Monday, April 23, 2012

Sylva Cantiaci

East Kent woodlands have been staging exuberant floral displays over the past few weeks. Before the trees leaf-up, spring-time woods feel fresh and airy - full of light and colour.

Kingsdown Wood

We’re fortunate to live several near remnants of ancient woodland. Ancient woodland is defined as areas that have been wooded since 1600 – based on documentary evidence. This doesn’t imply a lack of management or human interference. On the contrary, in fact, some of our most floristically diverse woods have a history of active management over hundreds of years.

Hazel coppice, Alkham Valley

Documentary evidence aside, characteristic assemblages of certain flowering plants (Ancient Woodland Indicator Species (AWIs)) can be used as confirmatory evidence that some woods are very old indeed. The list of AWIs for Kent includes 52 herbs (I’m ignoring grasses, shrubs and trees). These are plants found more commonly in ancient woods than out. The more AWIs found, the more likely you’re standing in a jolly old bit of woodland.

Wood anemone Anemone nemorosa

AWIs have certain features in common...
  • They often flower in spring before trees are in leaf and then tolerate the long summer in deep shade. 
  • They tend to be plants whose survival strategy requires a relatively undisturbed environment. 
  • They don’t have the ability to rapidly colonise new areas: Many AWIs spread using vegetative propagation. 
  • They can’t compete with plants that thrive in disturbed habitats in bright sunlight, so are out-competed outwith the shady confines of old woodlands. 
Their survival strategies would have given them a considerable advantage thousands of years ago when England was forested. Now, the environment is a little different. They survive in remnants of old woods - these remnants often isolated from other woods in fragmented landscapes.

Wood anemone Anemone nemorosa, is stunningly beautiful; one of the earliest of our spring flowers. Where they bloom, woodland floors are a carpet of white stars. Nemorosa means 'growing in woods'. Also called windflower, Anemone means daughter of the wind.

Some flowers are distinctly pinkish and the unopened heads droop fritillary-like.

Moschatel Adoxa moschatellina, is an understated spring flower. Little and all green, its delicate leaves and tiny pale green flowers are oft past unheeded.

Where the name Adoxa derives from, I can't easily ascertain. Doxa is Greek for 'opinion' and I've found one reference to Adoxa meaning inglorious (without opinion? unregarded?). Seems a little harsh for such a cute plant but it's so discrete in its habit, perhaps that possible etymology for the name is apposite.

The derivation of moschatel is far simpler to explain (see Prior's 1863 botanical etymology here). Moschus is Latin for 'musky' and allegedly (I've yet to stoop and sniff) moschatel smells a little musky. Its specific name, the Italianesque moschatellina, records this fact as do the little used names musk crowsfoot or muskroot. So it's an inglorious little plant that smells a bit musky

The colloquial name of 'town hall clock' is from its 5-faced flowers; 4x4-petalled flowers one each facing NSEW and 1x5-petalled flower looking up. It's also called five-faced bishop. Brilliant wee flower.

No walk in an English wood in spring is really complete without seeing bluebells. Real bluebells - Hyacinthoides non-scripta. How to tell it's the real thing? Plantlife have a clear guide (and see the Beeb here). Bluebells are well adapted to living in shady woods. They flower before the canopy closes; their shoots punching through thick leaf litter in spring. 

Another woodland bulb is wild garlic, Ramsons, Allium ursinum. Not only beautiful but the leaves are delicious to eat :-)

I can't discern the etymolgy of ramsons - it appears to be of uncertain origin. The plant is also called bear's garlic apparently because bears like to dig up the bulbs and eat them when they come out of hibernation. A lovely folk tale, but something we can't check in the UK as we hunted our brown bears to extinction about 1000 years ago.

Yellow archangel Lamium galeobdolon is only just coming into flower. It creeps over the woodland floor, spreading vegetatively using stolons.

Galeobdolon's a bit of a tongue-twister. The name may derive from gale, a weasel and bdolos, an unpleasant or fetid smell. The yellow flowers, when fully out, are wonderful and showy, with bold red stripes.

A less conspicuous woodland flower is wood spurge, Euphorbia amgydaloides (see my previous blog)

Some excellent macro-shots and information on wood spurge is here (scroll down for thefabulous macro shots of the flower).

Another 'all green' woodland specialist is spurge laurel, Daphne laureola. It's neither a spurge nor a laurel. Being so well adapted to living in woods (it spreads via suckering), it can cause havoc if introduced into new environments; viz. outside its native range. In some states in America it's classed as a noxious alien weed (also being toxic and irritant doesn't help).

Daphne is Greek for bay tree or laurel. Daphne was a water nymph, a river daughter, who was desired by Apollo. Gaia changed her a laurel tree to protect her.

Dog's mercury Mercurialis perennis, is in the spurge family. Another all-greenie plant and another toxic plant. The epithet 'dog' is/was used to designate a herb that was not useful as medicine or food. (Annual mercury Mercurialis annua a wayside weed, was used as a potherb. It has an acrid taste and had a reputation as a purgative. Hardly something to add to one's stew.)

In January1693 Sir Hans Sloane published an article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in which he transcribed part of a letter from a Mr TM in Shropshire to Mr William Baxter. This letter tells the sad tale of a family who ate dog's mercury (fried with bacon) and became very ill. A child died. They'd mistaken it for Good King Henry (Chenopodium Bonus-henricus). You can read the original paper here (big thumbs up to the Royal Society for making these papers available online for free).

Hans Sloane was a scientist and doctor to the wealthy upper classes. He was also a great philanthropist, who founded the British Museum. London is littered with roads named after him. More importantly, he introduced the concept of drinking chocolate milk to Europe. What a blooming star :-)

Another blooming star is our wild primrose, Primula vulgaris

I do hope the April showers 'heavy and prolonged rainstorms' take a break soon so I can revisit the woods before the leaves are out on the trees.

More information on Ancient Woodland Indicator Species
Ashford Council published review (5MB file alert) of their ancient woodlands. This included a page listing AWIs for Kent, which I've copied here (much smaller file).
A 'must-read' article by the late Francis Rose from British Wildlife (April 1999) is also a big file (6MB) but worth the wait. 

Woods to visit in East Kent include
Kinsgdown Wood (Grid Reference TR 37097 47891). It's not easy to find information about this little wood online. It's owned by the National Trust and is managed as part of the White Cliffs coastal area. Kingsdowner has a number of blogs on it, here and here.
The Blean Woodland Complex - info here, here, here and here.

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