Thursday, 14 April 2011

Spring at High Elms

Butterbur flowering at High Elms Country Park, 14 April 2011.
Butterbur flowering at High Elms Country Park, 14 April 2011.
It was overcast and with just a little rain this morning, in time for a walk around the High Elms Country Park looking for signs of spring. The walk was led by Terry Jones of BCS.

Terry seemed to think that there was not much happening in the woods yet, though to my eye a lot was going on; if this is not much, it will be interesting to see how it looks in a couple of months. We saw many plants and flowers, some interesting, some beautiful, and some both.

The weather started to improve as we walked round the estate. First we came across a large patch of butterbur. The leaves of this plant, we were told, were used to wrap butter for Sir John Lubbock's house; the wrapped butter was then stored in the ice well. I looked butterbur up and found that the rhizomes and stalks are poisonous, so it's probably just as well that only the leaves were used.

Flower of Arum maculatum, cuckoo-pint, in High Elms Country Park.  14 April 2011.
Flower of Arum maculatum in High Elms Country Park.  14 April 2011.
The butterbur flowers early in the year, before its large leaves expand to block out the light. The patch was also full of dusky cranesbill, which is another early flowerer, but was not out yet. It will be worth coming back for.

Nearby was some ground ivy, also called alehoof, which at one time was used to give flavour and bitterness to beer before hops came into use for the same purpose. Also, milkmaids, also called cuckoo flower or lady's smock. All of the local wild flowers have several names; they vary according to region and sometimes over time.

Many Arums (lords and ladies; cuckoo-pint) were flowering, but something, probably rabbits, had eaten out the spathes of most of them. We did find a few un-nibbled specimens. The local woods are full of this plant, so they must be able to spread successfully somehow.

Yellow archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolon, flowering in High Elms Country Estate.  14 April 2011.
Yellow archangel in flower.  14 April 2011.
These flowers warm up when ready for pollination, and emit a smell of rotting meat or animal droppings, helping to attract small insects which they trap overnight and release again the next morning. The actual flowers are out of sight in the chamber below that purple spadix.

The spikes of showy vermilion berries will make a good display later in the year.

Today's prettiest flower to my eye was this yellow archangel, one of several types of wild dead-nettle on the estate.

Other plants we saw in flower included greater stitchwort, a white hedge flower; herb Robert, a wild cranesbill or geranium; sun spurge, Euphorbia helioscopia; primroses and cowslips; and we also saw the leaf rosettes of some spotted orchids, promising a good display later on. There were a couple of clumps of toothwort, a plant with no green parts that is parasitic on tree roots. I last saw some of this on Hang Grove Hill in Cudham Valley.

There is a pond with some familiar species, marsh marigold and bog bean, which I suspect were used to stock Ray's Pond in Jubilee Country Park; Jenny Price told me she got these plants from just such a pond.

Toothwort, Lathraea squamaria, in High Elms Country Park.  14 April 2011.
Toothwort, Lathraea squamaria, in High Elms Country Park.  14 April 2011.
There were also some shrubs in flower. Viburnum lantana, a wayfaring tree. A box, towering over my head; quite a surprise if you are anly used to seeing it as small, neat topiary. A Mahonia aquifolium. Several small clumps of spurge laurel, Daphne laureola.

If you look up spurge laurel you will see "All parts of the plants are poisonous. The sap is known to cause skin rashes on contact." So please take care. It has this and its small green flowers in common with the Euphorbias from which it takes its common name.

The estate also has many different trees, both native and non-native.

And one thing I have not yet mentioned; thousands of native bluebells. Here is one of the stretches of bluebell wood we walked past.

Bluebell woodland in High Elms Country Park.  14 April 2011.
Bluebell woodland in High Elms Country Park.  14 April 2011


  1. Utterly lovely and interesting. I don't suppose you ever took a close-up of a bluebell? Fact is, that I only know it from a 78rpm phono record of The Bluebells of Scotland: "Oh where, and oh where, has my highland laddie gone," and "He dwells in boonie Scotland at the sign of the Bluebell..."

  2. There are now some bluebell closeups here: Bluebells