The arrival of spring is heralded by a spectacular display of wildflowers, which culminates in late April/early May when the bluebells come into flower and the woodland floor becomes a carpet of blue. The appearance of so many wildflowers in early spring is part of an annual race to flower and set seed before the trees come into leaf and the canopy closes over, shading the woodland floor.
First to appear, sometimes before the last snows of winter have melted, are snowdrops Galanthus nivalis. This plant, which grows from bulbs, is often thought of as a native wild flower but was probably introduced from Europe in the sixteenth century.
Amongst the first flowers to appear are primroses Primula vulgaris, with their tight bunches of pale lemon-yellow flowers. The name primrose is derived from medieval Latin prima rosa, meaning “first rose”. The plant favours sunny glades and rides and can form large drifts. Primroses are closely followed by the white star-shaped flowers of wood anemones Anemone nemorosa. These plants spread by underground rhizomes and form dense carpets of flowers throughout the wood.
Along damp ditches look for the bright yellow flowers and heart- shaped leaves of lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria. Celandine is thought to be one of the poet William Wordsworths favourite flowers as he wrote three poems in praise of this little plant:
“There’s a flower that shall be mine,
‘Tis the little Celandine.”
Extract from ‘To the Small Celandine’, William Wordsworth, 1802
Less conspicuous are the beautiful common dog violets Viola riviniana, with their heart-shaped leaves and pale purple flowers. This plant is an important food source for butterflies, such as the magnificent silver-washed fritillary, and grows along sunny rides and clearings.
Much less impressive, but growing in profusion, particularly in shady spots, is dog’s mercury Mercurialis perennis. This low-growing herb produces small green flowers and is highly poisonous. It rarely grows anywhere other than sites that have been wooded for many centuries and is considered an ancient woodland indicator.
Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara is another early-flowering plant, which produces a dandelion-like yellow flower. Unusually, the leaves do not appear until after the plant has set seed. Although the plant has long been used for its supposed medicinal properties it is in fact poisonous and can cause severe liver damage if eaten.
Wild strawberry Fragaria vesca and barren strawberry Potentilla sterilis are similar but unrelated plants. Both have similar shaped leaves and flowers, although the petals of the barren strawberry are widely spaced and do not overlap. The barren strawberry, as it’s name suggests, does not produce any fruit. The wild strawberry produces a tiny, sweet fruit, which is eaten by small mammals and birds (and humans!). Look for both plants along path-edges.
With its clover-like emerald-green leaves and delicate pink- veined white flowers, wood sorrel Oxallis acetosella is one of the prettiest spring flowers. The leaves are edible, with a distinctive sour taste, but should not be consumed in large quantities as they are also mildly toxic!
Amongst the last spring flowers to appear before the woodland canopy closes over are the bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Although common in western parts of Europe, up to 50% of all bluebells occur in Britain. The plant grows from bulbs and forms dense carpets of flowers in late April/early May. On warm days the strong, sweet scent of the flowers permeates the woodland.