RAY COLLIER’S HIGHLAND COUNTRY DIARYCommon lady’s mantle is unusual in a number of ways. To start with it looks and is all green as even the flowers are green, formed by rings of sepals and no petals. Its large leaves, sometimes over four inches across, fold up overnight rather like cloaks or umbrellas. To modern eyes the folded leave resemble half-opened umbrellas. In contrast the tiny flowers look rather incongruous and the lack of petals is a surprise. It is often a prostrate plant but can grow taller and it seems to be largely ignored by grazing animals such as red deer, roe deer and sheep.
The name of this plant refers to a large number of different species with slight variations between some of them. Some do not even have English names. The only obvious one as far as identification is concerned is the alpine lady’s mantle where the leave are much smaller and deeply indented. The lady’s mantle is found throughout the Highlands except for the far north west. In gardens there is an even larger leaved species from the Carpathian mountains and these have become naturalised in some places. Lady’s mantle is found mainly in grassland, including rock ledges, and open woodland. If the roadside verge cutting took place at the right times of the year around Inverness as per the “Code of Conduct” for roadside verge and plants/insect conservation then we would get more lady’s mantle. As it is try looking at the upperparts of roadside verges to see lady’s mantle and a host of other wild flowers including orchids.
There is a slight mystery about lady’s mantle and it revolves round the fact that the soft hairs on the leaves catches the dew. This liquid was called “celestial water” as it obviously had strange properties. The leaves held big pearls of dew when other plants, even in the same locality, had none. These tiny drops of liquid were much prized by the early herbalists to treat wounds and infertility. The alchemist also prized the liquid for its purity and used it to try and turn base metals into gold. Hence its generic Latin name of Alchemilla meaning “little alchemist”. Where the liquid came from is an ongoing debate with one school of thought thinking that it is in the atmosphere and is deposited on the hairs of the large leaves. The other explanation is that it is extruded from the plant itself. Whatever the reason such a powerful and magical plant eventually became Christianised and during the late Middle Ages it was given the title of Our Lady’s Mantle which eventually became lady’s mantle. In official medicine lady’s mantle had a reputation as a wound healer and Culpepper in 1653 stated it was “one of the most singular wound herbs that is”. The plant is still used today by medical herbalists.
Lady’s mantle also held a secret that was apparently not revealed until last year. Prior to 2008 all the books on butterflies mentioned that the caterpillars of the orange tip butterflies feeds on member of the crucifer family such as cuckoo flower and garlic mustard. Then with the publication of “British Moths and Butterflies” by Chris Manley it was revealed that this butterfly will also use lady’s mantle for its food plant. The photograph was taken last week at around 1300 feet on a steep grassy slope near Inverness. It was a large and robust plant about eighteen inches high. Local names include bear’s foot whilst Scots names include duck’s foot and elf-shot. There are at least two Gaelic names with one being Fallaing Moire meaning Mary’s mantle and the other is Copan an druichd meaning dew cup.