, because they produce flowers at this time of year, before the leaves, whereas hawthorns produce theirs a couple of months later, in late Spring, after the leaves come out. Come back in Summer, however, and the two trees may be difficult to tell apart.
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin