Crowtrees LNR, April 2018

This week was time for my April trip round Crowtrees nature reserve looking for plants in flower.  After March I thought we were finally done with the snow but I was wrong – despite this, however, it is at last starting to feel more like spring and the list of species in flower is starting to grow a little.

As I’m now on Unit 4 of the BSBI Identiplant course I was hoping to find some of the small white brassicas I’m currently supposed to be describing and I did, in the end.  The first flower I spotted on setting off was a little white brassica but not, unfortunately, one I was looking for.  Hairy bitter-cress is everywhere at this time of year- when you look closely, the flowers are beautiful.

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Hairy bitter-cress, Cardamine hirsuta

The four male stamens are the clue to the fact that this was not, in fact, the Wavy bitter-cress I was looking for – this has six stamens in each flower. This isn’t something you can readily tell without proper ‘bum-in-the-air’ botany and a hand lens, though, so I guess I have more of that to come! The delicate chickweed flowers were easier to see.

Common chickweed, Stellaria media

Many of the plants in bloom on the way up the hill were the tough customers which have flowered right through our extended winter – daisies, dandelions, groundsel, gorse and white dead-nettles – but even these seem a little bolder and brighter.

Dandelion (Taraxacum agg.), Daisy (Bellis perennis) and Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) 

Daisies, dandelions and groundsel are all members of the world’s largest family of plants, the Asteraceae.  Each ‘flower’ is actually an assemblage of many tiny flowers called florets. These take two forms – tubular disc florets and strap-shaped ray florets.  Some species, like groundsel, have only disc florets whilst others, like daisies, have very conspicuous ray florets to help attract their insect pollinators.  Lots of our food crops are members of this family, including lettuce, chicory and Jerusalem artichokes, though we are usually at pains to harvest these before they flower!

Common chicory, Cichorium intybus,  Rila mountains, Bulgaria, September 2017

The garlic mustard beneath the hawthorn hedges is nearly in bloom now and the buds on the hawthorn itself and specimen ash trees in the hedge look ready to burst. The flower of the day, though, has to be coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, in brilliant bloom now all along my route.

The flowers emerge from their hairy buds before the horseshoe-shaped leaves which give the plant its common name emerge.  In fact, I didn’t see the tiny one in the photo below until afterwards, so its rather out of focus.

The other yellow brightening the day, in shadier and damper places, is Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria.

Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria

I’d not given much thought to it being a buttercup relative, though it makes perfect sense.  However I’ve just been learning on my Identiplant course that Clive Stace, in that botanical Bible The New Flora of the British Isles, has put Lesser Celandine into a separate sub-genus of the Ranunculaceae because instead of the typical five sepals and petals of other species, it has three sepals and between seven and twelve petals – seems a fairly fundamental difference.

The area round the mine ponds was even wetter than when I visited in March so it still wasn’t possible to hunt for the marsh- and spotted-orchid rosettes which I know should be there, assuming they can cope with extended submersion.

However, as I walked up the hill again I did find my first orchid rosettes of the year on the bare ground which hosts such great diversity. I wait with interest to see what they turn out to be!

The male catkins on most of the hazel and alder trees I pass are more or less finished but I do spot some tiny, female alder flowers.

Male alder catkins (left) and female flowers (right)

As I dropped back to the road at Coxhoe I was struck by the appearance of one of the settling ponds for the landfill site – beauty in an unexpected place.  Water currents have swirled tiny duckweed plants into patches which look like water lily pads, at first glance.  Monet eat your heart out!

The final pleasure of the day was finding a small white brassica I was looking for in Bowburn Park. Shepherd’s purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, is named in both English and Latin for the shape of its seed head, when inverted. Look at the purse hanging at the waist of the woman in the bottom left of Pieter Breugel the Elder’s painting, The Peasant Dance, below.

The Peasant Dance by Pieter Breugel the Elder.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15416331

Unfortunately, my specimen had just a few straggly flowers, none of which had set seed, so I’ll need to find another one to be able to write the full description I need for my course.

Capsella_bursa-pastoris_Sturm23

Capsella bursa-pastoris, from Deutschlands Flora in Abildungen, by Johann Georg Sturm (1796) – painter Jacob Sturm.  Rosette (a), pointed leaves, flowers (c–e), pods (i, k).

As a fairly cosmopolitan weed, Capsella bursa-pastoris has many other local, common names.  Geoffrey Grigson, in The Englishman’s Flora, explains one these, ‘Mother’s heart’, as coming from a children’s game where one child makes another pick a ripe seed head, which promptly splits in two, shedding its seeds – the heart is broken.

It’s good to see a longer list of species in flower for April – I hope things won’t come and go too quickly in our compressed spring before it’s time for my May visit.

Hairy bittercress Cardamine hirsuta
Daisy Bellis perennis
White dead-nettle Lamium album
Dandelion Taraxacum agg.
Common chickweed Stellaria media
Gorse Ulex europaeus
Groundsel Senecio vulgaris
Common field speedwell Veronica persica
Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara
Lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria
Alder Alnus glutinosa
Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis
Shepherd’s purse Capsella bursa-pastoris

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