Herb-Robert and wildlife

A painting of the wildflower called Herb-Robert, with a few of the insects that visit it. Acrylics on canvas – 50 x 40 cm.


A painting of the wildflower called Herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum). Other names are red robin, death come quickly, storksbill, fox geranium, stinking Bob, squinter-pip (Shropshire), crow’s foot. In North America, it is called (rather more prosaically) Roberts geranium. The prefix ‘Herb’ indicates that a wildflower had historical medical uses. According to Wikipedia, Herb-Robert was “…used in the folk medicine of several countries, including as a treatment for diarrhea, to improve the functioning of the liver and gallbladder, for toothache and nosebleeds, and as a vulnerary (used for or useful in healing wounds)”. Wikipedia goes on: “Freshly picked leaves have an odour resembling burning tires when crushed, and if they are rubbed on the body the smell is said to repel mosquitoes.”

“Who was the Robert for whom this his “holy herb” was named? Many suppose that he was St. Robert, a Benedictine monk, to whom the twenty-ninth of April–the day the plant comes into flower in Europe–is dedicated. Others assert that Robert Duke of Normandy, for whom the “Ortus Sanitatis,” a standard medical guide for some hundred of years, was written, is the man honored; and since there is now no way of deciding the mooted question, we may take our choice.

Only when the stems are young are they green; later the plant well earns the name of Red Shanks, and when its leaves show crimson stains, of Dragon’s Blood.
At any time the herb gives forth a disagreeable odor, but especially when its leaves and stem have been crushed until they emit a resinous secretion once an alleged cure for the plague.
Taken from ‘Wild Flowers Worth Knowing’, ‘From Nature’s Garden’, Neltje Blanchan, 1917, adapted by Asa Don Dickinson.

The insects

The British Ecological Society’s Journal of Ecology lists at least 43 animal species for which Herb-Robert is a food plant, yet this commonplace denizen of paths and ditches is virtually ignored. I have included three of those species in the painting:

  • Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)
  • Beautiful plume moth (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla)
  • Dicyphus errans

The young Spanish slug (Arion vulgaris) is interested but will find the leaves unpleasant if it tries to eat them.

I would like to paint an enormous wall-sized canvas depicting many of these unassuming plants and creatures. As the number of species of wildflower (and the numbers of individuals) drops exponentially in the world, it seems more important than ever to be aware of the lives that remain.

You might also like this painting of a rose and a fly, or this one of nasturtiums after the rain.