by Paul Cormacain
THERE were about one hundred of us at the Annual Bluebell Walk in Colin Glen Forest Park and we were all warned to be particularly careful when in the vicinity of hogweed.
You may be able to deduce from the name that this plant used to be gathered as fodder for pigs, and there is no record of us humans ever being affected by hogweed after it went through the pigs' digestive system. The bacon was always fine!
In the past, children have used the hollow stems of hogweed as pea shooters. Do you remember that? Yet again our forefathers used to eat hogweed, when the young leaves would be boiled, and the resultant food would be very asparagus-like, and considered a delicacy. Have not heard of anyone doing this lately.
We were introduced to hogweed, and also its larger version, the giant hogweed. We learned about the origins of its scientific name, which in each case begins with Heracleum. This is a version of the name of the Greek hero Hercules, who also got Hercules from the Romans, and they in turn believed that the hogweed had medicinal values.
No matter about the so-called medicinal properties, we were told why to avoid it, the giant hogweed in particular. Ordinary hogweed contains a volatile substance, which can cause the skin to blister and be marked if you come in contact with it. The giant hogweed is much worse, contains much more and much stronger volatile substances, and should be avoided like the plague.
Then there were other flowers growing in the area, the Arum maculatum, one of the most beautiful flowers in the country. The Arum root contains starch, which used to be sold as Portland Sago in England.
It was regarded as an excellent cure for the palsy, and it sometimes worked wonders for the dumb, we are told. In fact one `wise' man affirmed that if half the root of an Arum was "fresh gathered and bruised, will sometimes restore speech at once".
But the beauty of the flower comes with a price. It has the smell of carrion, and is fertilised by carrion flies. It is a well-known flower, and in the English language it also gets cuckoo pint, priest-pintle, lords and ladies and wake robin. Beautiful to look at, but the seeds form a cluster of massed and bright red berries. And they are highly poisonous! If you ever see a child eat them later on in the year, you are advised to get that child to spit up, and get him to a hospital as soon as possible. Beauty with a price!
At the Annual Bluebell Walk Day in Colin Glen Forest Park the sun shone all day, it was wonderful, but we still had to face the reality of poisonous if beautiful flowers.
Folk turned up with a variety of backgrounds. There was one Dane there, with excellent English and other foreign languages. An ex-teacher turned up, and he had a doctorate in trivia, which meant he could amuse in many subjects. Nice folk from the Ormeau Road rubbed shoulders with nice folk from Lisburn and Belfast, and a group of young scouts kept us adults on our toes.
Catherine and Paul increased our knowledge of things botanical, pointed out birds and their nests, talked about the animals who were staying away from the big crowd, showed us butterflies and trees. And then there where the bluebells.
The bluebell is a lovely flower, but with beauty comes nomenclature trouble. It used to get hairbell in England, Wales and Scotland.
Now in Scotland the harebell gets the name of bluebell. Was the hairbell the harebell? Then the foxglove used to be the bluebell in Scotland. In England the name used to be crowtoe, but I cannot find when that was changed to bluebell. If you go into scientific names, you have the choice of Scilla non-scripta, or alternatively, Hyacinthoides non scripta. I should have asked the Dane for a few more names for the bluebell, but at this stage we may all have gone 'loopy', or home!
The bluebell is a wonderful flower, always seems to come in masses in forest floors. But it will also grow in hedges, and on scrubland, as well as sea cliffs and in the mountains. The ones in Colin Glen were very numerous, and well worth a visit.
Like the Arum, the bluebell bulb contains starch. This starch was used to stiffen collars in the decadent classes, when the work was done by the even more decadent classes! The bulbs were also used to make glue!
When we were young we used to bring the flowers home to please the mother. This is frowned upon now, indeed it would be illegal to pick any wild flower. But it is better to enjoy flowers in the wild where they can live out their full life, rather than die prematurely in a vase at home. Another good reason for going to Colin Glen forest Park to see the wonderful flowers!