The Spring Equinox, 21 March, is a key turning part in the annual calendar, marking the date on which the day and night are of equal length. This turn in the seasons has been celebrated by cultures throughout history with festivals for their gods and goddesses held at this time of year. Today, Pagans continue to celebrate the coming of spring. At the time of Spring Equinox the god and the goddess are often portrayed as The Green Man and Mother Earth.
With the first signs of spring in the air there are tantalising glimpses all around us, signalling that the world of nature is about to burst into life for another year. After many plants have been laying dormant over the cold (or at least very wet!) winter, it is always a joy to see the first clues that the world is waking up once again.
I believe the best way to bathe yourself with the optimism of spring is to take a walk in Britain’s native woodlands. Here, the arrival of spring is heralded by a spectacular display of wildflowers. The appearance of so many wildflowers in early spring is part of an annual race for plants to flower and set seed before the trees come into full leaf, closing the canopy overhead and shading the woodland floor. These opportunistic plants are hard-wired for action, their resources being stored from the previous year within a bulb or fleshy root. As soon as temperatures are warm enough they burst into life and seize the moment.
Here are just a few of my favourites...
Amongst the first flowers to appear are primroses (primula vulgaris), with their clusters of pale lemon-yellow flowers. In appropriate conditions, the primrose can cover the ground in open woods and shaded hedgerows. The name primrose is derived from the Latin prima rosa, meaning first rose, and it is said to have be Bejamin Disraeli’s favourite flower.
Following closely on the heels of the primrose, is the white star-shaped flowers of wood anemones (anemone nemorosa). From March to May these profusive plants form dense carpets of white flowers with golden centres across the woodland floor. A perennial member of the buttercup family, the plant is poisonous; it contains protoanemonin, an acrid and bitter oil which can lead to skin irritation and gastric problems.
Come April, it is the time of the bluebell (hyacinthoides non-scripta), which forms blue carpets on the woodland floor. The UK boasts more than half the world population of common bluebells, dotted around our ancient woodland. Named from the shape of the nodding flower, the common bluebell is a protected species and is under threat from an imported Spanish species, making it illegal to pick. The native species is easy to identify as it has narrower leaves (about 1cm wide) and its flowers are deep blue narrow bells which hang from just one side of the stem and have a sweet scent. The Spanish version, by contrast, has wider leaves plus larger and paler flowers that form all around the stem. The common bluebell is often termed the UK’s favourite flower (although I don’t remember having a say in that!) and it forms the basis for the logo for the Botanical Society for Britain and Ireland.
A less popular flower, but one of my personal favourites, is the ramson (allium ursinum) or wild garlic. Ramsons are hard to miss thanks to their pungent smell and they tend to be found in damp soils in woods or on shady, moist banks flowering from April to June. They are part of the allium or onion family (as are bluebells) and they give off the distinctive smell of onion or garlic when trampled, probably as a defence mechanism against insects. Our dog seems to be uncontrollably attracted to wild garlic, insisting on walking through the leaves whenever we come across it. We’ve often speculated that it may be her own way of repelling insects (or perhaps, more likely, disguising her own scent for hunting purposes). The smell certainly lingers on her coat... Despite the (sometimes overpowering!) smell, ramsons are a beautiful plant producing a deep green carpet dotted with white star-shaped flowers in clusters on a spiky stem.
I hope you have a chance to explore the world of woodland flowers this spring, but remember admire them in-situ, it is illegal to pick many of the species and several of them are also poisonous to humans and animals.