A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

Map of the Down

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Jack-by-the-Hedge - Alliaria petiolata

jack_by_the_hedge_315Visiting the Down on April 16th, I was pleased to find, by the gap in the trees at the top of the hill, a small platoon of these old friends standing to attention in their pale green livery of sinuate, heart-shaped leaves and holding erect their compact heads of small white flowers. A glance at those flowers will soon reveal Jack's lineage. The arrangement of their four petals tells us at once that he is a member of the Cruciferae - the 'Cross bearers' - an illustrious family which contains many valuable members from humble cabbages and turnips to the more flamboyant mustard and oilseed rape.

Jack-by-the-Hedge is not one of our more showy wild plants but its regular appearance in the spring is always a cheerful sign that summer is on the way. Bruise the leaves (or, more particularly, the root) and you will soon discover the reason for the plant's other name of 'Garlic Mustard'. Some find the smell unpleasant, but it is no more so than that of garlic proper and it is indicative of a flavour which has often taken Jack from his hedge to become Jack-in-the Kitchen. Known in some parts as 'Sauce Alone', the plant has been used to make a spring sauce which was reckoned to be particularly good with salt fish. It can be boiled to accompany boiled mutton, and eaten as a salad vegetable it is said to 'warm the stomach and strengthen the digestive facilities'. That garlic flavour has its drawbacks however - if cows eat the plant their milk will be tainted.

Medicinally, the plant has been used to induce sweating, and the juice of the leaves (taken alone or boiled with honey) has been recommended for sufferers from the dropsy. The leaves are said to have antiseptic properties and, applied externally, they are reputed to be useful in the treatment of ulcers.

When Easter is late, the earliest flowers of Jack-by-the-Hedge are likely to be blooming in time for the festival - and their crosses of snowy petals reminding us both of Calvary and of the white robed angels in the empty tomb. More prosaically they present us with just one more member of that exuberant vernal flora which bears joyful witness to the resurrection of nature every spring.

David Yarham
May 1997

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