A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

Map of the Down

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White Bryony - Bryonia dioica

white_bryony_315Autumn is the time for berries and amongst the brightest to be found on Magog Down this year have been those of the white bryony - the only native Britsh member of the cucumber family (Cucurbitaceae). You will find it climbing the fence beside the dog-run, especially on the deeper soils at the far end of the reserve. Its long stems with their five-lobed leaves climb by means of tendrils which coil like springs - reversing the direction of the coil half way along their length. It is said that the young shoots can be boiled and eaten as greens, but most parts of the plant are very acrid and are palatable to few animals other than the goat (even rabbits won't eat it). On a more positive note, Augustus Caesar used to wear a bryony wreath during thunderstorms to protect him from lightning!

Bryony flowers may be found from May to September, males and females normally being borne on different plants (though hermaphrodites have been recorded). Pale green and scentless to human senses, the flowers are very attractive to bees. They reflect light of wave-lengths which bees can see, though we can't; and emit volatiles which bees can 'smell', though we can't. The berries, which are emetic and poisonous, may be found from late summer onwards - green at first, then passing through bright scarlet to a final dark crimson. They have, in the past, been used for dyeing.

The plants spring from massive, tuberous rootstocks. The herbalist Gerard was shown one weighing half a hundredweight and being 'of the bigness of a child a year old'. It was for the sake of its root that bryony was often grown by stable doors for much use was made of it by old horsemen. My father used to say that you could make a horse's coat shine by including in its feed enough dried bryony root to cover a sixpence.

In human medicine, preparations made from bryony roots have been used to treat everything from cramp and sciatica to whooping cough and pneumonia. It was, however, the belief that the roots could aid conception which gave bryony its special place in popular superstition. This belief arose from the similarity of bryony roots to those of the mandrake (Mandragora officinalis) which since ancient times had been used to treat sterility in women. Like those of the mandrake, bryony rootstocks are often forked, giving them a somewhat humanoid form. In the past they were often made to look more like babies by being moulded while they were still growing (or trimmed after lifting) and having their tope sown with grass seed to give them hair, or millet seeds inserted into their 'faces' to give them eyes. Such mammets could attract high prices for their magical powers.

David Yarham
October 1994

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