By Charlotte Owen
It may seem like summer is on its way out but there are still some late bloomers spreading colour in the countryside. Patches of common fleabane glow a golden yellow, each flower head resembling a miniature sunburst and providing the perfect landing platform for a plethora of late summer insects. Linger in a sunny spot and your eyes will soon tune in to the tiny movements of hoverflies darting between fleabane flowers, accompanied by bustling honeybees, drowsy wasps and basking butterflies all making the most of the fleabane’s plentiful pollen and nectar. It’s as busy as any human airfield and literally buzzing with insect life.
Take a closer look at the flowers and you’ll see that each one is formed of a dense central cluster of tiny tube-like petals, creating a distinctive dome, which is surrounded by a ring of ‘ray’ petals – although technically each ‘petal’ is actually a complete flower in itself, collectively forming one large flower head. Fleabane flowers look a lot like giant yellow daisies and they are in fact closely related to the common daisy you’ll find in your garden lawn. Both plants belong to the aster family, which is one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world. All members of this family are characterised by the same ‘composite’ flower heads, from the humble dandelion to calming chamomile and a host of garden favourites including dahlias, marigolds and sunflowers.
Fleabane is so-called for its apparent ability to ward off fleas and throughout history it was dried, strewn or burnt in an effort to keep them at bay. Since the living plant does such a good job of attracting insects, it may not have been the most effective of insect repellents but its reputation persisted. The plant’s scientific name is Pulicaria dysenterica, from the Latin for flea (pulex) and in honour of another of its healing applications in the treatment of dysentery. Old herbals also claim that ‘fleabane bound to the forehead is a great helpe to cure one of the frensie' and it’s good for ‘the itch’ and other skin disorders too – all in all, a very useful plant to have around.