Speedwell – A botanical to ‘Speed You Well’
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Beautiful Botanicals by Joanne Howdle
Common field speedwell (Veronica persica), is also known as Persian speedwell, because this botanical is probably native to the mountains of Northern Iran, where it was first recorded growing in the wild in 1826.
Common field speedwell is one of several species of low, sprawling speedwells that bear solitary flowers arising from the leaf axils.
This botanical, however, can be distinguished from other speedwell by its large sky-blue flowers with dark veins. Common field speedwell, which was first recorded in the British Isles in 1825, can be found in flower every month of the year, but is at its peak between June and September.
It was given the scientific name Veronica – literally ‘true image’ – after a compassionate woman who wiped Jesus’s face when he was on his way to Calvary. The woman’s cloth is said to have become miraculously imprinted with an image of Christ’s features. This woman later became known as Saint Veronica.
The markings on some of the flowers of speedwell are said to resemble the stains from Jesus’s face that appeared on Veronica’s sacred cloth. Saint Veronica is now the patron saint of photographers.
The origin of the name speedwell is debatable. It may refer to speedwell’s healing properties, its ability to spread rapidly in tilled soils, or its use in nosegays – fragrant bouquets of flowers, which in the past were often given as farewell gifts with the warm words, ‘Speed You Well’.
However, the name speedwell may also come from the fact that before the advent of motor vehicles, the bright blue flowers of this botanical, which often form in clumps along hedgerows, grassy lanes and roadsides, were appreciated by travellers, so it became known as the wildflower to ‘Speed You Well’.
This interpretation may be supported by the fact that in Scotland and Ireland, speedwell was often sewn into the clothing of a person before they embarked on a journey as a lucky charm in order to protect them from accidents. Historically, in Scotland, speedwell was also thought to repel witches, demons and other assorted evil spirits.
In traditional medicine, speedwell was used to treat an assortment of different health conditions, ranging from the common cold to gall stones. The Romans are believed to have learnt about the medicinal properties of speedwell from a Germanic tribe known as the Teutons.
Speedwell was used in Scottish medicine in the early 17th century to heal wounds, purify the blood and cure skin diseases. It was also believed to cure measles and smallpox.
Common field speedwell can be a very bitter plant, especially the mature ones. That is why in the past people ate this botanical for sustenance only during times of famine or necessity. However, the younger, more tender leaves and shoots of common field speedwell are edible and because they are rich in vitamins and minerals can be added fresh to salads or smoothies.
Some people like to cook speedwell shoots and leaves like collard greens. Common field speedwell leaves can also be made into a healing, herbal tea that has a similar taste to traditional black tea. In fact, Robert Burns's favourite herbal tea contained speedwell.
The leaves of common field speedwell, which when tasted raw can be quite bitter and astringent, when distilled in gin manufacture, their flavour profile changes, and this botanical adds liquorice and treacle-like notes to the spirit.
- Joanne Howdle is tour and events co-ordinator at the multi-award-winning Dunnet Bay Distillers.