A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

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Goat's-beard - Tragopogon pratense

goatsbeard_238A locally common plant of waysides and grassland, goatsbeard is a summer-flowering member of the daisy family (Compositae) its 'flowers' being, in fact, compact heads has heads of many small florets. Unlike the daisy, it has no central disk of tubular florets, all are ligulate (= 'strap-shaped'), and its detached heads could easily be mistaken for those of dandelions were it not for the ring of long, pointed bracts which protrude well beyond the outermost florets. The flower heads are born terminally on smooth, sparsely branched stems, slightly enlarged beneath the heads and growing to a height of 30 - 70 cm. The leaves are narrow, partly sheathing the stems at their bases and narrowing to a definite point at their tips. The most characteristic feature of the plant, however, is the handsome seed head which gives the plant both its common English and its scientific names (trago-pogon means 'goat's beard' in Greek). Each seed bears a long beak which terminates in a ring of filamentous hairs, each hair bearing even finer lateral hairs which give it a feathery appearance. At maturity each ring of interwoven hairs is higher at the edge than in the centre so the whole seed head is a delicate globe with its surface composed of many saucer-shaped facets. Amongst the plant's less commonly used English name's, Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon is perhaps the most evocative and is certainly the most descriptive. Like many of its wild relatives, goat's beard will close its flower-heads in damp weather but, unlike its more wakeful cousins, it also closes them around mid-day however bright and dry the weather may be.

Gerard writes of it that "it shutteth itself at twelve of the clocke, and sheweth not his face open until the next dayes Sun doth make it flower anew". Cowley put the plant's idle habits more poetically:

'The goat's beard, which each morn abroad doth peep
But shuts its flowers at noon and goes to sleep
.'

Goat's beard is a close relative of Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) - a plant of Mediterranean origin widely grown as a vegetable (and promoted by the seed firms as 'vegetable oyster'). Not surprisingly, therefore, goat's beard has also had its culinary uses. Roots shoots and flower buds have been used in salads and the young stalks, taken before the flowers appear, can be cut into lengths, boiled and eaten like asparagus. The roots used to be eaten as we now eat parsnips and Culpepper is said to have recommended them, dressed with butter, as being 'good for cold, watery stomachs' (though I've been unable to find a reference to this in my copy of the great man's 'Complete Herbal'). The plant has diuretic properties and has also been used for the relief of heartburn and for loss of appetite. Dieter Podlech, in the Collins Guide to Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain & Europe, notes that a syrup made from it is a good expectorant and that 'a petal infusion cleanses the skin'. Whether or not the plant will help your 'cold, watery stomach I'm in no position to say. If, however, your interests lie in the spiritual rather than the medicinal, you will find the delicate, three-dimensional mandala of the seed head a perfect focus for quiet contemplation.

David Yarham
April 2005

See also...

Report of the visit from Cambridge Natural History Society in August 2017


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016


News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler