Originally published June 2010
Hello everyone and welcome to another enigmatically titled ramble in the woods! This month I would like to look at three very familiar plants that provide us with a glorious splash of Spring colour before the trees acquire their fresh greenery and the canopy closes to darken the woodland floor for another season.
The first of these, our lovely Wood Anemone (Anemone nemerosa), is seen as the herald of Spring. In fact the name suggests that the appearance of these delicate white blooms is a sign that the March gales are imminent. The Greeks believed that Anemos, The Wind, sent the flowers in early Spring to anounce his arrival. The species name, you will not be surprised to hear, is taken from the latin nemorosus meaning ‘wooded’. As a regular woodland walker, I am always amazed how this carpet of delicate white and yellow flowers seemingly appears overnight. This illusion is in fact not far from reality. A series of wide spreading root stocks under the ground enables the plant to pop up and produce leaves and flowers simultaneously. This system of underground storage also means that the plant does not have to rely on insects for pollination and as such has very little scent.
Our next plant has no qualms about recognition by scent. The Wild Garlic or Ramsom (Allium ursinum) is conspicuous by its bombardment of the olfactory sensors long before you see the clouds of globe-like flowers. For those of you puzzling over the ursine connection, the plant owes its species name to the brown bears habit of digging up the bulbs as a tasty treat.
As far as us Homo sapiens are concerned, all parts of the plant are edible, giving a satisfying taste that does not linger like true garlic. Historically, Ramsom leaves have been used as cattle fodder throughout Europe; the cows producing milk that has a subtle garlic taste to it. The resultant ‘garlic butter’ is still popular in many countries, particularly Switzerland where the pollen evidence suggests they have been feeding Wild Garlic to their beasts since the Mesolithic period.
My last floral subject is possibly one of the most photographed and talked about woodland flowers ever; it is of course the Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). This plant has been synonomous with English woodlands throughout all of our recorded history and many traditional events such as the good old Bluebell walk and even railway trips are dedicated to the annual blue invasion of the countryside.
Like the Wood Anemone and the Ramsom, Bluebells are very much opportunistic plants, using the short time between the milder weather arriving and the tree canopy closing over, to produce the much loved, misty sea of green and blue. Sadly, this quintessential vista is under threat for a number of reasons. People have uprooted the bulbs for many centuries to the extent that it is now illegal to remove them from the diminishing number of wild places in the UK. Why Bluebell harvests? Well, the sticky, sap-like substance found in every part of the plant has been utilised in a variety of ways including as a starch for Elizabethan neck ruffs and collars and as a gum for fletchers and bookbinders. So our humble woodland ‘bell has played a role in the areas of high fashion, ancient warfare and the hallowed Halls of Learning!
These days our native Bluebell is under threat from both the destruction of woodlands and the introduction of the Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) as a garden plant. The deep violet-blue native Bell freely hybridises with its Spanish relative to give a pale imitation of our nodding beauty. The hybrids are bigger and brasher, coming in a variety of colours, mainly light blue, pink or white, and unlike the British plant have very little scent. As I bang the native species protection drum once more it really is worth remembering that our British Bluebell is found in very few places outside of these Islands and we are privileged to have the largest concentration of them on our door step. As such we must surely have a duty to protect this seasonal Queen of our Woodlands and Hedgerows.
What, I hear you cry, is this reference to somnolent Hellenes all about? The Bluebell has had many names, common and botanical, over the years including Scilla non-scripta, Scilla campanulata, Scilla nutans, Agraphis nutans and Endymion non-scripta. I cannot pass up the opportunity to delve into my beloved greek mythology and mention Selene the Goddess of the Moon. She fell in love with a good looking youth called Endymion and begged Zeus to put him into an eternal sleep so that he would not age and she could watch him for ever. It was believed that Bluebells induce a dreamless sleep such as Endymion is enjoying for eternity and the scholars of the day decided on the apposite binomial name. Beware of Moon Goddesses, chaps!
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
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