Blue and Candian Fleabane - Erigeron acer and Erigeron canadensis
Visiting the Down in early September, I found Blue Fleabane in some abundance still flowering amongst the young trees on the higher ground of Youth and Magog Woods. Although not one of our better known wild flowers, this plant (a member of the Compositae - the Dandelion family) is locally common on dry calcareous soils and conditions on Magog Down obviously suit it very well. Blue Fleabane has narrow leaves, borne on slender, reddish stems (up to eighteen inches high), which branch to produce panicles of compact flower heads. Each head is rather more than a centimetre in diameter and is tightly encircled by linear, green, red-tipped bracts within which a ring of pale purple ray florets surround the yellow tube florets of a small central disk. By the time I saw the plants in September, their flowering season was almost (but not quite) over and on most plants the florets had been replaced by seeds. To aid dispersal by the wind each seed bears a pappus of hairs and before these have fully expanded the seed-heads look for all the world like small shaving brushes.
Canadian Fleabane was introduced into this country in the 17th century. It is said that the seeds were present in material used by a North American taxidermist to stuff a bird which was then exported to England. Once here, it spread very rapidly as a weed of cultivation and of waste ground and waysides. It is not surprising, therefore, that it may be found in odd corners of the Down, especially where the soil has been disturbed. It has much branched, very leafy stems bearing long and somewhat "untidy" panicles of flower heads which are much smaller (3 - 5mm) and paler than those of its more attractive blue cousin. The plant is reputed to have valuable medicinal properties, being astringent, diuretic and tonic. In the past it has been used in treating conditions as diverse as diabetes, kidney diseases, dysentery and inflamed tonsils.
Their names suggest that both the plants described have insecticidal properties. When Common Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica) is burnt its smoke is said to drive out fleas and other insects. I can, however, find no reference to Blue or Canadian Fleabane having been used in this way and would welcome any information on this point.
One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.
Photo by Jill Butler