Hedge woundwort – a beautiful wild flower loved by bees

Close up view of a hedge woundwort flower showing the art deco-style markings

There’s a path I often take on my way into town.   It runs between the back gardens of two rows of houses and is probably an ancient right of way.  Much of the path is lined by old stone walls, softened in summer by the pinks and purples of valerian and campanula. Walking along here one early June morning, I was surprised to find a dense mass of flower spikes, some up to a metre tall, rising from a bank usually covered in rough grass.  Whorls of purplish red flowers decorated with white art deco-style patterns grew around each stem above heart-shaped leaves, toothed and pale green, nettle-like but without the sting.  This is hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica).  To some, it’s an invasive weed but to me it’s a beautiful wild flower, attractive to insects and with interesting medicinal properties.

A bumblebee feeding from the flowers

Small bumblebees were drinking nectar from the flowers in their lazily laconic manner, pushing their tongue between the three-lobed lower lip and the curving upper lip, acquiring an involuntary dusting of pollen from the hidden stamens.   Hedge woundwort is, though, a particular favourite of another smaller bee species, one with a very different personality.   One of these was moving edgily from flower to flower stopping very briefly to feed, emitting a distinctive high-pitched buzz as it went.  It was about half the size of a honeybee, a non-descript brown except for some orange hairs on the tail and a golden pollen brush on the back legs.  This was a female fork-tailed flower bee (Anthophora furcata).  While she was feeding, another small bee arrived at high speed, a similar brown colour but with prominent yellow hairs on the face.   This was the male fork-tailed flower bee; he hovered briefly behind the female buzzing loudly before pouncing. Both bees ended up falling to the ground. 

Hedge woundwort and the closely related marsh woundwort have a long history of use in folk medicine for wound healing. The 16th century surgeon Gerard once witnessed a man cut himself badly with a scythe.  Gerard offered help but the man refused and poulticed the injury himself with woundwort, stopping the bleeding; his wound healed in a few days.  Gerard went on to use the plant in his own practice but, his professional pride piqued by the man’s rejection, christened it “clowne’s woundwort”.  

A female fork-tailed flower bee feeding from the flowers.

A female fork-tailed flower bee in flight with a glimpse of the orange hairs on the tip of her abdomen.
A male fork-tailed flower bee feeding by pushing his tongue between the two main parts of a flower. His yellow facial markings are showing.
Male fork-tailed flower bee in flight with his tongue ready to feed.

6 thoughts on “Hedge woundwort – a beautiful wild flower loved by bees”

  1. Fantastic photographs! I cannot recall having seen this flower near us. I think it looks lovely. Too lovely to be called a weed, perhaps a wild herb with incursive tendencies :)? Amelia

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  2. Thanks Amelia, I was pleased with the photos but these bees are very difficult to capture on camera. Yes, a wild herb with incursive tendencies! It may be too hot and dry where you live for the plant to grow but I see it has been reported in Lorraine and by Lake Geneva,

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  3. I’m not at all familiar with Hedge woundwort but it is very appealing. I think the beautiful purple flowers with that interesting pattern must stand out as prominent in a field of other wildflowers. What a wonderful bonus that they attract such lovely bees, as well. 🙂

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  4. Thanks Debra, the plant has been introduced to the US but I doubt it would tolerate the southern California climate. I particularly like the patterns on the flowers, it’s these little details that are so appealing.

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  5. These photos are beautiful, Philip. I appreciate how difficult it is to capture these tricky little animals. I liked the woundwort story very much. I followed the dances of honey bees in my observation hive one summer and found them on woundwort more than 2 miles away!

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  6. Thanks Ann, glad you liked the stories etc. Interestingly, I didnt see honeybees on the woundwort but there was so much other potential forage about that the honeybees could afford to be choosy!

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