Ancient Bluebell Woodland
Monitoring Officer (Herefordshire)
Countryside Restoration Trust
Take a walk around any woodland at the moment and you will be confronted with a colourful spectacle of spring flowers.
First to emerge is the Lesser Celandine or Pilewort. Take a look at the roots and you will see how it gets its name. It has nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots for nutrient uptake. (It may also have been used to treat haemorrhoids). Many gardeners believe these to be weeds but to me they are a sign of the onset of spring as their cheerful yellow faces open and face the sun in all their glory.
My favourite flower is the Native Daffodil. These delicate natives have no need for brash colours or different petal and trumpet arrangements; they are simply perfection in my eyes.
And indeed were popular with the city dwellers of London who purchased these valuable commodities from the rural areas of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire via the daffodil railway line in Edwardian times. There is an annual native daffodil event in the parishes of Kempley, Much Marcle (Awnells Farm), Oxenhall, and Dymock, where you can see fields full of native daffodils.
The lovely scented Sweet Violet is also an early flower; and can be all colours between white and blue.
The native primrose; a subtle shade of yellow is a very interesting flower as it has two different arrangements to allow pollination by different insect and bees.
In “pin” flowers the stigma is positioned at the top of the tube with the anthers positioned halfway down. In “thrum” flowers the stigma is instead positioned halfway down the tube with the anthers at the top.
Take a look next time you see a primrose.
Very similar to the primrose is the cowslip, which gets its name because it was usually found growing next to cow pats in unimproved meadows. The Green Lane at Turnastone Farm always puts on a good display of cowslips every year.
All these early flowers are very important for honey bees which need to forage before they can to build cells in which the queen bee can lay her eggs. You may also see the very large bumble bees flying around in early spring and these are usually the queen bumblebees foraging and looking for a site to nest.
Turnastone Court Farm has a lovely swaithe of bluebells in May. These are the native Bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta; our lovely delicate British native species with its one- sided sky blue drooping flowers with cream anthers.
You may see the escaped Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica growing along our verges. This is a garden escape and can be identified with its erect flower and robust stem.
Unfortunately these species of bluebell are able to cross pollinate and hybridise to produce the hybrid bluebell H. massartiana, also seen in gardens. This species has anthers of blue (or cream in its white form).
Wood Anemones or windflowers, thimbleweed or smell fox (because of the musky scent of its leaves) can also be seen growing in our native woodlands; flowers open and turned towards the sun; but closing as soon as the sun has disappeared.
Other woodland flowers to look out for include the Wood Geum, Yellow Archangel, and Red Campion.
The Dog-violet; which is a different plant to the sweet violet’ can also be found along woodland edges and amongst bracken. This is an important caterpillar food plant for many butterfly species including fritillaries.
Many of these spring flowers such as primrose and bluebell are known as Ancient Woodland Indicator Species and are used by ecologists to assess the woodland flora.
Why does the bluebell grow in ancient woodland?
The ancient woodland ecology is defined by soils containing seeds that are primarily associated with ancient habitats. The bluebell is also a relatively sedentary plant species and does not spread readily.
Ancient uses of bluebell
Gummy bluebell sap was used to bind pages into the spines of books. Bronze Age people used bluebell to set feathers upon arrows, known as fletching (Woodland Trust).
Why is ancient woodland important?
Ancient woodland supports a unique biodiversity including many rare native species including the hazel dormouse and several species of fritillary butterfly.
Overall, only 1,193 square miles (308,000 hectares) of ancient woodland survive in Britain.
Ancient woodland in Britain is being felled at a rate even faster than the Amazon rainforest, according to new research by the Woodland Trust. It shows that almost half of all woods in the UK that are more than 400 years old have been lost in the past 80 years and more than 600 ancient woods are now threatened by new roads, electricity pylons, housing, and airport expansion.
Not to forget all the lovely blossom in the hedgerows and the orchards. Blackthorn is the first to show its beauty with clusters of small white flowers; very important to early pollinators. The spikes on blackthorn are not thorns but adapted stems. The Hawthorn or May is next in line, as its name suggest, blossoms in May. One of the prettiest blossoms with starch white flowers and pink stamens; do take a closer look; it is well worth the effort, but be careful of the thorns! The thorns make it an effective hedgerow plant and barrier to keep the livestock from straying.
In the orchards the pear and plum blossom are the first to emerge. Honey bees are known not to favour pear blossom. The apple blossom is not far behind and all fruit producers pray that the late frosts of April and May do not damage the precious blossom.
Enjoy the spring flowers in April and May as June usually brings what is known to beekeepers as the June gap when there is a decrease in the number of flowers available to bees.