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Flowers of the forest floor

Wood Anemones in Wakerley Great Wood

 More flowers of Rockingham Forest 

by Jeremy Purseglove

Here we describe some of the most striking and obvious species of flowers that can be found on the floor of the forest. There are three other flower pages, one with the rarest and most unusual flowers, and others with the most obvious species that occur along the forest rides and in grassland habitats.  

 

More happy flower hunting under the canopy of the trees!

Classic woodland flowers of the forest floor

 Flower etchings are by the artist, Robin Tanner (1904-1988) and are taken from ‘Woodland Plants’ by Heather and Robin Tanner, Impact Books, 1981.

 

 Coloured botanical plates are taken from ‘Medical Botany’ by Stephenson and Churchill, 1834.

Unless otherwise indicated, photos are by Barrie Galpin.

The aquarium light of a bluebell wood, as the unfurling coppice rings with the calls of the Cuckoo, is for me the defining moment of spring and surely the greatest wild-flower spectacle in the English landscape. When I was working in cities or even abroad, it was always my diary ambition never to have a year when I missed the bluebells.

 

Bluebells are also very special to the British Isles. If you travel far inland in Europe, you won’t find many bluebells in the woods, while north and east of France they are completely absent. This is because the hot dry summers and hard winter frosts of the continent do not suit them compared with our mild ocean-influenced climate. Woodland also gives them extra protection from frost and only on relatively frost-free coastal cliffs do you find them permanently revelling in the open.

 

Bluebell, Endymion non-scriptus

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That is not to say that they cling to the shade. As you walk into a coppiced clearing, you are hit by the heady perfume of the bluebells, kicked into exuberant flowering by their sudden access to the light. The sun blazes on the sizzling nests of wood ants and if you toss a bluebell flower into them, you can watch it turn pink as the ants spray it with formic acid. 

‘There was once a road through the woods

Before they planted the trees.

It is underneath the coppice and heath

And the thin anemones.’

 

Thus wrote Rudyard Kipling in ‘The Way Through the Woods’, a poem which, in my view, is perhaps the finest evocation of an English wood in the language. The Wood Anemones do look thin and delicate, but they are also remarkably tough as they surge through just ahead of the Bluebells. They are a classic feature of ancient woodland because they increase so slowly. Seed is often unviable, and it is estimated that a plant spreads through underground shoots no more than six feet every hundred years. But after long dormancy in the shade and then recent coppicing in Easton Hornstocks, up they came again in their tens of thousands.

Wood Anemone, Anemone nemorosa   

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Since they cannot continue growing in the deep summer shade, their strategy is to flower in March and April when maximum sunlight falls into the woods. Look for them in July and they will have vanished for another season

After the Bluebell and Wood Anemone, Wild Garlic or ‘Ransoms’ is the last seasonal woodland flower, which creates spectacular colonies spilling over the forest floor. It dominates the wet westerly woods of the West Country in mid-May and in the eponymous Lancashire town of Ramsbottom they still flourish along the stream sides. In our drier East Midlands, they are confined to the damper patches of the ancient woods. You see them in Easton Hornstocks as you drive through the woods towards Kings Cliffe. It must be just wet enough there to suit them.

As a substitute for their domesticated cousin, the onion, Ramsons have a checkered culinary history. They were known as ‘Bears’ Garlic’ – only fit for bears. Gerard wrote that they were eaten by ‘such as are of a strong constitution and labouring men.’

Wild Garlic, Allium ursinum

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They were consumed by poor tin miners in Cornwall and by those who could not obtain proper onions in the Second World War. Now they are chic and fashionable. You can sample Ramsons, exquisitely prepared in the stylish ‘Wild Garlic’ restaurant in Nailsworth or for a small fortune savour their delights in many a London eatery. One thing remains unchanged: like all the onion tribe, they are good for you. As the old rhyme ran:

 

‘Eat leeks in March and Ramsons in May

And all the year after physicians may play’.

Today we are a nation of dog lovers but in the past ‘dog’ was a derogatory term. A Dog Violet lacked scent. A Dogrose was a rough weed of the hedges, scorned by gardeners. A Dogfish and, worse still, a dog’s dinner were virtually inedible while a dog’s chance meant that you had no chance at all. By the same token, Dog’s Mercury was actually poisonous, compared to the ‘true mercuries’ such as orache, which were eaten as spinach and which it resembled.

 

As early as February the winter woodlands are suddenly transformed by the fresh green male flowers of the Dog’s Mercury bursting up through the leaf mould. It has always been recognized as an indicator of ancient woodland but can colonize new woods especially where the soil is calcareous and dry.

Dogs Mercury, Mercurialis perennis

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‘Pale Primroses’ as Shakespeare called them are a familiar glory of Easter time before fading away in the summer heat. Though one thinks of them as ubiquitous, they are actually quite fussy in their requirements. In George Peterken’s definitive study of Bedford Purlieus, they are recorded as abundant in some parts of the wood and totally absent in others. They like relatively rich soil and above all moisture. Hence their special luxuriance in the hedge banks of rainy Devon and Cornwall. In the east of England, they prefer cool woodland shade especially on heavy clays. But like so many spring woodland flowers they hugely respond to the light from periodic clearance. For the same reason they quickly spread where paths are opened up and where trampling and traffic helps shift the primroses’ rather immobile seeds. In his poem, ‘The Penny Whistle’ (1915), Edward Thomas describes the forest clearings made by the charcoal burners:

 

But still the caravan-hut by the hollies

Like a kingfisher gleams between:

Round the mossed old hearths of the charcoal-burners

First primroses ask to be seen.

Primrose, Primula vulgaris

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Flowering at the same time as the bluebells and often in their company, the vivid magenta flower spikes are quickly picked-out among the softer and paler spring flowers. The slightly sinister spotted leaves gave them the local names of ‘Adder’s Tongue’ or ‘Adder’s Grass’.

 

In the root of an Early Purple Orchid there are two root tubers. These have long been likened to testicles, which is the meaning of the Latin word ‘orchid’. Through sympathetic magic, they have been used as an aphrodisiac through the centuries. The early Greek botanist Dioscorides wrote that they were used by the lustful satyrs of the woods. They were the ‘long purples’, carrying a sexual association, that Shakespeare’s Ophelia gathered when she drowned herself in the stream:

 

There with fantastic garlands did she come,

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name.

Early Purple Orchid, Orchis mascula   

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Twayblade is named from the two large oval leaves that sit at the base of the flower stem – the ‘twa blades’ in Scots. It is our commonest orchid found throughout Britain except for the Shetland Islands, and abroad it extends from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean. In addition, it tolerates the deepest shade and also flourishes in the open.

 

Charles Darwin studied and described Twayblade’s ingenious strategy for pollination. The lip of the flower exudes nectar, on which flies, and small beetles enjoy feasting. The insects follow the nectar until they encounter a delicately adjusted projection called the ‘rostellum’. This instantly explodes depositing the sticky pollinia onto the head of the insect, which flies off in alarm to another flower head, thus ensuring cross-pollination. Watching this, Darwin was further struck by the many spider-webs spread over the plants as if the spiders were aware of how attractive the Twayblade flowers were to flies.

Twayblade, Listera ovata

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This is an uncommon but widespread orchid found chiefly in old woodlands. It especially enjoys the deep shade of beech trees. It is very variable in colour, ranging from pale yellowish green to a deep wine red.

Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine

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I wouldn’t generally recommend wandering round the woods nibbling things. But if you recognize the very distinctive shamrock-shaped leaves of wood sorrel growing low down in the leaf mould or cushioned by moss on fallen logs, you could try tasting a tiny bit for the sharp lemon flavour. I sometimes fancy that it reminds me of a gin and tonic. As with the Common Sorrel, Rumex acetosella, which grows in grassland, this is because they both contain oxalic acid. ‘Sorrel’ comes from the Old French 'sur', meaning sour. Local names include Granny’s Sour Grass, Cuckoo’s Meat’ and, in Somerset , 'Bread and Cheese and Cider'.

Wood Sorrel, Oxalis acetosella

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Pignut is an unobtrusive member of the Cow Parsley family. You can easily overlook it on the forest floor with its dainty needle thin leaves and small white flowers. But the Pignut guards an ancient secret. Deep within its root system, each plant contains an edible tuber, the ‘Earthnut’. Country children used to dig for them with their penknives and I remember as a boy trying to find them. The excitement was more in the search than in the consumption of such a microscopic morsel.

But I was in a long line of people who have searched it out over the centuries. With exceptional pomposity, Victorian botanists declared that Pignuts are ‘better fitted to the respectable quadrupeds whose name they share, than for the Christian bipeds of tender years.’ The early herbalists had recipes for it and Shakespeare knew it since in ‘The Tempest’, Caliban promises Prospero:

‘I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts’.

Pignut, Conopodium majus

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Photos Alyson Freeman

Most remarkably, archaeologists believe that early humans would have valued them especially as they do not need cooking. We know that Neanderthals were present in this region, and it is marvellous to think that the same plants we find now in the forest were known and used here more than 40,000 years ago when these old woods were young.

Adoxa means ‘without glory’ and although it is small and green, I consider that moschatel is one of the most charming of woodland flowers and well worth searching for. This is because of the name ‘Town Hall Clock’, which well expresses the unique arrangement of flowers, like a green clock face staring out in all directions. With such a unique construction, it is in a family all of its own, the Adoxaceae.

Moschatel, Adoxa moschatellina

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Photo Alyson Freeman

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Easily seen among the bluebells, the Yellow Deadnettle is a handsome indicator of old woodlands. The name ‘archangel’ may refer to its virtue of being non-stinging or possibly because it was believed to cure ‘the king’s evil’ or scurvy. It belongs to the huge family of lamiaceae, formerly labiateae along with Rosemary, Lavender and Sage, all distinguished by having a lip or labia projecting at the front of the flower, on which a bee can land.  

Yellow Archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolon

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The Woodruff or ‘Woodrove’ roves through the woodland floor, springing up as a fresh green carpet in May, sprinkled with neat chalk-white flowers. Often called Sweet Woodruff, it was valued for the scent of new mown hay that it retained when dried, and which derives from the benzoic acid present in the leaves. It was hung in houses and churches, stored with linen, and stuffed in pillows. It is our woodland representative of the bedstraw tribe or Rubiaceae, which all have similar fragrant properties and so were stuffed in mattresses – hence ‘Lady’s Bedstraw’.

 

Rubiaceae is also a huge family in the Old-World tropics and gives us coffee. In the midlands, Woodruff is a specialist of many ancient woodlands including Priory Coppice in Rutland just across the county border.

Woodruff, Asperula odorata

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Not a laurel but a daphne, this is a little woodland shrub, which comes into its own in midwinter. The dark and handsome evergreen leaves are crowned as early as January by green flowers, which give off a sweet musky scent. I always thought it was like chopped green peppers but responses to fragrance are notoriously subjective. Smelling stronger in the evenings, it is a lure for early-flying moths and bees.

 

Spurge Laurel was often grown in cottage gardens where it is still quite common.

Spurge Laurel, Daphne laureola  

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A delicate little plant of shady woodland corners, this is not a nightshade but a willow herb. Nor was it ever used in medicine let alone sorcery, but early botanists named it after Circe, Homer’s beautiful witch who transformed the crew of Ulysses into pigs. The European names followed suit: Hexenkraut from the German Hexe a witch, and in France, Enchanteresse.

 

Gardeners find it rather less enchanting as it is a persistent weed in gardens on heavy soil, spreading fast with white underground runners.

Enchanter’s Nightshade, Circaea lutetiana

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Violets are an especially important component of the Rockingham Forest ecosystem because they are the food plants of two of our most handsome butterflies, the Silver-washed Fritillary, and the Dark Green Fritillary. They are also a promiscuous and variable group of plants with at least seven distinct British species and a whole range of sports and hybrids. It is believed that the fritillary butterflies in Fineshade, Bedford Purlieus and Wakerley mainly feed on the Common or Dog Violet which is abundant there.

 

The violet flower is specially designed to prevent self-pollination. To find the nectar, a visiting bee must pass the stigma, which has a small valve that admits pollen carried from the last flower the bee visited, but rejects any brushed from its own anthers by the bee’s tongue. In addition, when the fruit is ripe it explosively and audibly shoots out its seed to a surprising distance.

 

You often have to search for violets. They tend to be tucked away in the damp corners they love, as William Wordsworth recognized in his poem ‘Lucy’. (1799).

 

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye.

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

Common Violet, Viola riviniana

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Photos Alyson Freeman

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