Earlier still is the Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) which, as early as January, perfumes the air whenever there is a breath of warmth to the day. It came here from North Africa but has settled in on sheltered roadside banks all over southern England.
In our woodlands, shady hedgerows and on banks, especially on the north side of the Island, Primroses (Primula vulgaris) are everywhere. After flowering the leaves can grow very large, quite unlike their neat earlier appearance.
Another woodland species, though sometimes found on heathland in the shelter of Bracken, Wood Anemones or ‘Windflowers’ (Anemone nemorosa) are less common and found mostly on clay soils here. Their large white flowers sway in the slightest zephyr, on delicate thin stems and, if you are fortunate, you might find Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula). A startling sight, looking exotic and almost tropical in our familiar English woods. Occasionally with white flowers, though usually purple, as the name suggests. These three are native species that have dappled the pages of English literature from its very earliest days.
In damp woods and wetter meadows the large deep yellow flowers of another Buttercup, Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) can be seen from afar, often in clumps, like these. It is also known as ‘Kingsfoil’, a name familiar to readers of J.R.R. Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, where it is used as a remedy to dispel the evil influence of the Nazgûl. The delicate white or lilac coloured Cuckoo Flowers (Cardamine pratensis) will soon be flowering in ditches and sunny wetland, beside streams and ponds whilst Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) makes the hedgerows white with flower, against the stark black of twigs still bare of leaves. The fruit are ‘sloes’ and resemble miniature Plums (Prunus domestica), to which they are closely related.
Woodland edges and roadsides whiten with swathes of Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), with its five deeply divided petals giving it a very recognisable look and Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), so called because it is from the Cabbage Family which, in common parlance, makes it a ‘Mustard’. If you find some, rub the leaves…and sniff. Deeper in the wood may be the real thing! Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum), which can often be smelled before it is seen, and which makes an amazing spectacle in quantity. One of the woodland floor species alternative to our native Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).