In the UK ancient woodland amounts to less than 12 per cent of land, which is why our woods deserve to be protected. They offer the chance for us to connect with nature and our wildlife, with the spring sunshine transforming bare ground into carpets of bluebells, ramsons (wild garlic) and lesser celandine. Spring may have only just begun but woodland plants are already in bloom. So, what can you expect to see? ‘Bluebells would be the main one,’ says Chris Hickman from the Woodland Trust. ‘We’re finding that they are coming out earlier, and the last time I checked on our Nature’s Calendar site, we had about 120 sightings, double the number than this time last year.’ Sue Southway from Plant Life adds: ‘This spring has been a bit peculiar but you’ll certainly see plants like lesser celandine, wood anemone, daises, primroses and bluebells. There’s so much popping up at the moment.’ Here are five of our favourites.
Common Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
Once known as the ‘flower of England’, the UK boasts more than half the world population of common bluebells, which can be found dotted around ancient woodland. Named for the shape of the flower, the common bluebell is a protected species and is under threat from an imported Spanish non-native, making it illegal to pick. Those who can’t resist are encouraged to pick the non-native ones to stop them from hybridising with our native flower and taking over. The Spanish bluebell is recognisable by its broader, light purple leaves, straight stems and blue pollen and is found in people’s gardens and on grass verges. The common bluebell is easily identified, thanks to its droopy deep purple head, creamy-white pollen and sweet scent. As an early spring food source, bluebells are important to honey bees, butterflies and hover flies which feed on the nectar. It’s also worth noting that bluebells are poisonous, so wash your hands after handling them.
Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)
Also known as Grandmother’s Nightcap, Windflower, Thimbleweed and Smell Fox, the wood anemone is another pretty springtime favourite. Once in bloom (between March and May), it can be found along hedgerows, in dry woodlands, and sometimes in upland meadows throughout the UK. It can also be seen in graveyards, parks and gardens and is recognisable by its white petals, yellow centre, pinkish-purple underside and hairy base. Even though the flowers are usually white, yellow and pale pink blossoms have been known to appear too. Like many types of woodland flora, the wood anemone carries blooms in the first few weeks of spring before the canopy becomes too dense. Herbalists use the plant as a medicine, but as it contains poisonous chemicals, it can be toxic to humans and animals if not properly prepared. While the flower has no nectar, flies and beetles use its pollen as a source of food.
Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
A British native, the lesser celandine, is a perennial member of the buttercup family. It’s usually one of the first spring flowers to appear (February onwards) and loves sunny areas of woodland and the banks of streams. Each spring, the low-growing plant with its heart-shaped leaves and shiny, yellow blooms are a delightful sight. Lesser celandine are especially popular with children, who love to put it under their chins to make it glow. Thousands of flies, bumblebees and moths, rely on lesser celandine as their primary source of nectar after waking up from hibernation. It can be a nuisance if it turns up in your garden but wait until it has finished blooming before digging it up, so bees and other wildlife can have their fill.
Ramsons (Allium ursinum)
Ramsons are hard to miss thanks to their pungent smell. As a result, other names include wild garlic, stinking nanny and stinking onions. Despite the whiff, ramsons are an attractive plant found mostly in woodlands where it produces a deep green carpet dotted with white flowers from April to June. Apart from its telltale smell, look out for its round white star-shaped petals, which form in clusters on a spiky stem. Narrow, oval leaves are found around the base of the plant. Unsurprisingly, ramsons attract the attention of pollinating insects such as butterflies, longhorn beetles and hoverflies and provide a good source of nectar in springtime.
Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula)
As the name suggests the early purple orchid is one of the earliest flowering orchids of the lot. Found in a diverse array of habitats, ranging from ancient woodland to open grassland and hedgerows, a sighting is a rare treat for plant lovers. In bloom from January to June, each orchid has around 50 deep purple flowers arranged in a cluster on a stalk with glossy green leaves and dark spots. Even though this lovely orchid has a nectar spur, it doesn’t have any nectar to reward pollinators such as bumblebees, cuckoo bumblebee queens, borrowing bees and male long-horned bees, but uses deception to achieve pollination, easily cheating newborn bees.
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