Floral harbingers of spring

PUBLISHED: 15:10 17 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:53 20 February 2013

Floral harbingers of spring

Floral harbingers of spring

...are these two woodland plants, says Denis Jackson, people and wildlife manager at Gwent Wildlife Trust

The first signs of Spring

are these two woodland plants, says Denis Jackson, people and wildlife manager at Gwent Wildlife Trust

There has been much debate about when spring officially starts. Ask the people the Met Office and they will tell you its March 1st but ask why that date was chosen and it turns out that its just that they like to divide the year into four seasons of three whole months each. I can only think there was an accountant involved in that decision.

In the years BA (before accountants), spring started on the first day of the vernal equinox, around March 21st, the day when we have daylight and darkness in equal measure. This makes a lot more sense to me. From here on in, the days get longer and then things really start to change.

The first signs of spring are very subtle and begin much earlier than you might think. I was out in a Wye Valley wood in mid-December looking for hazelnuts, which had been gnawed in the distinctive way that dormice do a small, round hole with smooth edges. This involved spending several hours crawling about on my hands and knees searching through the leaf-litter.

I did find some evidence of dormice but what I also found, buried deep in the decomposing leaf litter were the very first signs of spring, tiny white shoots, bravely peeking out from the soil, protected by the decomposing leaves which keep things just warm enough to save these fragile new plants from the frosts. A sort of organic fleece ,if you will.

Plants are probably the first thing that even those not inclined to spend their time in the woods on their hands and knees will notice as we approach the vernal equinox. I found my first spring flowers of 2011 on January 16th. An old, south facing stone wall at Lancaut, near Chepstow was sheltering a single primrose flower and a large number of violets. It must be a lovely, warm, little micro-climate at the base of that old wall!
In the absence of optimally placed stone walls, lesser celandines, those lovely yellow flowers (often turning white as they age), which can form dense carpets in shady woodlands, are noticeable by mid-February and are one of my spring favourites. Celandines are also known as Spring Messenger in some parts of the country which is a pretty good example of doing what it says on the tin. Many folk names of plants were given as a result of the medicinal use to which they were put. The underground knobbly tubers of the plant are supposed to resemble haemorrhoids but I can offer no further commentary on that one.

In Wordsworths poem The Lesser Celandine, (perhaps concluding that a poem entitled The Pilewort was never going to sell), he describes a plant that doth not love the shower or seek the cold. This may well refer to the plants habit of closing its flowers just before it starts to rain and never opening before 9am. Ive never experienced this myself and have no idea what the reasons for this behaviour might be. Id be very interested to know whether any readers have witnessed it.

My other spring messenger is the wood anemone. This, like the celandine, is a member of the buttercup family. One explanation of its name comes from Greek legend where anemos, the wind, sends the anemones in early spring as a messenger to announce his coming. Watching the pretty, little white flowers in a breeze though, makes me wonder if the name doesnt simply refer to the way they seem to ripple when the wind hits them. Wood anemone is a delicate plant with pretty little white petals although these can sometimes be streaked purple (or even be entirely purple). It has a strong, musky smell which is very distinctive.

Wood anemones are one of the most reliable indicators of ancient woodland that is, ground that has been woodland for at least 400 years but they are also found along hedge-lines and other more open places, perhaps indicating that these sites were once wooded many years ago. Its certainly a plant that likes the light and it only flowers in our woods until the leafy canopy closes over as spring progresses.

Although the wood anemone will occasionally grow from seed, it is barely viable so it propagates largely via its roots at a rate of less than six feet every hundred years. Consequently, this little plant tends not to spread beyond its usual haunts (unlike celandines, which, as any gardener will tell you, can spread quite vigorously where they are not wanted).

These two plants are just some examples of hundreds more which help usher in a new growing year. If your wild flower ID isnt as good as you would like it to be, this is a great time of the year to get out and practise. Theres not too much about to confuse just yet. Go and look in your local woods and see if there are any signs of spring. You dont need the Met Office or anyone else to tell you when it has arrived.

There are two sites on our patch I would recommend for spring flowers. One is Prisk Wood which is situated high above the Wye near Trellech. Prisk is also an excellent site to see bluebells later in the year. Springdale Farm is another good site for early spring flowers. Located near Usk, its worth checking out not only the woodlands but the flower-rich hay meadows too.You can find full details of these in our new Nature Reserve Guide, which you can view on our website www.gwentwildlife.org

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