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NATURE NOTES: The botany behind the Pendle Witches
Ask anybody from East Lancashire what they know about April 1612 and they all say Pendle Witches.
Were the women (and one man) who died actually witches? In the evil sense of the world the answer is probably no. They were certainly feared by many of the local people because they dabbled in herbalism.
Because of this anniversary there will be lots of material written and shown by TV some of which will be pure fiction. There are, however, some facts.
In the days before we had doctors and chemists people made use of the herbs found in the countryside and those involved in the witch trials were among the most skilled.
There is no doubt that most of the herbal cures were either useful or of no relevance but a few were dangerous. One rare plant which grows in the area was Bella Donna also known as Deadly Nightshade and another was the much more common fly agaric which is a red and white mushroom-like fungus.
When mixed into an ointment with animal fat and rubbed on the skin a sensation of ‘flying’ is produced. This Flying Ointment explains the witches flying about on broomsticks. No doubt over the next few months there will be stories of a little fact and a lot of fiction.
What we must do is to enjoy the events taking place but keep a close eye open to ensure we retain every grain of truth.
Photograph those Easter blooms
One of the most exciting times for children in days gone by was to spend Easter picking bunches of flowers to take home for their mothers.
Some, like the lesser celandine (pictured) soon wilted but species like the primrose lasted for a long time.
Some of our flowers are now so rare it is right that we now have laws preventing them from being picked. These days, however, there is still good reason to enjoy the hobby of flower watching and the digital cameras are so good that I know many naturalists who have wonderful collections of flower portraits. I have my photographs on one side and my notes on the other.
At one time both the lesser celandine and the primrose had medical uses.
The celandine roots were dug up and had two uses. They were shaped like a cows udder. The plant was hung in cowsheds to improve the yield of milk but I doubt if this did any good. Drinking the juice made from celandine roots must have worked because this brew was a powerful laxative.
Primrose flowers mixed with mutton fat produced an ointment which was used to treat cuts and bruises.
The joy of flower watching is identification books are not expensive and you don’t have to travel very far to see and photograph flowers.
Squirrels: It's all in the tufts
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that at this time of year some grey squirrels can look quite red.
I mentioned that the best way to tell the reds from the greys is to look at their ears. In the case of the reds the ears have tufts of hairs on top and with the grey squirrel then ears are smoulk.
I mentioned in that article that I was going to visit the Lake District to look out for red squirrels. I went into three areas and on the third occasion – around Thirlmere – I was lucky. I was helped by a friend who for a week before had selected a couple of tree stumps on which he had placed peanuts and other red squirrel goodies.
I saw not one red squirrel feeding but two and their ear tufts were easily seen. It is hard to believe that 100 years ago the red squirrel was so common that it was regarded as a pest and a bounty was paid for each animal handed in dead.
Now the species is extinct over most of England and we must look after all the areas in which they are still found.
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