Alys Fowler: stitchwort

Stitchwort: ‘The real fun is not when it’s in flower, but when it sets seed.’ Photograph: Alamy

I bolted out of the city this weekend on a bike. I didn’t get far, just past the city limits through suburbia and into that posh bit that surrounds any city.

I took the canal path. These routes run like veins through our sprawl – relic slices of countryside that are full of wildlife. Butterflies raced along with me, ducks lazed on the banks, rabbits hopped about and everywhere was ablaze with something in flower.

I raced along notching up sightings, but it was a common thing that got me off my bike. Along the hedgerows, in the sunny spots of dappled shade, the tiny white flowers of greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) shone, so slender and delicate.

It’s a native wildflower, of roadsides, banks and woodland edges. It has an equally common sibling, lesser stitchwort (S. graminea). The lesser has smaller flowers (1.5cm across); the greater stitchwort flowers are 3cm across. It could be confused with another relative, chickweed (S. media), though the stitchworts grow to 50cm in height and have thinner, finer leaves. Both are perennial, whereas chickweed is annual.

The stems are fragile, breaking easily, so they are easy to pick. Many of the common local names refer to this: daddy’s shirt button, poor-man’s buttonhole, shirt buttons and brassy buttons. Those days when there was enough for anyone to pick are long gone. Still, the real fun is not when it’s in flower, but when it sets seed. Stitchwort has an extraordinary seed dispersal mechanism, firing off its seed to gain new ground. If you disturb a large patch, the seed goes off like fireworks making a pop. This never fails to impress small children (or for, that matter, this large one).

Greater stitchwort can easily be co-opted for the garden. It prefers semi-shaded woodland edges and likes slightly damp conditions, so does well at the base of a hedge or under trees. It would happily scramble up through a shrub, rose or long grass: as long as its roots are cool, it’s happy. It starts flowering around the end of March through to the beginning of July.

Buy seeds online (try or catch some errant popping ones). Sow in autumn, covered with a little grit and leave outside over winter. By early spring the first tender leaves will appear. If it’s very happy, it may spread too fast. This is easily rectified by pulling it up: I can’t imagine stitchwort swamping anyone’s style. And it is a nectar source for the rare wood white butterfly. If you’re lucky you could come across a delicate white butterfly feeding off an equally delicate white flower, which is quite something.