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.
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”.