I am honoured to have been invited by Alice to write a guest blog post, and lucky to have been asked to choose a seasonal theme at the beginning of March. The winter is rather sparse for the British naturalist whilst the summer is so abundant that pinning down a single topic is no mean feat. In March however, the choice is easy. Spring flowers!
Any post about flowers in spring 2016 needs to be caveated with reference to the unseasonably warm winter we’ve had which Alice talked about in her blog last week. The BSBI New Year Plant Hunt, running in its fifth year in 2016, gathered records of flowering plants sent in by recorders from all over the UK on New Year’s Day. This year found a staggering 612 species, around a quarter of the species habitually found in Britain. Many of those recorded were autumn stragglers – species which typically flower in late summer/autumn but which were not killed off by winter frosts and so had continued to bloom. The remaining quarter of the flowers were spring species which were running ahead of time, flowering at the beginning of January rather than in March or April. With climate change, this may become the rule rather than the exception in future years!
To begin at the beginning of the year: according to the books, there are very few species which habitually flower in January. The small number which do are split into two broad camps. First there are the long-season species which can be found flowering pretty much any time of year such as dandelion, daisy and common ragwort – look at an amenity lawn next time you walk through a garden or along a roadside and you’re likely to see a splash or two of yellow or white to brighten things up.
Then there are those very early specialists such as snowdrop, winter heliotrope, winter aconite and hazel shrubs. Hazels are one of my personal favourites and they are only just coming to the end of their flowering now in March. The long dangling catkins which most people will have noticed are the pollen-laden male flowers. Much more subtle and understated are the tiny red female flowers which protrude from the ends of green buds, look closely next time you pass a flowering hazel and you’re sure to find them!
In February, the number of habitually flowering species doubles with the arrival of a number of tree flowers such as elms, some willows and alder. These flowers are not what many people would picture when you talk of ‘wild flowers’ being rather understated and subtle. The reason for this is that they are wind pollinated, and so do not need to put on the sensory displays usually associated with attracting pollinators. They are however a useful source of protein-rich pollen for early-flying solitary bees when the weather warms up.
February also boasts some more typical native flowers, such as sweet violet which is a delicate purple or white flower which grows low to the ground and can develop quite dense colonies where the conditions are good. There are a number of violet species in the UK but the sweet violet is the only one which is scented, so a good sniff-test is quite a good ID! There are also a number of naturalised non-natives such as rhododendron, daphne and of course, the daffodil. The native daffodil is a rather dainty flower which can be found still in a few UK sites, notably in the Lake District but also in sites in Gloucestershire and Yorkshire. The seemingly infinite diversity of ornamental daffodils can however be found naturalised across the country through intentional introduction or through escape from gardens.
March sees a further doubling of flowering species and marks the real start of the springtime. More willow species come into flower, as do some poplars. The hedgerows are stained white with the exuberant flowering of blackthorn, whose flowers appear on bare leafless stems. The real story however is in the woods. A good native woodland site is a joy to behold in the spring; many of the species are adapted to complete their flowering before the leaves appear on the trees and so are at their peak in March and April. Wood anemone, green hellebore and arum lily all typically appear in March. The wild primrose too appears – recognisably the ancestor of many of the garden varieties. Arum lily is one of the more exotic flowers you are likely to find in the countryside and has several old English names, one of which is Cuckoo Pint (of rather rude derivation!) signifying it’s seasonal association with the arrival of cuckoos from their winter spent away from our shores.
As we move to the end of March and into early April, these earliest woodland pioneers will be followed by some of the most iconic species such as English bluebell, greater stitchwort, moschatel, oxlip and lungwort. Foragers will know too the arrival of some of the tastier wild species such as wood sorrel and wild garlic. A few more species of violet appear on the scene, along with forget-me-nots to boost the blue hues in the colour pallete. Cowslips – with their apricot-scented butter-yellow flowers – will begin to appear on hedgerow banks with red campion providing a canopy overhead. April is also a key month for trees with 22 different tree species coming into flower, as some hayfever sufferers who are sensitive to tree pollen will be only too aware. These include inconspicuous, predominantly green wind-pollinated species such as birch, beech, ash and oak, but also some of our blossom species such as apple, pear and cherry.
If you want to get out and see some of these species for yourself, the Woodland Trust has some excellent resources to help you find woodlands to explore nearby, as does the Wildlife Trust’s Naturefinder App.
James works as an Ecological Consultant based in Grantham, Lincolnshire. His work takes him around the Midlands undertaking surveys for a range of species and habitats, from botanical surveys through to protected species such as badgers, bats and reptiles. March sees the start of one of his busiest seasons – the great crested newt survey season. These newts spend the winter hibernating on land before waking up when the weather warms and making their way back to their breeding ponds where they can be caught in (completely humane) traps, or spotted with a torch at night time allowing him to assess the population sizes. So for much of April and May, you’re likely to find him knee-deep in his wellies somewhere in the Midlands! He loves to explore local habitats and species near where he lives and records the wildlife he sees in his blog, Grantham Ecology. James also shares sightings and finds on his twitter feed @granthamecology. Wildlife photography is a keen amateur interest, and he aims to capture images which reveal something about our shared natural history in the hope that they will inspire others to search out the wildlife around them.