Six Winter plants to spot of your lockdown walks

Winterfold Hill Surrey Winter View

Mid – January is often a difficult time of year. The mornings are dark, cold and wet. Grey skies rule over the cold crisp, snow filled winters of not so long ago. The days are short and the chances to get out into nature may be few and far between, even more so during the current lockdown throughout the UK.

For the hardy, who have layered up their clothing and waterproof boots, there is a lot of new life in the countryside – even in the middle of January. In this blog we are taking a look at six plants that you should be able to spot, growing wild in your local area that herald the brighter days that lie ahead.

Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum

Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum

Alexander’s are edible flowering plant of the family Apiaceae. They are also known as alisanders, horse parsley, and smyrnium. They are biennial. They are believed to have been introduced to the UK by the Roman Soldiers who bought the plants and seeds with them as part of their travelling food rations.

Alexander’s are tall plants – growing up to 1.5 metres. They have greenish-yellow flowers in umbrella-like clusters with a pungent, myrrh-like scent. The shiny green leaves are toothed, arranged in groups of three at the end of the leaf stalk and smell like celery. The round fruit is ridged and ripen to a blackish colour. They can be confused with cow parsley but they are generally much larger and thicker stemmed.

Alexander’s are commonly found in coastal areas of England and Wales. They are rare in Scotland. Being a Mediterranean native, they have little resistance to frost. It can be found on cliffs, hedge banks, road sides, quarries, and other uncultivated areas. They are often found by the ruins of old castles and Abbey’s.

Alexanders have been used as food since Roman times. They were cultivated for centuries as a table vegetable and were once a common site in ancient gardens. It is now, primarily a wild plant.
Like many of its relatives in the Apiaceae family, Alexanders exude aromatic oils that have a pungent, but sweet smell, that attracts a wide range of pollinating insects. It got its botanical name because of its distinctive myrrh-like fragrance.

Alexanders was once known as ‘black potherb’ because of its black, spicy seeds. The leaves and stalks can be blanched or steamed to add to soups, broths and stews. The plant tastes similar to celery. The flowers can be added as a spice and decoration to salads. Every part of this plant is edible. In the past almost every part of the plant was used from the young flower-buds which were pickled like miniature cauliflowers. It has a unique taste but is similar to Angelica A soup called ‘Lenten potage’ was made of Alexanders, watercress and nettles by Irish matrons in the 18th Century. The fruits are a rich source of protein, carbohydrates and fatty acids. The plant contains flavonoids and other bioactive compounds.

Apothecaries used Alexander’s for cleansing the blood and as a digestive herb for strengthening the stomach. Seafarers used it to treat scurvy and herbalists used it to relieve stomach and urinary problems. It was also a remedy for headaches, toothaches, swellings of the body, cuts and bruises, asthma and tuberculosis.

Did You Know?
In Latin the name means the parsley of Alexandria. In the middle ages, the dried stalks were bundled and used as cattle fodder or fuel for the fire.

Common Hazel Corylus avellana

Common Hazel Corylus avellana

Corylus avellana, The Common Hazel is a small tree or shrub found in woodlands and hedgerows. It is native to Britain and grows throughout Europe. The toothed leaf is heart-shaped and soft to the touch. The leaf has a sharply pointed tip. The underside of the leaf is covered in fine white hairs. The bark is shiny and has horizontal lines of ‘breathing pores’ known as lenticels. 

In old woodlands Hazel is usually multi-stemmed, having been cut repeatedly every eight years on a rotation basis to produce ‘poles’ – this ancient craft is known as Coppicing. Male catkins open from December to April and Hazel nuts ripen by September. Hazel is monoecious, that means that each plant has both male and female flowers but must be pollinated from other hazel trees.

The yellow male catkins appear before the leaves and hang in clusters in late January to mid February The male flowers are on yellow catkins that hang down ready to release their pollen onto the wind. There can be over 200 uni-sexual male flowers on a single catkin. After it has released it’s pollen the male catkin drops off the tree

Female flowers are red and very small. You will find them in a flower bud on the branch above the catkin. Each flower has two crimson stigmas that stick out the top of it. The stigmas are receptive to the pollen, released from the male catkins. Each flower bud, once pollinated will develop into a cluster of one to four hazel nuts.

Today, hazel coppice has become an important management strategy in the conservation of woodland habitats for wildlife. The resulting timber is used in lots of ways and Hazel leaves provide food for the caterpillars of moths, including the large emerald, small white wave, barred umber and nut-tree tussock. In managed woodland where hazel is coppiced, the open, wildflower-rich habitat supports species of butterfly, particularly fritillaries. Coppiced hazel also provides shelter for ground-nesting birds, such as the nightingale, nightjar, yellowhammer and willow warbler.

Hazel has long been associated with the dormouse (also known as the hazel dormouse). Not only are hazelnuts eaten by dormice to fatten up for hibernation, but in spring the leaves are a good source of caterpillars, which dormice also eat.

Dormouse in Hazel Tree

Hazelnuts are also eaten by woodpeckers, nuthatches, tits, wood pigeons, jays and small mammals. Hazel flowers provide early pollen as a food for bees. However, bees find it difficult to collect and can only gather it in small loads. This is because the pollen of wind-pollinated hazel is not sticky and each grain actually repels against another. Hazel trunks are often covered in mosses, liverworts and lichens, and the fiery milk-cap fungus grows in the soil beneath.

Hazel’s value as food is for the Hazel nut. The nut is a staple for squirrels and Hazel Dormouse who use the nuts protein and fat to build fat reserves up for winter. Of course, many people enjoy Hazelnuts too. They were widely cultivated in the UK until the early 1900’s when demand dropped. Kent is the main area where the cultivated hazel nut – known as ‘cobs’ are still grown today. Despite the resurgence of hazel nuts in vegan dairy free milks and chocolate products, the majority of these are imported.

Did you know?
Hazel has a reputation as a magical tree. A hazel rod is supposed to protect against evil spirits, as well as being used as a wand and for water-divining. In some parts of England, hazelnuts were carried as charms and/or held to ward off rheumatism. In Ireland, hazel was known as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, and in medieval times it was a symbol of fertility.

Green hellebore Helleborus viridis

Green Hellebore in Dorset

Green Hellebore is a native species of hellebore found in the UK and widely across central and western Europe. It is a relative of the garden varieties which might be more familiar as late winter/early spring flowers in an ornamental setting. Hellebores are actually a member of the buttercup family – the arrangement of petals and sepals as well as the shape and structure of the leaves gives this away on more careful scrutiny. Flowering time is early in the year – generally February and into March – making it one of the earliest flowering spring species. Plants grow to around 60cm high and often form stands thanks to their rhizomatous roots.

Found in the southern parts of the UK and common throughout Europe, this plant likes damp places and can be found in wet meadows or beside rivers and streams. The green flower buds appear first, and are then followed by the leaves. Sometimes the stems are tinged with purple. The entire plant can grow up to a metre in height.

Green Hellebore contains a toxin common to all members of the buttercup family, protanemonin, produced when the plant is wounded or crushed, causing side effects from skin irritation and blistering to poisoning, if ingested. Historically, this species was used to treat worms, but such are its toxic properties that inappropriate administration posed a significant risk of harming the patient as much as the parasite! All parts of the plant are poisonous leading to severe vomiting and seizures.

Green Hellebore’s provide a much-needed nectar and pollen source for honey bees that are out foraging on one of those nice warmish winter days.

Did you Know?
The hellebore name is derived from the Greek helleboros, meaning “to injure” Most species are poisonous.

One very interesting folk story is about an English herbalist, Mrs. Maude Grieve, who claimed that powdered hellebore scattered in the air or spread on the ground would make you invisible when you walked on it.

Lesser Celandine Ficaria verna

Lesser celandine is a small, low-growing perennial herb in the buttercup family. Lesser Celandine has bright, yellow star-shaped flowers. Each flower is about 3cm across with eight to twelve petals. It has rosettes of glossy dark green heart-shaped mottled long-stalked Look out for it on path edges in early spring Leaves: glossy, dark-green and heart-shaped with long stalks.

Lesser Celandine Ficaria verna in Surrey

Lesser celandine loves damp woodland paths and tracks, as well as stream banks and ditches. You can also spot it growing in gardens, meadows and shady hedgerows.

Lesser celandine is also known as pilewort which hints to its primary medicine use -as a treatment for haemorrhoids. This was based on the doctrine of signatures which suggested the knobbly tubers were thought to resemble piles The leaves are high in vitamin C and were often used to prevent scurvy.

As one of the first flowers to appear after winter, they provide an important nectar source for queen bumble bees and other pollinators emerging from hibernation.

Lesser Celandine in Surrey

Did you Know?
It was once thought that you could use lesser celandine to predict the weather as they close their petals before raindrops.. Wordsworth was such a fan of the lesser celandine, he wrote three poems about them: The Small Celandine, To the Same Flower and To the Small Celandine.

The 21st February is known as “Celandine Day” as this is when peak flowering has been observed to begin. In 1795, the renowned naturalist Gilbert White noted that the first celandines usually appeared in his Hampshire village of Selborne on this date and a similar result has been recorded over the centuries ever since.

The Lesser Celandine is said to be the floral equivalent of the swallow: both reappear around the same time each year, and herald the coming of spring. In fact the word ‘celandine’ comes from the Greek chelidon meaning ‘swallow’ This also gave the lesser celandine the name ‘spring messenger’

Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis

Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis

Galanthus is a small genus of approximately 20 species of bulbous perennial herbaceous plants in the family Amaryllidaceae. Listed as Near Threatened on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Perhaps the first sign that spring is just around the corner is the snowdrop poking its way through the frosted soil of a woodland. Snowdrops are able to survive the cold winter months and flower so early, because they grow from bulbs. Standing around 7–15 cm tall, snowdrops have white bell-shaped flowers at the end of an erect flowering stem with two to three leaves.

Snowdrops don’t have petals The flower is composed of six white segments known as tepals (they look like petals). The inner three tepals are smaller and have a notch in the tip, with a green upturned ‘v’ pattern visible.

Snowdrops are found across the UK. They favour damp soil and are often found in broadleaved woodland and along riverbanks, but can also be seen in parks, gardens, meadows and scrub. The species normally flowers in January and February, but there are an increasing number of December flowerings being recorded and even the occasional November sighting. 

Despite its long history in the UK, however, it may not actually be native here; it is a native of damp woods and meadows on the continent, but was not recorded as growing wild in the UK until the late 18th century. Nevertheless, it has certainly become naturalised and can now be seen across the country.

Snowdrop bulbs are poisonous if eaten, but traditionally, snowdrops were used to treat headaches and as a painkiller. In modern medicine a compound in the bulb has been used to develop a dementia treatment.

Snowdrops do produce seeds provided there are pollinators around. Early emerging queen bumblebees will help spread them if the weather is warm and dry enough. However, as they flower so early, snowdrops do not rely on pollinators to reproduce. Instead, they spread via bulb division.

Snowdrop in Surrey

Did you Know?
In the Language of Flowers, the Snowdrop symbolises chastity, consolation, death, friendship in adversity, hope and purity The flowering of snowdrops is one of the first signs that winter is drawing to an end. As a result, the flower has long been viewed as a symbol of hope for better times ahead. However, to see a single snowdrop flower was once viewed as a sign of impending death and it was considered bad luck to take one into a house.
Christians dedicate snowdrops to the Virgin Mary. On Candlemas Day (2nd February) snowdrops were once scattered in place of her image on the altar. Avid collectors of snowdrops are known as galanthophiles.

Winter Aconite Eranthis hyemalis

The winter aconite, is a species of flowering plant in the buttercup family Ranunculaceae, native to calcareous woodland habitats in France, Italy and the Balkans, and widely naturalised elsewhere in Europe. The Ranunculaceae.winter aconite, is a hardy tuberous perennial that forms golden carpets of jewel-like flowers. It glows in the sunlight above ruffs of bright, green leaves in late winter and early spring

Winter Aconite Eranthis hyemalis

The plant’s official name, Eranthis hyemalis, comes from the Greek er, meaning ‘spring’ and anthos, meaning flower, combined with the Latin hyemalis, meaning ‘winter-flowering’. The common name, winter aconite, alludes to the leaf shape, a characteristic by which plants were classified in the 16th century. Winter aconite has similar foliage to plants in the Aconitum genus, which includes monkshood and wolfsbane, and it belongs to the same family Wherever you find it, it has probably escaped from a garden or cemetery but it is well naturalised, typically in shady or wooded areas dotted around the country.

All members of Ranunculaceae are toxic, although they don’t all have the same chemical composition. Substantial ingestion of any part of winter aconite causes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, colic, bradycardia, disturbed vision, dyspnoea and cardiac arrest.

Winter aconite contains pharmacological chemicals such as khellin. Khellin is a vasodilator but, because of its toxicity, it is rarely used therapeutically. It can be converted into sodium cromoglicate, which is used as prophylaxis against asthma attacks, and amiodarone, which has anti-arrhythmia actions and is used for atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias.

The nectar and pollen rich flowers of the winter aconite are a magnet for early insects such as Queen bees

Winter Aconite in Surrey

Now is a great time to get out and enjoy the wildlife in your local area. Walking for just an hour a day can bring physical and mental benefits, whilst the fresh chill air will help boost your immune system and help to keep your body active.

We all feel like hiding away more in the dark days of winter, but a world of intrigue and beauty awaits those who venture from their warm houses.

If you do spot any of the plants we’ve looked at in this this blog, it would be good to hear your comments and see your pictures. Please share them on our Facebook or Instagram pages here:

Thank You

River Wey on a frosty morning

Copyright: Wildlife Matters 2021.

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