Green Alkanet – credit Pete O’Connor
Yes, I know what you’re thinking – it’s blue. So why is it called green alkanet? The second part of its scientific, latin, name (Pentaglottis sempervirens) means ‘always alive’ or evergreen, possibly because the leaves start to appear in late winter or early spring, adding a splash of green to the last grey tendrils of winter. Plus the plant hangs around until well into the summer, so quite a while even though it’s not technically evergreen. Another common name for this flower is ‘evergreen alkanet’.
It’s a cousin of the forget-me-not, borage and comfrey and is a very good food plant for bumblebees, some solitary bees, hoverflies, orange tip butterflies, and the caterpillars of the scarlet tiger moth. It likes growing along walls and buildings so it’s quite common to find it in urban areas where it escaped from gardens hundreds of years ago. It’s hardy, easy to grow and is hardly touched by pests or diseases so it’s great addition to your wildlife patch in the garden – just don’t let it take over as it spreads by runners as well as seeds. Its tap root is long so it’s best to dig up any excess plants to keep it under control.
It’s thought that green alkanet was introduced here from the Mediterranean area and the name, alkanet, is derived from the Arabic for henna. A red dye can be extracted from the roots which could’ve been useful to cloth-makers and weavers and be the reason why it was brought here. French women were reported to add it to face ointment to give a rosy hue to their skin though this affect didn’t last long apparently.
Culpepper, the medieval authority on the medicinal uses of plants, recommended it for curing hot inflammation, old ulcers, burns. He said that when turned into a vinegar, it helps treat leprosy, yellow jaundice, spleen and ‘gravel in the kidneys’, and when drunk as a wine relieved back pain, strengthened the back and was ‘as gallant a remedy to drive out smallpox and measles as any is’.
Its leaves make good ‘weed soup’ – pack them into a bucket of water and leave to rot down to produce a rich fertiliser that you can use as plant food. The leaves and stems are covered with bristly hairs which will irritate your skin so wear gloves if you handle it or, better still, look (and admire) but don’t touch!