Boggart-flowers tell us spring is on the way!

We’d planned a walk in Upper Teesdale this morning but a gloomy weather forecast up the dale and  strong winds changed our plans and we headed along the coast from Nose’s point at Seaham to Hawthorn Dene.  I can’t possibly call this a ‘new’ nature reserve to me as we’ve been there so many times before but it’s always a pleasure at this time of year, with its drifts of naturalised snowdrops.

Signs of an early spring are everywhere – wild garlic shoots are pushing their way through the leaf litter, hazel catkins are sending out clouds of pollen and the ancient yew trees which are one of the features of the dene are covered in tiny flowers.

Great and long-tailed tits flit amongst the bare branches – easy to hear but deceptively difficult to spot.  A pair of buzzards circle above the highest trees and a kestrel perches patiently, waiting for us to leave his hunting ground. 

Something far less conspicuous caught my attention today, though.  Dog’s mercury, which was just appearing in Deepdale a couple of weeks ago is now starting to flower in sheltered, sunny patches of the woodland floor. Surely our least conspicuous spurge, Dog mercury’s tiny green male flowers, like their showier cousins, lack petals and are simply enclosed in three green sepals. The female flowers, borne on separate plants, are even less conspicuous.

Male Dog’s mercury, Mercurialis perennis

Both Dog’s mercury and its close relative, Annual mercury (Mercurialis annua), are poisonous, though M. annua was used medicinally for its emetic properties, according to John Gerrard’s 16th Century herbal.   Dog’s Mercury gets its common name from being seen as a ‘dog’ plant, without medicinal use but I much prefer the local names which associate it with those malevolent woodland sprites known as boggarts!

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