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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Sunshine yellow

Posted on February 27 2017 at 11:12:22 0 comments

Coltsfoot

Mary Green celebrates the return of springlike colour.

As spring comes, the world around us becomes colourful. Yellow is the predominant colour, backed by lots of bright new greens. After a cold winter, all this will be quite late this year.

Two of our early flowers, and often the first to be noticed as “real flowers”, are celandines and coltsfoot. The celandine is often confused with the buttercup, which is in the same family, but it is quite different. It has many long thin yellow petals, as opposed to the buttercup which has five rounded ones and comes later.

In March celandines will be everywhere. The flower comes out of a rosette of small, glossy, rounded leaves. These are generally thought of as inedible as they are bitter, but when very young and still sweet they may well be edible.

Certainly wood pigeons love these young leaves and can strip plants of them, whereas any leaves that grow a little bigger are left alone by birds and animals. Wordsworth was especially fond of celandines and wrote more poems about them than he did about daffodils.

Celandines seem to have a special affinity with churchyards, and most of ours locally have them. They also love roadsides and the towpath.

Here you will often find them growing near coltsfoot (above). This is like a miniature dandelion, coming up early in the year before its leaves. It is much used in old herbal remedies. I

t is especially known as a cure for coughs, and its Latin name, tussilago, is a name for cough.

The leaves when they come later are large and soft, seeming out of proportion to the little flower. They were popular for herbal tobacco.

Both celandine and coltsfoot share something with many other flowers that come in early spring. They only open out when the sun is shining. This is to protect the key central parts of the flowers from cold and rain. They are insect-pollinated, and rely on attracting bees and flies.

As insects become more active in the sun, flowers become more colourful. However, it isn’t quite as simple as that. Insects don’t see colours quite as we do, so it’s hard to know what will most attract them. Many flowers which look very bright and showy don’t in fact carry much nectar, which is what the insects are after.

It may come as a surprise to know which flower was the favourite of bees in recent experiments. It turned out to be the dandelion. This is one of the main flowers of later March, and absolutely vital to our ecology.

All insects love it, and you will usually see early butterflies feeding on them in March and April, as well as the flies and bees.

Later in the year other flowers like clover, heather and in particular thistles take over as the main food plant for bees.

Thistles are in the same family as dandelions and coltsfoot, and the whole of this family of daisy-like flowers provides good nectar throughout the year. One reason is that the head of the plant is made up of dozens of tiny flowers, each having pollen and nectar.

Dandelions in the wild flower in March and April and then die down until next year. If you see them later in the year it is because they have been cut down.

They are very determined flowers and will keep trying until they have made and shed their seeds. But they won’t bother you for ten months of the year if you leave them alone.

Even iconic meadows like Eades Meadow start out in March being full of dandelions, which you never see later in the year.

Dandelions have an even bigger herbal history than coltsfoot. They were extensively used in medicine, especially as a diuretic and for disorders of the urinary system.

This explains the French name for them, le pissenlit, and old superstitions that if you handle them you may wet the bed.

It is very vitamin- and mineral-rich and the young leaves are excellent in salads. In France, pissenlit au lard (bacon and dandelions) is a delicacy. The roots were dried and ground as a coffee substitute.

The flowers are edible too, making a stunning addition to salads. And of course an old traditional drink was dandelion and burdock, originally made from the roots of both plants. Not to mention dandelion wine!

Celandines, coltsfoot and dandelions benefit in another way from coming so early. They grow in grass, flowering before the grass has grown much, and therefore before people start cutting it down. They thrive on roadsides and in churches because the mowers haven’t got to them yet.

Yellow is the colour of pollen, so it’s not surprising that it is so common when the flowers are attracting insects. The catkins on pussy-willows change from white to yellow in March as they are loaded with pollen. Most catkins are wind-pollinated so can come really early in the year.

Pussy willows however are insect-pollinated, so are often full of early bees. They are associated traditionally with Palm Sunday, often being called “palm” and carried in processions.

Daffodils are of course the “flower of the month” for March, being a symbol for St David’s Day. Native daffs are pale yellow and quite small compared with most cultivated ones.

They are rare these days but used to cover vast areas of Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Like native bluebells, they can be driven out by the cultivated varieties.

They have in recent times been found to contain galanthine, a drug being used to treat dementia. You can still find patches of wild in The Meadows in Alvechurch, or there is a whole wood full of them near Stourbridge, and several stately homes gardens have them.

Along the canal you can find another stunning yellow flower – the kingcup or marsh marigold, like a giant buttercup at the waterside. Anywhere along unmown roadsides or banks, or in woods, you should find pale yellow primroses in March.

They are the “prime rose” or first flower, and especially associated with Mothering Sunday when children picked bunches of them for their mothers.

In the hedges, the blackthorn which started last month will be in full bloom now. Flowering trees are another of the most favoured sources of nectar for bees – the succession of cherry-plum, blackthorn, cherry and hawthorn is vital for insects and therefore the health of our countryside.

If you see hedges or trees that have been cut back hard and are not flowering in the next few months, as along many of our roads and some field hedges, you know that our environment is being destroyed there.

The experiments on bees’ food preferences have confirmed that they prefer wild plants like dandelion and hawthorn rather than garden flowers. So be very thoughtful before you remove native “weeds” and plant a “bee-friendly flower mix”!

March is a wonderful time to see and hear birds. Even male blackbirds become more colourful at this time as their beaks become bright yellow; their mating colours.

I remember being told as a child that they got that way by dipping their beaks in crocuses. A nice thought, however fanciful!

They do like pecking at young buds though, as do thrushes. Blackbirds and thrushes are singing mornings and evenings now, and I heard the first chaffinch on February 4.

There are a couple of birds I notice in March which aren’t quite so colourful. One is the greenfinch, which is a bit greenish-yellow, but often unseen as it’s good at hiding in the hedges. Its call is distinctive, a wheezy note as if it’s sucking air in.

The other is the chiff-chaff, one of those little brown ones, even less noticeable. But the call is a wonderful bouncy one, like musical trampolining, as it goes “chiff-chaff” up and down on different notes.

It’s a summer visitor to Britain, so its arrival means spring is here. So does the appearance of frogspawn in still water, if the heron hasn’t had it first!

In March comes the spring equinox, when the daylight hours are at last equal to the darkness, so the sun is winning from now on.

This was the time chosen in Christian tradition as Lady Day, when the Virgin Mary conceived, at the time when light began to overcome dark. (It’s one of the reasons that the birth of Christ became fixed around the winter solstice, nine months later).

March being a sun month fits well with its name, coming from Mars the god of war. But in Celtic mythology it is the month of the hare, a traditionally female figure, linked with the moon and with inspiration.

For anyone like me with solar panels, March is definitely when you realise each year that the sun is getting strong again. Even the cold weather in January can’t stop that!

This poem is from last March, and is about that March sunshine.

Lovely day
A day when everyone you meet
Stops and says “lovely day”
With the sun on your shoulders
Your washing out on the line
Celandines and coltsfoot spreading
Out golden making little suns
Everything, you know, will be all right.
Two days ago it rained all day
Cars stranded in floods, even
The canal filling up. We stayed in
We frowned and said “awful weather.”
Odd though. It is the rain
That will green that hill, still ochre
After winter: the rain that
Flows through the oak tree to its tips.
Even though it makes us green and pleasant
We cannot bring ourselves to like the rain.


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