Flowering Scilly

Wall Pennywort or Navelwort, Umbilicus rupestris, Crassulaceae (Stonecrop family)

"Time of the daisy, sunshine and shower, Time for rejoicing in springtime’s bright bower." John Harris (Nineteenth century)

When Easter arrives the islands blaze with colour. The daffodil and narcissi harvest is virtually over, although there remain a few open that have escaped from cultivation. Other flowers, grown from market, can also be found in the wild. Watch for the Sparaxis grandiflora, the Harlequin flower, varicoloured as its name suggests, and the pink Corn Lily, Ixia paniculata. In a few secret places grows the lovely Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum. Across the Lower Moors Trail the Grey Sallow, Salix cinerea, covers itself with soft catkins and because it likes wet place are found with strands of Yellow Iris, Iris pseudacorus, with stiff sword-like leaves. In hedgerows and in field verges are forget-me-nots, storksbills and clovers. On dry, stony ground neat the shore the Dwarf Pansy, Viola kitaibeliana, can still be found, the whole plant barely three centimetres high. It flowers early and is already almost over. Just to fool us, an odd flower can open at the ‘wrong’ time. In the first few months of last year I watched an Agapanthus praecox, the beautiful large Blue or African Lily, open, although it should not have flowered until May! 

In this article I should like to concentrate on a flower that often puzzles visitors. Although common in the islands it is not so widespread on the mainland because of its sensitivity to frost. The Wall Pennywort of Navelwort has a preferred habitat, as the first name suggests. It grows on walls and steep banks in which its deep, tuberous roots are embedded. From the rootstocks arise loose clusters of leaves of a relatively light green colour. Each has a stem attached to the centre of the underside, with a complementary depression on the upper surface of the leaf. It is this depression that gives it the name of Navelwort, (Wort being simply an Anglo-Saxon word for a plant), the generic part of the botanical name of Umbilicus and country names of Lady’s navel and the delightful Dimplewort as it resembles a ‘tummy button’. It once had the botanical name of Cotyledon from the Greek word Kotyle, meaning a cavity or cup. The specific part of the botanical name rupestris is from the Latin, rupes – a rock, hence the whole translates as a navel or cup on the rocks.

In spring the flower spike towers upwards, gaining protection from the wall or bank behind. Some small leaves are attached to the lower half of this spike, but the upper half is covered with a series of whitish green bell-shaped flowers, each with five small teeth on the rim. The height of the spikes can vary considerably according to the richness of the soil. In a dry stone wall crevice it may be only a matter of five centimetres tall, whereas on a deep soiled bank it can rise to twenty centimetres or more. At the end of the season the spike often remains, a withered rusty brown colour, and can persist throughout the winter until the next season. Some green leaves can be found all year round.

Its culinary uses are limited, being only tasty as an additive to salads and sandwiches when the leaves are young.
Belief in its medicinal powers give it a more widespread use. Culpeper suggested that it "Healeth all inflammations, hot tumours and St. Anthony’s fire. It healeth kibed heels, being bathed therewith and the leaves applied. The leaves and roots break stones, provoke urine and cure the dropsy." It was also used as a dressing to cure corns. This would account for yet more country names such as Kidney wort and Corn Leaves.

Finally Ladies, it was once used in love philtres and chants and so given the name of Venus’s Navel! If you have problems with your love-life, place a Pennywort leaf under your pillow, and you will dream of your love and he will dream of you!

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