Woodland Flowers with a Secret
Many woodlandare difficult to find, even in their natural habitats. When you do come across them, you can easily be misled by their sweet scent. Some contain deadly poisons which belie their attractive appearance.
In spring most deciduous woods are full of flowers. That so many plants should blossom at this time is no coincidence: plants need sunlight for growth, and many woodland species flower before the increasingly dense foliage of the trees cuts out the sunlight. Even if these woodland plants do not flower now, they must at least store enough food reserves in their roots to enable them to bloom later.
Besides the well-known flowers such as primroses and bluebells, woods contain a number of attractive but less familiar flowers. Some of these have been cultivated in gardens; many were evidently once much more wide-spread than they are today since old records show they were widely used as medicines; others are fairly inconspicuous and easily overlooked.
Lily-of-the-valley used to be common in woodland throughout Britain and is now a popular cultivated plant. Its white pendulous flowers, borne on long spikes, appear in May. When in flower it is easy to track down by its fragrance alone. But its red berries, formed in summer, may be less familiar. If there are no flowers on the plant, you may need to smell the pair of long, spear-shaped, shiny green leaves to make sure that they do not belong to the similar looking ramsons which smell of garlic.
Individual lily-of-the-valley flowers are relatively small; but because they are grouped into clusters, they are conspicuous to many insects which are also attracted by the strong sweet odour. Insects visit the flowers to collect nectar and carry away and eat the pollen, some of which is transferred to other flowers. Like a number of other plants, lily-of-the-valley can spread vegetatively as well as produce berries. It sends up new shoots from its creeping underground stems, and these form new plants. All parts of this plant contain poison that can be fatal.
Solomon’s seal is a relative of the lily-of-the-valley that occurs in woodland. It derives its name from the belief that its white, tangled underground stems represent the Star of David, the two interlinked triangles that were King Solomon’s magic symbol for putting evil spirits to flight.
Solomon’s seal grows in woods throughout Britain but is common only in the south. Elsewhere it is often a garden escape. The small white bell-shaped flowers, tipped with green, droop in small clusters from the gracefully curved stem. The flowers are replaced by blue-black berries that hang either separately or in clusters of up to three from the base of the pairs of broad, stalkless leaves on the upper part of the stem. The lower stem is bare.
The yellow star-of-Bethlehem has dainty pale yellow-green flowers that are somewhat similar to those of the more abundant lesser celandine. The leaves are quite different, however, being narrow, rather like those of the bluebell. It is rare to see large numbers of these plants growing wild as birds such as pheasants eat them if they get the chance.
Monk’s-hood is a member of the prolific buttercup family that can be seen in spring. It bears helmeted purple flowers on fairly long spikes and its deeply indented leaves arise alternately from the stem.
The columbine is a particularly beautiful member of the buttercup family which grows in lime-rich soils in damp woods and fens. It gets its name from the Latin word columba, meaning a dove, referring to the structure of the flower. Each drooping dark violet or blue bloom has five spurred petals arranged like doves around a bowl of food, while the sepals resemble wings.
The nectaries of the columbine are hidden at the base of the long petals and can be reached only by long-tongued insects, chiefly bumble bees. As the bees drink the nectar, they support themselves by clinging to the sepals and stamens, and so receive pollen on the underside.
The stigmas ripen and grow longer until they project beyond the stamens, so that they are touched first by any visiting insect with a pollen-dusted body. However, not all insects reach the nectar by the proper route. Some bumble bees bite a hole in the base of the flower to reach the nectar. This hole then allows shorter-tongued honeybees and flies to join the feast. The flower can then be pollinated accidentally.
Occasionally pink or white columbine flowers are found. They are almost always a result of the escape from gardens of the familiar cultivated columbine, usually known by its Latin name Aquilegia. All columbines are poisonous.
The greater stitchwort is much more common than any of the flowers described so far. Its white star-shaped flowers form beautiful splashes in woodland and hedgerows in April. The blooms are borne on weak stems that lean for support against other vegetation. In some areas the plant is still referred to as ‘dead man’s bones’ or ‘old nick’s ribs’, folk titles that reflect the brittle nature of the stem.
Stitchwort, as its name suggests, was once thought to cure a stitch-a pain in the side-when it was mixed with powdered acorns and dissolved in wine. Cynics might be forgiven for speculating whether the cure came from the stitchwort or the wine.
The early purple orchid is one of the earliest and most abundant woodland orchids-and like most orchids, it thrives on soils containing chalk or limestone. The pinkish-purple flowers, borne on spikes, spring from between long leaves which are blotched with purple and black markings. After fertilisation, the orchid’s scent changes from vanilla to an odour rather like that of cat’s urine. This is thought to dissuade insects from visiting the flowers after pollination.
The early purple orchid is sometimes called ‘dead man’s fingers’ because of the two finger-like tuberous roots where it stores its food. One root is filling up for next year’s growth while the other, older one is emptying to supply present needs.
Helleborines are another group of orchids you will find in woods, especially beech woods. Few other plants can grow here, partly because of the deep shade produced by the canopy of foliage above; but helleborines thrive in these conditions. The white helleborine, which has white scentless flowers, is sometimes known as the poached egg plant because of its small orange-yellow pigmentation within each flower. The narrow-leaved helleborine has pure white flowers and shiny green leaves. It is the rarer of the two plants.