Species of the day: Germander Speedwell
By James Duncan
Learning & Engagement Officer
The Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) is perhaps one of the most charming, elegant and attractive British wildflowers, covering grassland and woodland edges in a dense carpet of deep blue. There are actually more than twenty species of Speedwell in Britain, some of which are naturalised, many of which are remarkably easy to confuse. Amongst them they occupy a huge range of habitats, where some are annuals, some are perennials, some are plentiful and some are really quite rare. Germander Speedwell is certainly one of the most abundant, a species native to both Europe and Asia, flowering most typically from April through to July. The dense clumps formed by the flowers may give the appearance of eyes peeking from amongst the foliage, giving it the alternative name of 'Bird's Eye Speedwell.' In fact, it was once believed that should the flowers be picked, the punishment would be to have one's eyes pecked out by birds.
Though the Germander Speedwell has an extensive variety of vernacular names, the word 'Speedwell' may itself have a variety of meanings. The most likely is derived from its use in folk medicine, where it was considered to have significant medicinal value in healing wounds, purifying the blood, clearing respiratory congestion and even curing gout. Its effectiveness was claimed to be so rapid that it led to a 'speedy' recovery. Many of these treatments involved the plant being made into a tea, something so well-established during the 1800's that it even caused declines in localised populations. Owing to the flower's propensity to quickly wilt upon picking, 'speed well' may alternatively have been seen as a parallel to 'farewell.' In Irish tradition, it was seen as a good-luck charm and its common sight on verges and byways may have sent travellers 'speeding on their way.' It was even pinned or sewn into clothing to provide protection from accidents.
The naming of the genus Veronica is equally fascinating, the word perhaps arising from the Latin for 'true image.' This may be dedicated to Saint Veronica, who was said to have wiped Christ's forehead on his way to the crucifixion, finding a perfect image of his face pressed into the cloth she had used. It may alternatively stem from a couple of words in Ancient Greek, translating to 'I bring victory', once again suggestive of its curative properties. The name Germander seems to refer to either a corruption of Latin or a Greek word symbolising its 'ground-loving' nature. It's certainly not wrong, for Germander Speedwell is a sprawling plant, rarely reaching more than 30cm, which opens its flowers in bright sunlight to provide a great nectar source for a variety of insects including many solitary bees. It may even serve as one of the larval food plants for the the incredibly rare Heath Fritillary.
Germander Speedwell © James Duncan