Great Burnet: a wildflower

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Great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) is a plant that is found on damp grasslands in central England and Wales.

The plant grows from 12 to 36 inches (32-90 cm) high and it flowers between June and September. The stems are upright and hairless. The leaves are composed of paired rows of toothed leaflets.

The flowers of this plant are bisexual, in that each flower has both male and female parts that produce abundant nectar for insect pollination. Each flower-head has an oblong outline. The fruit has four wings.

People who studied herbs in the past believed in what was known as the doctrine of signatures – this meant that plants advertised their medicinal powers by outward signs. In the case of great burnet, the dark crimson flower-heads suggested blood, and for centuries the plant was used to staunch wounds and as a remedy for internal bleeding.

In more recent times, a root of great burnet, if freshly dug up and peeled, was applied to burns to relieve the pain and encourage healing. This reputation is preserved in the botanical name, the first part of which means blood-absorbing.

Great burnet is not as common as it once was due to the increased efficiency of British farming.

Salad burnet, which can indeed be eaten in salads, is related to great burnet but is much smaller having male only flowers in the lower part of the head, which flower first, while the female and bisexual flowers, which are higher up the head, open later. This is a common device used by wind-pollinated plants to avoid self-fertilisation.

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