Zuri, in 2200 BC, will have her own name for pignut. Our Latin name of Conopodium majus will mean nothing to her. If she used the Basque language of her ancestors then pignut translates as Txerri intxaur; quite a mouthful.
Recognising the Plant
Pignut can be recognised as a small white flower, usually in late April or May. It is a similar plant to the cow parsley but on a small scale, little more than a foot high. Its leaves are fernlike and difficult to find amongst all the other foliage. This is why the flower gives the plant away. When Shakespeare mentions ‘nutting’ in May, this is the plant he refers to, and it is not a ‘nut’. At the base of the plant, a few inches under the soil, is an edible corm. This is about the size of a walnut and can be ground down to make a form of flour. It is said to have saved whole communities from famine in the Middle Ages.
Modern Farming Destroys it!
What is remarkable is that the plant detests ploughing and artificial fertilisers, so we see little of it in fields today. Plant guidebooks will call it common, but that is not true. It exists in woodland and on field boundaries where the plough cannot reach, more so in hill country. I saw masses of it on the Cornish cliff slopes in 2018, mostly on NT land, where they recognise and cherish it.
Pigging on Pignut
Zuri’s people, as the first farmers, cleared woodland and unable to plough, would have seen it flourish in their new ‘pastures’. Perhaps they reserved it for pigs to grub up. That would have made a real mess of the pastures, so perhaps they ate it themselves, a nutritious food in the sparse springtime, and kept the meadows for the cows to graze.
The flower can be seen in these photographs of the exceptional wildflower meadows at Hinton Admiral, a house and grounds outside Christchurch. Take care! When it grows, as here, with bluebell, people get confused and eat the bluebell bulbs by mistake, and they are poisonous.