The woodland floor in the warmth of early spring - depending on the vagaries of the weather - gives a sense of wonder that is repeated year after year. The flowers have been on the way for some time with rosettes and stems emerging through the late winter bearing the promise of the beauty to come. These plants often have short blossoming times but colonies linger here and there providing a welcome patchwork of colour after the darker wintertime has passed.
Wood anemone has one of the loveliest of Latin names Anemone nemorosa. Commonly known as windflower, it has the Buckinghamshire names of cuckoo-flower and white soldiers. It is a wonderful sight in spring, appearing almost as a milky-way of white stars drifting through the woods.
Wood sorrel, Oxalis acetosella, has a number of regional names most of which refer to its acidity - salt cellar, sour Sally, bread-and-cheese-and-cider and sour grass give some idea of its flavour. Although it has a pleasingly sharp taste, being good with white fish, it contains Oxalic acid so it is advisable to be cautious and eat only small quantities. It is a beautiful little plant with lovely yellow-green trefoiil leaves and dainty white flowers which fold in on each other like butterfly wings during dull weather. Traditionally it was used as a gargle, a salve and as a readily available source of vitamin C. The herbalist John Gerard wrote that ‘it strengthneth the stomacke, procureth appetite and, of all, Sorrell sauces is the best’.
Luckily a common sight in our local woods and frequently occurring in large colonies, is one of the prettiest of woodland flowers, the bright golden-honey coloured Archangel, Galeobdolon luteum. As one of the dead-nettles it is often overlooked but it is strikingly beautiful with delicate red markings on its lower petals and crimson stigma. The shape of the upper petal forming a hood over the stamens gives the plant its vernacular name weasel-snout although in Buckinghamshire it was known as the dunny nettle.
For many people the archetypal picture of an English spring would be that of a Bluebell wood. Bluebells Hyacinthiodes non-scripta thrive in dappled shade possessing a living, pulsing quality as sunlight hits and they can range in colour from white through to lilac and azure. It is perhaps an unavoidably named flower but lost regional names include ‘crowflower’, ‘griggles’, ‘culvers’ ‘ring o’bells’ and ‘woodbells’. William Turner (in his 1548 ‘Names of Herbes’) was the first to record the Bluebell as we know it, where he points out that people “glew theyr arrows and bokes with that slyme that they scrape off”- its glutinous sap was also used as starch for ruffs. It was in the nineteenth century that the flowers became more frequently written about, especially by poets. Our native bluebells are under threat because of hybridisation with non-native species, particularly the Spanish (Hyacinthoides hispanica) so please don’t be tempted to plant out garden varieties near or in the woods – it does happen…
Wood spurge, Euphorbia amygdaloides, has reddish stems upon which are borne extraordinary candelabra of branches with equally astonishing flowers that are really worth studying close-up. This is best done without breaking the stem which yields a sticky white juice, ‘deers milk’, which is acrid and poisonous. Traditionally the juice was used externally as a wart cure and internally as a purgative.
Coralroot, or coralroot bittercress, Cardamine bulbifera, is a rare beauty with its pale pink-veined flowers and shining purple-brown bubils standing out against the background greenery. It occurs in several places in our local woods but is nationally very scarce, being found mainly in dry calcareous woods in the Chilterns and in wetter, clay woods in the Weald. It flowers early in the season before other vegetation grows to steal the light and spreads through its rootstock and via the bubils which fall off and take root in the soil – these give rise to the Latin bulbifera meaning ‘bulb-bearing’.
Please take the opportunity to visit our local woods
Please take the opportunity to visit our local woods where many of these wonderful plants thrive and allow yourself to fall under a spell of wonder and lose yourself in these timeless displays.