Species of the day: Germander Speedwell

, 16 May 2020
Species of the day: Germander Speedwell
Germander Speedwell © James Duncan

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 Speedwell1

Germander Speedwell © James Duncan

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  • Pat:

    A great picture of a patch of GS, James. I was entranced by similar huge swathes of this this most spectacular of Veronicas on the east slope at the lower end of Devil’s Dyke.

    You're right, it really is the most exquisite little flower. The closer you get, the better it becomes! James

    13 Aug 2020 06:58:00

  • You said how there are many different types of speedwell and they’re very hard to tell apart; I’m really struggling to find the one that I want to get seeds for.

    I see it when I’m walking my dog growing in the field amongst the grass. It’s very very short, very low-growing but I’m constantly directed to Forget-me-nots or Speedwells that are very similar, but they are just not short enough. Would you have any thoughts on which particular variety it might be so I can try and find the right seeds?

    13 Apr 2024 18:41:00